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Graduate students: underpaid, unsung backbone of University of California

UC Irvine doctoral student Justin Chung is president of Associated Graduate Students.
UC Irvine doctoral student Justin Chung is president of Associated Graduate Students.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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Some of the hottest research in computer science, statistics, and "informatics" is produced on the fifth floor of Donald Bren Hall at UC Irvine.

PhD student Dakuo Wang, a native of Beijing, studies attitudes about Internet censorship in China.  

"Censorship, traditionally speaking is more beneficial for the government," he said. But "users there, they are accepting this thing. It’s quite interesting, so that’s what I’m trying to study."

Wang, who earned his master’s degree in Paris, is the kind of student universities fight over. He got offers from New York University, University of Washington, Chicago University. He chose UC Irvine because of the California sunshine and a star professor. 

But for some graduate students, there’s an issue bigger than prestige: Money. 

Because graduate studies for doctoral students like Wang further research, universities often pay these students to attend – and University of California campuses have struggled to put as much cash on the table as other big universities.  

At their meeting on Wednesday, UC Regents plan to discuss whether budget cuts are hurting the prestigious public university system's graduate student program.  

Many of its campuses, like UC Irvine, are struggling to increase the number of graduate students. Hal Stern, the dean of information and computer sciences said he’s gotten into bidding wars over talented graduate school candidates..

"A typical graduate student offer for a student in our school, in the sciences would include some form of support in terms of teaching, or research assistantship," he said.  "That would pay them roughly $16,000 over nine months and then we would also cover their cost of tuition and fees."

That $16,000 goes to cover living expenses, but it's not enough to fully cover them. According to UC, living expenses at its campuses average $40,000. Stern said he’s losing students to universities that are offering about $4,000 more per year.  

Graduate students are key to research - and UC has a worldwide reputation as a center for research.

Grad students don't just check off paperwork. Stern said one of his students helped him craft his current $10 million project, studying child cognitive disorders.  

"I have a graduate student who helped me formulate the ideas and turn them into a mathematical model - and then to develop software to apply it to the data," he said.

Doctoral students currently make up 9.5 percent of the student population at UC Irvine, a far cry from UC Berkeley’s 16 percent.

Justin Chung turned down a higher offer from Carnegie Mellon University to come to UC Irvine to study social media’s role in political movements. Chung, who is also the president of UC Irvine’s graduate student association, said not everyone can afford to do that.  

"Even though the people who are here are glad to be here and are enthusiastic about their research, the reality of the matter is that during recruiting process the offer amount does matter," he said.

While some students are paid to research, others are paid to teach undergraduates.

PhD student Nicole Crenshaw is at UC Irvine studying the role of gender in online gaming. She makes about $1,600 a month as a teaching assistant - just enough to get by.

"I think that it’s a livable stipend, especially considering the area is super expensive," she said.  "The salary we get right now forces you to live on campus because it’s the cheapest housing that’s available in the area."

She pays $600 a month to rent a room and keeps track of every dollar.   

New UC President Janet Napolitano is taking on the issue. One of the first steps she wants to take is to go after more state funding for graduate students.

"Graduate students and post docs are the essential links between teaching for California and researching for the world," she said at her first policy speech for San Francisco's Commonwealth Club in October. "They are our future faculty members. They are our future innovators. They are our future Nobel laureates. They merit our additional support right now."