My salary at Rutgers was so low I had to file for bankruptcy at 27, teaching assistant says

By Alexandra A. Adams

Although we narrowly avoided teacher strike at Rutgers University, it has become clear that the central administration does not recognize the enormous value that teaching assistants like me – and graduates in general – really bring to students and to the future of the institution. I find it extremely saddening that the opportunity to provide a public service in the field of research and education is usually accompanied by considerable indebtedness and, at least in my case, bankruptcy.

It may not be possible for future scientists and educators to pursue what should be meaningful careers if they are not paid decent wages. People entering an academic career are deeply passionate about our work. But if it’s fiscally impossible, the future of academia is bleak.

In 2015, I was hired as a teaching assistant and started a PhD program in biology at Rutgers University in Newark. What I’ve learned is that “teaching assistant” isn’t quite an appropriate title. We often prepare the majority of the material for the courses we teach and invigilate lecture exams for other instructors. Even with our new contract raises, Rutgers president Robert Barchi earns my annual salary in two weeks.

During my first summer here, the small amount of money I had managed to save quickly ran out, credit cards ran out and I had to borrow money from friends to pay for the rent, because my bank account repeatedly dipped into negative values. I convinced myself that I would bounce back once I started receiving my normal salary again.

However, if you’ve ever racked up a large amount of credit card debt and lived on less than $26,000 a year in a high-spending state like New Jersey, you’ll quickly realize that keeping up with payments is nearly impossible. high monthly interest. This is especially true if your salary is just over 50% of what you pay each month in rental fees.

Eventually, I took out a personal loan to consolidate and pay off my credit card debt. After four years, my financial situation had deteriorated beyond repair. At 27, I filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy because I was no longer able to meet my bills. This is not surprising given that the average household income in New Jersey is about twice my gross income. Employees who graduate here are well below the salary threshold that qualifies people for housing assistance in New Jersey.

I am not an isolated case. Results from a survey of graduate students in my department indicated that approximately 63% of participants felt they had not received a living wage, defined as “the minimum wage necessary to meet basic needs.” Twenty percent of participants also faced housing insecurity. Many said they had to deplete personal savings or depend on funds from close friends and family.

Despite all this, it is important to note that graduate workers are not at all ungrateful for the opportunity given to us. It is a privilege to be accepted into a graduate program. In addition to the education I received, I had the opportunity to become an educator myself. We are happy to have settled our contract without a strike. As graduate employees, the loss of wages would have quickly led to the inability to pay rent and bills. Our hope is that by winning fair contracts, education will remain a public service.

One outstanding issue is the high cost of health insurance paid by graduate workers. Management will meet with us to discuss the changes and we hope they will be reasonable considering that health care should be considered a human right, instead of adding to all the tax pressures on low paid workers.

No one wanted to strike – but we would have if that was what it took to ensure educated workers get fair raises and avoid economic insecurity and bankruptcy while conducting research and teaching future generations. of students.

Alexandra A. Adams is a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences at Rutgers University in Newark.

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