Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A grad student speaks out

Today there was a letter to the editor in the Observer that was actually worth reading. Bravo, Mr. Klee! And it touched on a subject near and dear to my heart - quality of life for married grad students and grad students with families at ND. Read on, my friends: Family Life at Notre Dame

I don't know Mr. Klee personally, but we are most certainly on the same wavelength. He touches on a lot of the points I made in a previous post about women in academic life - the policy which allows grad student mothers a bare six weeks at home with their newborns and the lack of child care on campus for children younger than two years of age. He also brings out a point I had missed - the cost of grad student insurance for spouses. I had originally planned to put my husband on my insurance when he lost his job, but thanks to COBRA he can keep his US Steel insurance for a fraction of what it would have cost me to buy it from ND. Our stipends are small enough already, and insurance payments are a significant expense.

To my great surprise, Mr. Klee points out the family policies that benefit grad students at schools like Yale, Cornell, and the UC system school. I won't repeat what he wrote in his letter, but the plans they have sound great and frankly, put ND to shame. When I came to ND I didn't really see the maternity policies here as a problem, because I assumed the secular schools would be even worse. I just assumed that it was like this everywhere because grad students are fairly low on the academic food chain. Now that I see it isn't, I feel just a little bit angry. I trusted that a Catholic school would recognize the primacy of the family - and clearly, that isn't the case.

On a more personal note, this letter hit a real chord with me because of my husband's continuing unemployment and the financial difficulties resulting from that. He is still unable to find a job in the area because of the dismal economy, and is now starting to look out-of-state. I don't want to quit grad school - I worked really hard to get here and I love what I'm doing - but part of me wonders what the point would be in continuing. If he moves and I stay here to finish school, I'd only be starting all over again, looking for a postdoc in one specific area of the country with my very specific skill set. The never-ending two body problem would just continue to plague me. And I know couples do it, but living apart as a married couple would be very painful to me and, I feel, contradictory to the spirit of Christian married life. I want to start our family soon and continuing on in academic life would just throw up more hurdles in our way. I wonder why I should go on in a profession that is so very unwelcoming of women who actually want to be wives and mothers.

In any case, it makes me very happy to see a fellow grad student standing up for us. It's easy to feel neglected here, with ND being so heavily undergrad-centered. If ND really wants to become prominent in research, they need to be able to attract graduate students with family-friendly policies. Unfortunately Mr. Klee's letter will probably go unnoticed in the brouhaha over an offensive cartoon published in the Observer (which I apparently missed) but I say to him again, bravo, sir!


James Garrison said...

In my department, this was a big issue in a recent meeting with grad students. The inadequacy of insurance coverage for grad students was made even more evident with the changing of carriers. Yes, the average grad student would pay less out of pocket, but the coverage was decreased.

The point that struck me most was the maternity/pregnancy/children sort of coverage. This, of course, is not an issue for me, but of course struck a thought to me. At the time the Obama invite was big news, and the pro-life credentials of the University were in question for the first time in my mind.

So, one the one hand, the University and Fr. Jenkins are telling me that their pro-life credentials are all in order despite the upcoming commencement, but on the other I am hearing that the maternity coverage was perhaps inadequate at best for grad students, with no option, for instance, for buying into the faculty/staff plan.

You are right in some ways about the prominence of ND. In the technical fields, ND claims to want to be more competitive and draw a better, higher caliber student. I'm not so sure that is the case among the other departments, where it seems to an outside observer (me) that these departments are already premier in their fields.

But, it ultimately does come down to the observation you have made before, the fact that the University doesn't really much care about grad students. Though, of course, they will say "you are an important and valued member of the department," etc., but when it comes down to it, they're not willing to put that into action.

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