Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows say they are not being adequately compensated during their studies and are struggling to make ends meet.
Having to work multiple jobs alongside full-time research, constantly worrying about finances and making enough money each month for rent are just some of the challenges described by current graduate students at the University of Ottawa and the University of Carleton.
Three graduate students spoke to CBC News about the financial barriers they’ve had to overcome while pursuing their education in Ottawa.
Sarah Laframboise: 10 years of sacrifices
After 10 years of post-secondary education, 27-year-old Sarah Laframboise is increasingly worried about paying off student debt.
The University of Ottawa biochemistry PhD student said he has racked up more than $100,000 in student loans so far. The money you earn as a graduate student will barely cover living costs, let alone go into savings.
“In some ways it’s a little embarrassing,” he said.
His tight budget also means he’s constantly making sacrifices to save more money.
“I still get stressed out about going to a grocery store. I’ve never been able to like go in and buy what I wanted or buy what I wanted to do,” he explained.
It also means no to social events with friends, eating out or other small luxuries, especially since Laframboise and her partner are starting to think about settling down and starting a family.
We want to expand our studies, we want to encourage higher studies. But looking for this path is a huge financial burden.– Karine Coen-Sanchez, PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa
As a master’s student, Laframboise earned $19,000 a year, and his salary rose to about $23,000 as a doctoral student. After winning a coveted scholarship last year, he now receives $35,000 a year.
Laframboise said he’s lucky to earn more now, but he thinks it’s still not enough to account for the 60 hours of research he puts in each week.
Karine Coen-Sanchez: Unequal access to finance, opportunities
Karine Coen-Snachez says many graduate students face financial barriers, but students of color often have added financial challenges. (Submitted by Karine Coen-Sanchez)
As a mother of two in her 30s, Karine Coen-Sanchez said there’s “no way” she could pursue her doctorate at the University of Ottawa without also working full-time.
“We want to continue our studies, we want to promote higher education. But it is a great financial burden to look for this path.”
Coen-Sanchez said she spends about 35 hours a week working and another 30 hours studying. It can be difficult to have a sense of work-life balance when you’re “stretching to reach your means,” she added.
Many undergraduates experience financial difficulties during their studies and have to turn to external funding to support themselves.
But he said that’s an added challenge for many students of color, who face systemic barriers in the application process.
Coen-Sanchez is also co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Addressing Anti-Black Racism created by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).
She said she has seen firsthand how these types of funding are not accessible to students of color, especially since many of those students also lack mentorship and guidance on how to apply for them.
“There is a problem with how these awards are administered.”
Courtney Robichaud: Not just a financial toll
Courtney Robichaud, a postdoctoral fellow in conservation at Carleton University, says her graduate studies have taken a financial, physical and emotional toll. (Submitted by Courtney Robichaud)
For Courtney Robichaud, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, the cost of pursuing graduate school has been more than economical.
“My hair fell out and stopped growing because of the stress of that time, and I didn’t even notice it because I was so used to being under so much stress,” she said.
He also developed arthritis in his jaw to shut it down and put off treatment until he could afford it, further adding to the chronic pain.
With more than $30,000 in debt, the 31-year-old said she can’t help but feel behind her peers.
“They have homes and families and savings and a retirement plan, and that’s not me right now,” she said, adding that not being able to pay off a car or buy gifts for her friend’s weddings are other concessions that had to do
During his doctorate, Robichaud earned $21,000 a year, but had to pay $4,000 in tuition each semester, even when he didn’t take any classes.
Stress and financial burden of doctoral programs causing “desperation” in some graduates
“I was working as many jobs as possible,” he said, adding that his work options were limited because of the “10-hour rule,” which puts a limit on the hours doctoral students can spend working outside the laboratory.
As a postdoctoral fellow, she now earns $60,000 a year working about 37 hours a week. Robichaud said this is the high end of scholarship opportunities, and he turned down other options paying an average of $45,000.
“I’m still essentially living paycheck to paycheck because I didn’t have many opportunities to save.”
Robichaud said he is hopeful for his future, but with the pandemic, inflation and a looming recession, “the precariousness of our finances feels very much at the forefront.”
Both Carleton University and the University of Ottawa said they help graduate students find and apply for different funding opportunities, including external grants and scholarships.
In a statement, U of O spokeswoman Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn said the school “recognizes the significant increase in the cost of living in recent years” and has expanded its scholarship offerings in response .
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