By Daniel Tarade
Science is labour. Although graduate students are best classified as scientists-in-training they do perform and publish valuable work during their studies. Yet, the stipend provided at world-class institutions, like the University of Toronto, is a poverty wage. In my own circle, many graduate students and early-career scientists have retreated to the gig economy to earn the extra money they need. While some have pursued bartending or bike courier jobs, others have taken on work in science communication. I myself applied for a freelance editing job with Cactus Communication only to discover poor wages and stressful conditions. The exploitive nature of these businesses is built on the increased scarcity among graduate students. This needs to change.
First, let’s discuss the abysmal state of graduate funding. The current stipend for any Master’s student in the Faculty of Medicine is $18,635 (after tuition fees). If you compare graduate and undergraduate schooling, it may seem like a sweet gig; rather than paying $7000 in tuition fees and accumulating debt, tuition is instead covered and you receive a stipend. So, I want to clarify that by focusing on graduate school, I do not absolve the undergraduate schooling system. I condemn tuition fees at any level of education. It is a travesty. Now, back to the issue of the graduate student stipend. We are expected to work full-time as graduate students. If you do work a part-time job, it is prudent to not let your supervisor know, lest they become upset. As a full-time job (40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year), the hourly wage for a graduate student works out to be $9.32. This does not take into account that many graduate students work more than 40 hours a week nor does it come close to matching the $14 minimum wage in Ontario. Others have even criticized the $14 minimum wage as a poverty wage, especially for those living in Toronto. With the obscene rent in Toronto, Living Wage Canada has calculated $18.52 to be the hourly pay necessary to live in Toronto. This is almost twice the wage a Master’s student is paid. Considering that graduate students, as a cohort, further the reputation of the university by labouring as co-inventors on patents and lead authors on breakthrough scientific publications, the university’s relationship with us is best described as parasitic. For our efforts, we will receive a degree and experience, which is great, but will also face immense financial stress. Such an environment is an incubator for exploitation.
What is the outcome of a poverty wage for the make-up of graduate school? The majority of incoming students live in the Greater Toronto Area, and many come from privileged backgrounds. None of this is surprising. If you can live at home during your studies, you will save over $12,000 a year in rent. If your parents can purchase a condo for you to live in, the financial stress ebbs away. Even if universities have become more accessible to women and non-caucasians over the years, invisible financial barriers still exist. For the students that enter graduate school without family support, life can become a nightmare. It is not a surprise that trainees are looking to supplement their income.
What are the opportunities available to a graduate student who is struggling with their bills? In the past, most graduate students would work as teaching assistants (TAs), helping to run teaching labs and mark exams. These positions are still common at many schools, but at the University of Toronto, there is a dearth of TA positions. Only a fraction of graduate students are needed to help run undergraduate classes. The rest cannot benefit from the well-paying job and must try their luck in the private market. The trope of the well-educated person working for minimum wage exists in graduate school, but not in the way you might imagine. A traditional fast-food or retail job is not flexible enough to accommodate the eccentricities of scientific work. Unless a job can be worked in the evening (e.g. bartending, serving), then the gig economy, warts and all, becomes the sole option.
Much has been written about the much-maligned gig economy. Under this system, casual, short-term jobs are prevalent. Although a flexible job can desirable, this is often balanced by a lack of benefits and a low wage. Further, these ‘gigs’ often provide even more flexibility to the employer, who can dismiss an employee without cause. The most famous examples of the gig economy include ride-share services (Lyft, Uber) and bike delivery services (Foodora, Uber Eats). The structure of many industries has been transformed through the spread of precarious work. Although I’ve known scientists-in-training who have pursued jobs as a courier or Uber driver, in the past year freelance medical editing has become widespread. The appeal is evident. Rather than work in an unrelated field, you can instead develop relevant skills. As a bonus, you don’t even have to leave the lab; you can edit articles online anywhere with a laptop. The company that has made the rounds within the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto is Cactus. I too registered with Cactus in hopes of making some extra money only to uncover an exploitive business model.
Cactus is a large science communication company that offers a number of editing services. They are marketed towards scientists working in non-English speaking countries who hope to publish their manuscripts in English-language journals. To become a freelance editor all you need to do is edit a sample text to their satisfaction. If approved, you are asked to sign a contract, and off you go. First, let’s talk about that contract. One clause that I still can’t quite wrap my head around regards modifications to said contract;
The Company reserves the right, in our sole discretion, to change the terms and conditions mentioned in this agreement from time to time. Unless Cactus makes a change for legal or administrative reasons, the Company will provide reasonable advance notice before the updated terms become effective. Freelancer is advised to review the terms and conditions periodically. The updated terms and conditions will be effective as of the time of posting, or such later date as may be specified at the time of change, and will apply to your contract with Cactus from that point forward.
I am not sure if it is legal for a company to be able to alter the terms of a contract, without notice, for ‘administrative reasons.’ Other sections of the contract are standard for the gig economy, including explicit definition of the freelance editor as an “independent contractor.” The use of subjective language is also worrying. One clause reads, “Cactus reserves the right to reduce in part or whole the fees for any job if it finds the deliverable has not met the criteria Freelancer has been engaged to meet.” From anecdotes I have heard, the quality assurance stage is subjective to its core. Without a chance to appeal, a significant portion of your pay can be docked for any mistake that you failed to correct. So let’s talk about pay. I was offered a job as a premium editor, where I would make $22 for every thousand words I edited. I would also be tasked with writing a report on the quality of the manuscript. For a six-page scientific manuscript written by a non-native English speaker I could expect to make around $45. It is an absurd system that incentivizes sloppy editing, which in turn conjures up deductions in salary. Now, Cactus itself charges a minimum of $48 per thousand words, meaning that they skim over fifty percent of the money. When I first signed the contract, there was poor communication from my supervisor such that I could not access the editing portal. Once I had access, I was inundated with potential jobs. I was assured by one clause in the contract that affirmed that I “may accept or reject any job.” As my brother was visiting me for the weekend, I opted to forgo work until I was free. Within a week, I received an email stating that I had one day to accept a job or else they would inactivate my account. I didn’t and they did. I never worked a single job but still felt that I was exposed to something insidious. I thought about the people who were desperate for cash and could be pressured into taking on extra editing work despite other pressing commitments in school. For me, if the editing gig wouldn’t provide flexibility then I can do without. Not everybody has that luxury.
The anecdotes that I have heard from fellow graduate students working for Cactus silhouettes a schooling and scientific system in crisis. At both the graduate and postdoctoral level, people were feeling the squeeze, that they could not save up enough money. Cactus makes it easy to join but begins to monopolize your time. I heard from some trainees that they go to lab but spend all their time editing articles. I can’t blame them. Despite hearing over and over again that science is important, those of us who are performing the experiments struggle with poor remuneration. We become tempted by the siren’s call, fish tantalized by a glittery lure. Why was I able to resist working for Cactus once it became obvious that the labouring conditions were poor? I was awarded a three-year scholarship that pays me a proper living wage. I don’t need extra money (although it would provide more stability). My take home salary (after tuition fees) is $42,000. This is twice the base stipend for a PhD student in the Faculty of Medicine. I find it hard to imagine how I would survive with half the salary. Yet, that is the reality for most of my fellow colleagues. The scholarship I was awarded is divvied out to less than two hundred people per year, Canada-wide. Based on the cost of living, this should be the standard for our scientists-in-training, who contribute to our understanding of our human bodies, our ecosystems, and our universe.