On rent and Ph.D. stipends: The push for higher pay

Jiwon Lee | Daily Trojan

After moving from Egypt to Los Angeles to earn his Ph.D. in electrical engineering, Khaled Hassan discovered that he would have barely enough money to pay for his groceries. With 44% of his full-time Viterbi Ph.D. student stipend going toward a monthly payment of $1,100 to cover his rent and utilities, Hassan quickly realized that small luxuries like going out for dinner or buying coffee from Starbucks were no longer realistic for his budget. 

Although he wasn’t allowed to apply for a traditional full-time or part-time job because of restraints on his visa, Hassan decided to pick up a paid summer internship to save up enough money to get through the rest of the following school year. The additional work, however, took away from the time he would have otherwise dedicated to his research, Hassan said. 

“It’s now not just pleasing your professor,” Hassan said. “You need to have connections that are amazed by your work so they can [hire] you over and over again in the summer and pay you around 10 grand per month, so you can survive during your Ph.D.”

Given the average amount of money that USC graduate students spent on housing during the 2021-22 school year, the typical Ph.D. student studying at the University can expect to spend between $40,000 and $90,000 on rent by the time they complete their four years of grad school. For Ph.D. students completing six-year programs, the total cost of rent could be at least $72,000 and $130,000 by the time they receive their degree. Both of these projections are likely underestimates as they don’t account for inflation — which reached its highest rate in the United States throughout the past four decades this May. 

In a report on their Spring 2022 Wellness Survey, the Graduate Student Government reported that more than 90% of USC graduate students living on the University’s minimum full-time doctoral stipend fit the federal definition of “rent burdened” — spending more than 30% of their take-home income on housing. In their report, GSG also found that 60% of the same students met the criteria for being “severely rent burdened” — with over half of their take-home income going toward housing alone. 

During the 2021-22 academic year, the University’s minimum full-time doctoral stipend was $30,500, which was comparable to UCLA’s minimum of $30,000 but below UC Berkeley’s minimum of $34,000 and significantly less than Stanford University’s minimum annual payment of $47,280. Although USC’s minimum is set to increase to $32,500 for the 2022-23 academic year, GSG expects that approximately 58% of the stipend recipients will remain in the “severely rent burdened” category. 

According to the authors of the GSG report, Kate Vavra-Musser, a doctoral student studying population, health and place, and Katelyn Queen, a doctoral student studying biostatistics, a student paying the average USC graduate student’s reported monthly rent would need a yearly payment of $43,784 to come out of the severely rent burdened category, and $72,974 annually to eliminate their rent burden altogether. 

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, Vavra-Musser said she falls under the severely rent-burdened category, with somewhere between 60 to 70% of her doctoral stipend going toward her rent. Although Vavra-Musser said she wasn’t “incredibly worried about being overburdened” since she had savings from before she started grad school, through her time working on the GSG emergency fund, she’s seen firsthand how difficult it can be for other graduate students to make ends meet. 

“There’s a lot of people who are international students who have a child and they have a spouse … and due to visa stuff, the spouse can’t work,” Vavra-Musser said. 

In addition to meeting students who are struggling to support their families, Vavra-Musser said she’s repeatedly seen unexpected medical emergencies impose unmanageable financial burdens on graduate students.

“[The emergency fund] primarily ends up being used for medical bill coverage,” Vavra-Musser said. “We see students that just can’t pay their rent because of a medical bill, or they’re in debt because they have a medical bill, and sometimes it’s like just a few hundred dollars.” 

Although none of the University’s graduate schools’ standard stipends currently meet GSG’s recommended annual amount of $43,784, some schools have set their minimum payments higher than the University-wide baseline of $34,000. Erik Johnson, the vice dean for academic programs at the Viterbi School of Engineering, announced in February that the standard stipend for Viterbi Ph.D. students on a 50% graduate assistantship appointment would increase from $32,000 to $38,000 a year.  

“The [Viterbi] graduate school had not raised their standard rate for the University in three or four years,” Johnson said. “We could see, first of all, that because there had been no change in the stipend rate, we were falling behind both on what our peer institutions are doing and also just knowing that costs continue going up, and we wanted to make sure that we are supporting our students.”

Johnson said he and his colleagues originally planned to increase the stipend by about 8% or 9%, but after seeing the Los Angeles area inflation rate rise to 8% in May, they made the decision to “bump [it] up a little bit further.” 

Viterbi’s Vice Dean of New Initiatives Dr. Andrea Martin Armani worked alongside Johnson in convincing the school’s dean to pull money from Viterbi’s endowment to increase students’ stipends. Armani said she heard from her current graduate students about their struggles to pay off their basic living expenses and said she understood from personal experience how difficult it could be to get by on a small student stipend. 

“My stipend, I think it ranged between $12,000 to $18,000. Just like students today, my housing, I think, was somewhere between $800 to $1,000 a month, which means it was pretty much my entire stipend … I ate a lot of pasta,” Armani said. “But just because I had a rough Ph.D. doesn’t mean everybody else should have a rough Ph.D. So that’s my attitude, right? Just because I suffer doesn’t mean everybody else should suffer too.”

According to Armani, as a result of a lack of increased funding for stipends from the federal government, it will be difficult for the University to raise the minimum student salary to GSG’s recommended $43,784, but she and the other department administrators will go into the next school year pushing to raise enough money to continue to increase the stipends.

In a similar vein, Johnson said that although he couldn’t be sure how much the School of Engineering will be able to add to the stipend budget, Viterbi will continue to raise its student wages. 

“We are going to continue increasing [the stipend],” Johnson said. “We’re not going to pause it like the University did for several years.”

In an interview with the Daily Trojan, GSG president Sam Garza said he was happy to see the minimum Ph.D. stipend increase but that he and his colleagues still plan to push for a bigger increase. 

“We hope that the minimum stipend can be continually evaluated,” Garza said. “We see that the $32,000 is still pretty low to be able to meet all the rent and cost of living.”

GSG Director of Diversity & Equity-Advocacy Quinn Anex-Ries also said he felt “enthusiastic about the increase” and that, moving forward, he hopes to continue working on GSG’s emergency assistance and basic need assistance programs to support both Ph.D. students and master’s students. 

“Essentially, at most schools, Ph.D. stipends are directly funded by the debt that master’s students go into,” Anex-Ries said. “So while I strongly believe that Ph.D. students should be paid more money and master’s students should have less debt … I think at the end of the day, it’s going to come to a much bigger kind of question that our lawmakers and leaders of higher education institutions are going to have to confront about the finances of higher education.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the minimum stipend for full-time Ph.D. students at the University for the 2022-23 academic year will be $34,000, not $32,500.