Monday, October 23, 2006

The costs of doing business

Jonathan Sterne's Superbon! has been a wellspring of inspiration lately. His latest post, a provocative meditation on the academic compulsion to perform upper-middle classness, certainly is worth checking out. For my part, I left a comment relating some of my own difficulties in negotiating the transition from graduate student to aspiring-to-be-middle-class professor. The first few months post-Ph.D. were especially trying.

I also made an offhanded comment on Superbon! about the astonishing amount of money it takes to finish graduate school, which is something few people ever seem to talk about. That got me thinking about what I had to pay simply to receive my Ph.D., above and beyond years of paying tuition, fees, and related expenses:

  • $74 dissertation binding and microfilming fee

  • $45 copyright registration fee

  • $350 (approx.) for dissertation copying on 24#, 100% cotton paper

  • This list, of course, doesn't include "incidentals" such as regalia. At my alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating Ph.D.s can rent regalia for $46 or purchase a "keepsake" cap and gown for $66. (Whatever you do, make sure to keep these acetate wonders away from open flames!) Custom regalia, which many faculty are expected to wear to formal academic ceremonies, will set you back anywhere from $500 to a grand. Some institutions even charge "graduation fees," though thankfully UNC did not.

    Grand total: anywhere from about $500 to $1500 just to get out the door.

    These pricey, though perhaps innocuous-sounding, fees don't tell you much about the strange ways in which they force graduating Ph.D. students to shoulder costs that really ought to be picked up by the university, since they benefit the latter much more than they do the former. Take the $74 "dissertation binding and microfilming fee," for instance. Essentially the graduate is paying the institution to keep copies of her/his dissertation in its library. What if I'd rather save the $74 by opting out? No can do. Part of that $74 goes to UMI, moreover, a company that microfilms and electronically indexes dissertations. The company's doing so might benefit me indirectly, because it essentially makes my dissertation accessible to a broad, international audience. Still, there's irony at work here: why do I have to pay money out of pocket so that UMI can profit from my labor? That's hard to get my head around. Then, of course, there's the 24#, 100% cotton paper, which is astonishingly expensive compared to regular weight, wood pulp-based paper. As with the other fees, the graduate student once again has to endure a cost that really has little to do with him or her. In this case, it results from the university's compulsion to store whatever it can on archival quality paper.

    This list, of course, doesn't account for dissertation copies that finishing graduate students might want to keep for themselves or share with friends, family, loved ones, colleagues, or committee members--and don't even get me started about the costs of custom binding those copies. I'm sure there are many, many more expenses that I'm missing here. The point is, it takes a remarkable amount of money to become a middle-class academic. And I suspect the lack of public conversation on the topic has a lot to do with the strong sense of resignation many people feel as they near completion of a Ph.D. By the time you slog through years of course work, exams, dissertation writing, and defenses, you're so tired that you'll do just about anything to be done with graduate school. At least, that's how I felt--and that's certainly why I didn't make a stink about the price tag until now.


    Jeff Motter said...

    ted, you aren't giving me much motivation ...

    Ted Striphas said...

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your comment, and sorry to depress you. That wasn't my intention at all. In fact, I've wanted to write a piece like this for some time, largely to raise awareness of this issue as an issue. As I said, I think many people--graduate students and faculty alike--are resigned to these expenses because they're just the way things "are." Something clearly needs to change, but that's not going to happen until people start getting together to make the change. Hopefully the dialogue will continue here and elsewhere.

    In the meantime, start saving your pennies, my friend, just in case......

    jonathan said...

    and anyway, the fees hit you when you are most motivated. . . .

    Ted Striphas said...

    ..."motivated"...that's an intriguing way of putting it, Jonathan! :)

    Lori said...

    There's also the conference thing; at least with publishing, the playing field is level economically (if not in other ways). But with conferences...and god help you if you're doing anything even remotely "global," since so many good 'global' conferences are actually held, you know, globally.

    In my case, I'm not teaching, just dissertating without a dissertation fellowship, and the money my husband makes pretty much all goes to keeping the roof over our heads, the food on the table, and the baby taken care of - there isn't money left over to participate in conferences (and, let's face it, the $200-$300 that's sometimes available in travel funds covers, maybe, only one part of the trip (airfare OR hotel, but certainly not both).

    Which would be all good and well, except that departments seem to want to see conferences on those pesky CVs we send out with job applications...aaaaaaaagh!

    (Sorry about the rant; I'm just fretting about my ever-increasing obsolescence ;) )

    Ted Striphas said...


    Yes, indeed, it's a viscious circle--and becoming only more viscious as universities raise expectations for hiring, etc. It used to be that a few regional or perhaps national conferences, and maybe a publication or two in a regionally-based journal, would be enough to get you hired out of grad school at a top-flight institution. (Of course, there was also, and probably even more so than today, an "old boy" network in place that faciliated hiring, well, "old" and "new" boys, but that's a separate conversation....) Nowadays, you're expected to have presented internationally, published in major journals, and more. And the financial component of all that, as you say, can be a major deterrent to success.