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Postgraduate study and paying the bills

By Jay Thompson - posted Monday, 1 September 2008

Much has been written about the financial struggles faced by undergraduate students in Australia. There has been surprisingly little attention given (at least in the media) to the similar struggles of postgraduates. One common belief is that postgraduates all receive super-large scholarships while they write their thesis or undertake their coursework subjects.

Needless to say, the reality isn’t that rosy.

The average postgraduate scholarship is barely enough to cover the ever-increasing costs of living. In any case, such scholarships are increasingly hard to come by, especially for those studying by coursework. At the same time, fees for coursework degrees can be extremely high, particularly at some of the more “prestigious” institutions around Australia. There is also a distinct lack of financial support given by the government to students undertaking postgraduate studies.


What does all this mean for postgraduates? Or, more specifically: what doesn’t it mean?

Many of us have seen it necessary to partake in long hours of extracurricular employment. Since 2004, I have balanced my doctoral research with a range of full-time and part-time jobs. These have ranged from tutoring at university to working in a call centre. Other students have resorted to more drastic measures to make end’s meet. These include skipping meals, living on couches and in homeless shelters, and even resorting to crime (i.e. theft).

(On this last note: I am in no way attempting to justify or downplay the seriousness of theft. Personally, I find theft of any kind to be unjustifiable and abhorrent, though I understand how factors such as poverty have led some students to think and/or behave otherwise.)

Needless to say, the toll that this financial burden takes on many students is significant and worrying.

The problems of homelessness and massive debt should be obvious enough. The stress of trying to keep a roof over one’s head while also undertaking what are often mind-numbingly challenging studies can lead to anxiety, depression, and a host of other mental and physical health problems. And that’s not even mentioning the loss of time which you could be spending working on that essay or thesis chapter that is due in next week.

Clearly, then, the financial struggle faced by many postgraduate students is unfair. But don’t say that too loud. The university wants you to stand strong and sturdy and produce world-class research. The “realistic” workmate or relative will sneer and spout lines such as: “If you’re finding it all too difficult, the answer is simple - stop studying.” Then there is the anti-intellectual (there are many variations of this creature), who will say that universities are elitist and detached from the real world, so why bother with them anyway?


Yet one cannot produce “world-class research” without the necessary time or resources. Nor should one have to accept that financial struggle is an inherent feature of getting an education (as the “stop studying” line of argument seems to suggest it is). Postgraduate study is draining enough without constantly wondering how the bills will get paid!

I argue, though, that postgraduate studies should not only be seen as emotionally or financially draining. Nor should they be seen as somehow detached from the “real world”. To the contrary, I argue that these studies should be seen as absolutely crucial to the running and general wellbeing of the global economy. After all, the vast majority of women and men who undertake postgraduate studies do so to improve their job prospects, whether these are in academia or in other industries. Many postgraduates also aim to bring new skills to the positions they already occupy.

Also, postgraduate studies should be seen as beneficial to the intellectual capital of contemporary cultures.

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About the Author

Jay Daniel Thompson recently completed a PhD in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. His thesis focused on representations of sex and power in Australian literature during the "culture wars"’ of the 1990s.

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