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GSAS Raises Ph.D. Stipends to $50,000, Answering Grad Union Call for Living Wage

Members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers have been pushing for an increase in Ph.D. program stipends since May.
Members of the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers have been pushing for an increase in Ph.D. program stipends since May. By Frank S. Zhou
By Cam E. Kettles, Crimson Staff Writer

Ph.D. students in Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences will be paid at least $50,000 in program stipends, increasing most stipends by more than 10 percent, GSAS Dean Emma Dench announced in an email Monday.

The surprise holiday raise will also increase compensation for some in the social sciences and humanities by more than 20 percent starting July 1, 2024.

The Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers had been pushing for the increase since May, when the union collected more than 1,600 signatures for a petition calling on the University to raise yearly compensation to $48,779, the living wage rate in Middlesex County.

The new minimum is just $1,221 above the union’s requested amount.

“This is a huge deal,” said HGSU-UAW steward Rachel E. Petherbridge. “I cannot overstate that this is the difference between people making rent in their current apartments or having to move.”

Although Dench attributed the changes to the work of top University administrators, HGSU-UAW declared it a union victory, publicly announcing the news on X before GSAS.

In emails to individual departments, union stewards wrote that the raise was a “direct result” of union organizing.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the exact things that we wanted in the living wage campaign they announced that they would give,” Petherbridge said.

But despite eight months of organizing, HGSU-UAW steward Alexandra C. Stanton said that union organizers were “all a little bit surprised that this was announced.”

The union had requested to reopen negotiations over wages in July, but Harvard later rejected the request, as the contract didn’t mandate the University to engage in mid-contract negotiations.

Still, Stanton said the issue was a major concern for a large sector of the union, and the “pressure really affected Harvard.”

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment for this article.

The stipend increase to $50,000 is a significant boost to individual wages for some of the school’s lowest-paid Ph.D. students, marking a new compensation structure that approaches pay parity. Though total compensation is not capped at $50,000, all Ph.D. students will make at least the minimum rate.

Under HGSU-UAW’s current contract, which expires in 2025, minimum pay varies widely. Prior to this raise, student workers in the life sciences would have earned over $4,000 more than their counterparts in humanities or social sciences in the 2025 fiscal year.

In Monday’s announcement, Dench wrote that the decision was facilitated by the GSAS Admissions and Graduate Education Working Group final report released in September, which explicitly recommended increasing stipends.

The report found that the GSAS’s financial aid was “no longer sufficient” to keep up with rising costs of living and to remain competitive with peer institutions. According to the report, Harvard pays graduate students $5,000 to $15,000 less than other universities.

But in her email announcing the change, Dench wrote that the “report’s recommendations gave us a stronger platform from which to advocate for our students.”

Stanton said major union wins at other universities, including significant raises won by MIT’s graduate student union in September, put pressure on Harvard to strengthen its compensation.

“A union win anywhere really helps people everywhere,” Stanton said.

In her email, Dench thanked Harvard President Claudine Gay, Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, and Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Hopi E. Hoekstra for “their support, financial and otherwise.”

“These enhancements are the result of hard work on the part of many in the Harvard Griffin GSAS and University communities,” Dench wrote.

Dench did not mention the union, the living wage campaign, or specific findings from the report.

“While Harvard carefully avoids mentioning HGSU in its announcement email, make no mistake that this would not have been achieved without the Living Wage campaign and the organizing of over 1600 student workers,” immunology department stewards wrote in an email to students.

Union organizers also claimed the raise was motivated in part by a desire to address predictable concerns that would become bargaining issues during HGSU-UAW’s next contract negotiation, expected to begin in 2024.

“They know our contract declaration is coming up and maybe they want to put the idea in people’s heads that Harvard, just out of the goodness of their hearts, gave everybody a raise to $50,000,” Stanton said.

“Now is the time for us to double down, because if we can win $50,000 a year when our contract expires, can we win an even bigger raise?” she added. “Can we win a cost of living adjustment?”

Correction: December 20, 2023:

A previous verison of this article incorrectly stated that the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers broke the news about the Ph.D. program stipend increase on X before the official announcement. In fact, HGSU-UAW was just the first to publicly announce the stipend increase.

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at cam.kettles@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @cam_kettles or on Threads @camkettles.

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