Ottawa

Ottawa grad students, postdocs facing 'huge financial burden'

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows say they are not being adequately compensated throughout their studies and are struggling to make ends meet.

Students say they have to find work alongside full-time studies to stay afloat

Sarah Laframboise, a PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa, is among graduate students who say their annual stipends are not enough to live on. (Safiyah Marhnouj/CBC)

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows say they are not being adequately compensated throughout their studies and are struggling to make ends meet.

Having to work multiple jobs alongside full-time research, constantly worrying about finances and hardly earning enough each month for rent are just some of the challenges described by current graduate students at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University. 

Three graduate students spoke to CBC News about the financial barriers they've had to overcome while pursuing their education in Ottawa. 

Sarah Laframboise: 10 years of sacrifices 

After 10 years of post-secondary education, Sarah Laframboise, 27, is increasingly worried about paying off student debt. 

The PhD student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa said she has racked up more than $100,000 in student loans so far. Money she earns as a graduate student hardly covers living costs, let alone going toward savings.

"It's in some ways slightly embarrassing," she said.

Her limited budget also means she's constantly making sacrifices to save more money.

"I still am stressed going to a grocery store. I've never been able to just like walk in and buy what I've wanted or buy what I would like to make," she explained. 

It also means saying no to social events with friends, eating out or other little luxuries, especially since Laframboise and her partner are starting to think about settling down and starting a family. 

We want to further our studies, we want to encourage higher learning. But it's a huge financial burden to seek that path.- Karine Coen-Sanchez, PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa 

As a master's student, Laframboise was earning $19,000 per year, and her salary increased to around $23,000 as a PhD student. After winning a coveted scholarship last year, she now receives $35,000 annually. 

Laframboise said she's lucky to earn more now, but feels it's still not enough to account for the 60 hours of research put in every week. 

Karine Coen-Sanchez: Unequal access to funding, opportunities

A woman with braids in her hair looks at the camera with her hand on her chin.
Karine Coen-Snachez says many graduate students face economic barriers, but students of colour often have added financial challenges. (Submitted by Karine Coen-Sanchez)

As a mother of two in her late 30s, Karine Coen-Sanchez said there is "absolutely no way" she could pursue her PhD at the University of Ottawa without also working a full-time job. 

"We want to further our studies, we want to encourage higher learning. But it's a huge financial burden to seek that path."

Coen-Sanchez said she spends around 35 hours a week working and another 30 hours on her studies. It can be hard to have any sense of work-life balance when "spreading yourself thin in order to arrive at your means," she added. 

Many graduate students struggle financially during their studies, and have to turn to external funding to support themselves.

But she said this is an added challenge for many students of colour, who face systemic barriers in the application process. 

Coen-Sanchez is also a co-chair on the advisory committee to address anti-Black racism created by the social sciences and humanities research council (SSHRC). 

She said she's seen first-hand how these types of funding are not accessible to students of colour, especially since many of those students also have a lack of mentorship and guidance in how to apply. 

"There's a problem in how these awards are being administered."

Courtney Robichaud: Not just a financial toll 

A postdoctoral fellow in conservation at Carleton University, Courtney Robichaud says her graduate studies have taken a financial, physical and emotional toll. (Submitted by Courtney Robichaud)

For Courtney Robichaud, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, the cost of pursuing post-graduate education has been more than financial.

"My hair fell out and stopped growing from the stress of that time, and I didn't even realize it because I was just so used to being under that much stress," she said. 

She also developed arthritis in her jaw from clenching it and put off treatment until she could afford it, further escalating the chronic pain. 

With more than $30,000 in debt, the 31-year-old said she can't help but feel behind her peers.

"They have like, homes and families and savings and a plan for retirement, and that's not me right now," she said, adding not being able to afford a car or buy gifts for her friend's weddings are other concessions she's had to make. 

During her PhD, Robichaud was earning $21,000 a year, but had to pay $4,000 for tuition every semester, even when not taking any classes. 

Stress and financial burden of PhD programs causing ‘despair’ for some grads

4 months ago
Duration 1:41
Courtney Robichaud, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, says the financial burden of her program has caused severe stress over the years and often makes her feel behind friends of a similar age.

"I was working as many jobs as possible," she said, adding her work options were limited because of the "10 hour rule," which puts a cap on the hours doctorate students are allowed to spend working outside of the lab. 

As a postdoctoral fellow, she now earns $60,000 a year working around 37 hours a week. Robichaud said this is on the high-end of fellowship opportunities, and she turned down other options paying an average of $45,000. 

"I still am living essentially paycheque to paycheque because I didn't have a lot of opportunity to save up."

Robichaud said she's hopeful for her future, but with the pandemic, inflation and a looming recession, "the precarity of our finances feels very at the forefront." 

Both Carleton University and the University of Ottawa said they assist graduate students in finding and applying for different funding opportunities, including external grants and scholarships. 

In a statement, U of O spokesperson Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn said the school "recognizes the important increase in the cost of living over the past few years" and has expanded its scholarship offerings in response. 

Students, professors and researchers are rallying on Parliament Hill today in support of increased government funding for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Safiyah Marhnouj is a reporter with CBC P.E.I. She is a 2022 Joan Donaldson scholar and recently graduated from Carleton University’s journalism program. You can reach her at safiyah.marhnouj@cbc.ca.

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