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As a Ph.D. student with an expensive chronic disease, low stipends make academia untenable

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ROBERT NEUBECKER
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A version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 377, Issue 6605.Download PDF

When I started graduate school, I knew it was not going to be an easy ride—not only because of the work, but also financially. My graduate stipend is thousands of dollars below the federal poverty line. This is perhaps adequate when graduate students have family support to fall back on, or at least minimal expenses. But for me, and for many others, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I left behind my family, friends, and support system in Egypt when I was 17 to pursue higher education in Canada and chase the dream of working alongside world-renowned scientists. I also have a chronic disease that knows no break. To stay alive, I rely on daily medications and supplies that are not fully covered by the national health care system. My graduate stipend is barely enough to pay for basic living costs, and my medical expenses are nearly impossible to afford.

To make ends meet, I have taken on extra hours working as a teaching assistant. I’m lucky this is even an option for me; in many departments, graduate students are not allowed to hold extra teaching appointments as it “distracts” from thesis research. The prevailing assumption seems to be that all students can and should dedicate every minute to their thesis, and failure to do so is a sign of lack of devotion or drive.

But my teaching has nothing to do with a lack of passion for my field of study. I love my research. Sometimes, when I go home after setting up an exciting experiment, I find myself counting the hours until I can return to the lab and see the results the next morning. What distracts me from my science is not my teaching per se, but my financial worries.

Even though my department allows me to take on extra teaching, my peers and advisers often judge me for doing it. In one particularly memorable instance, a junior lab mate asked about my plans for the summer, and I mentioned I was going to be teaching in addition to presenting at a conference, conducting experiments, and doing everything else involved in pursuing a Ph.D. “Again?!” he exclaimed. “You are teaching way too much! You should spend the summer focusing on your research and increasing your productivity.” He had no idea what I was juggling.

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What distracts me from my science is not my teaching per se, but my financial worries.
  • Ahmed Elbassiouny
  • University of Toronto

I don’t tell my colleagues about my health condition because I don’t want it to define me or my scientific capabilities. I thought working hard to hide my struggles and meet expectations was the best way forward. At one point, I was teaching three times the expected number of hours while also spending late nights and weekends on my thesis work. I put on a brave face, but in reality I was scared, lonely, and exhausted.

Eventually my unhealthy hamster wheel got to me. My health suffered significantly and I developed complications. I spent the latter half of 2019 and the first years of the pandemic running from one specialist to another, at one point requiring biweekly invasive eye procedures that left me in debilitating pain. Still, I continued to work on my thesis, returning to the lab as soon as my blurry vision returned to normal. I was trying to devote everything to my academic journey, like my peers who have easier circumstances—despite my health condition, greater expenses, and lack of family support.

As I approach the final stretch of my Ph.D., I look forward to leaving academia for a job where my efforts are appreciated and my well-being respected. I am grateful for the scientific training I have received, but the cost has been too high. To truly foster inclusivity in academia, we must understand that academics have outside commitments including taking care of children, parents, and our own health. We should be helped through those challenges—for example, with less humiliating pay and reasonable work expectations—instead of being judged for being insufficiently dedicated. Inclusion means ensuring everyone feels comfortable, valued, and supported, whatever our circumstances.

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