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Last year, as a freshman with no research experience whatsoever, I had the privilege to join a Harvard-affiliated laboratory. I was accepted with kindness, and ever since have received some of the most valuable knowledge and experience of my life.
This involvement has only strengthened my dream of pursuing a career in scientific research, whether academic, medical, or industrial. However, it has only been possible because of the accessibility of undergraduate research here at Harvard.
I have good housing and good financial aid, enough to keep my current research an informative and enjoyable addition to the college experience. However, both at Harvard and beyond, graduate students largely do not have this same privilege of pre-provided housing and financial aid good enough to sweep away worries about costs of living.
In one study, across a sample set of 178 universities, only 2 percent provided graduate student salaries above the local cost of living. Another survey showed that at the University of Arizona, over 80 percent of around 2,500 graduate students reported financial stress. Further, per a recent Crimson article, the Harvard Graduate Students Union is demanding for better wages, as even here salaries for student researchers do not reach the living wage of Middlesex County.
As a Harvard undergraduate, being involved in research is common. Professors and principal investigators are everywhere and willing to take students under their wings. Harvard College prides itself on undergraduate research, hosting numerous fairs and programs, and emphasizing its importance in multiple ways. As a College student, it seems as if everyone you know is involved in some sort of research, whether it be in the social sciences, biochemistry, or astrophysics.
As students, we are involved and passionate, free from the financial burden that future decisions to pursue research inevitably bring. And for those of us who decide that academic or clinical research is our calling, these largely positive experiences will in all likelihood skew our perceptions of what our futures might entail.
Of course, not every college offers the same financial support as Harvard does, so these skewed perceptions may not represent the undergraduate experience beyond our bubble. Undergraduates struggle nationally, both from high tuition costs and lack of readily available housing. Therefore, other college students may have better gauges for the struggles of graduate school, making them less likely to pursue it. This could add to the larger problem of graduate school elitism, in which graduate students disproportionately come from affluent backgrounds.
However, this isn’t just an issue of equity; it’s also an issue of research quality. Until our graduate students begin to receive livable salaries, research progress will suffer. Students will likely lose the excitement they once held for their research, as well as the ability to focus concretely on their topic of interest. They’ll take up side jobs, and time researching will begin to feel like shifts at any other job. Innovation will stall as students fight to feed themselves. Research will not be difficult because of the seemingly impossible and exciting questions, but because of the lack of support given by supposedly prestigious programs.
If Harvard wants to support its students, then it needs to support all of us. The difference in accessibility between undergraduate and graduate research is stark enough to make one wonder how these two experiences can fall under the control of the same university.
I am not arguing that us undergraduates suddenly disregard our enthusiasm for research and embrace pessimism. Excitement is good and necessary. Research thrives off of excitement.
Rather, I want Harvard to take a look at their thriving undergraduate research culture, and ask themselves why they cultivate this love and passion in their students only to funnel them into years of graduate research at unlivable salaries. Improve the standard of living for graduate students, and who knows, maybe we’ll have the next Nobel Prize-winning discovery on our campus.
April S. Keyes ’26, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Chemical and Physical Biology concentrator in Winthrop House.
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