Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Bus Driver Wanted: I knew I needed to "get out" when...

I remember as a postdoc biking home late one night from the lab. I always biked to work, rain or shine to save money. But I did not mind. It was only 6.5 miles each way and the Silicon Valley is flat and sunny, making biking a pleasure.

But this night I was not enjoying the trip. It was late and dark, I was tired, worried about money and missing my family. I was biking on campus, down the main quad, when I fell in behind one on the many campus buses. On the back of the bus was an advertisement: “Looking for bus drivers! $20/hour.” I wanted to cry.

Wanted: Bus Drivers $20/hour
$20/hour was what I was making,
and that was assuming I only worked 45-hours/week (ha! I wish). What was I doing? Four years of undergraduate busting my butt. Weekends and evenings spent in the library or in my room studying. All holidays and school breaks spent working in the lab. Six years of graduate school and more lost weekends and evenings than I can count. And for what?

The bus driver, with maybe a year of community college, was making more than me. And when that driver was done with her shift for the day, she clocked out and went home to spend the evening with her family. She did not feel constantly stressed that every minute at home was a minute that her science was falling behind. She did not spend the early months of her son’s life, furiously typing out the latest grant proposal over his nursing head.


Stanford routinely pays their postdocs better than any other institution. In 2012 a first year postdoc's pay at Stanford was $43,500 a year and well above NIH minimum of $39,300. 

This may sound okay on the surface, but let us do the math. In the Silicon Valley, where Stanford is centrally located, the average rent is is $2,626/month, making $43,500 a gross underpayment. Afterall, the average Silicon Valley bus driver makes $44,000 a year.


I would assert that my pay was effectively poverty levels.
Bear with me, as I demonstrate:
  • If I assume 15% of my $43,500 stipend goes to taxes.
  • I would take home $36,975 a year. 
  • That is $3,081/month.
  • If I then pay the Family PPO Medical Insurance Premiums available from Stanford of $447.41/month.
  • And I pay the average rent for my area of $2,626/month.
  • I would be left with only $8/month to feed, clothe, diaper and otherwise take care of my family. 
This is not enough money, I do not care how frugal you are. But this pay does not meet the State or Federal standards of poverty. I remember while I was doing my postdoc, I actually wished that they would pay us less, at least then I could qualify for federal help. Many PhD students do qualify though. Since the 2009 recession the number of PhDs who filed for food stamps tripled to more than 33,655 in 2010.

Luckily we did not pay $2,626/month for our apartment. But that is because I contacted 105 places before we found one we could afford. (I know because I kept a notebook of all the places we looked at.) My little family of three (plus a dog), now lives in a cute, one-bedroom apartment. It is in a small apartment complex, mostly populated by first-generation, college-educated immigrants.

It is normal in our apartment complex to have whole families living in one bedroom apartments. Our next-door neighbors are a family of four in a one bedroom; and another family, a few doors down, has 4 adults and one baby all sharing a one-bedroom. It is what you have to do in this area. We are the white collar poor.

Large families living in small apartments 
is normal in the Silicon Valley.
A few months after seeing that “Looking for bus drivers! $20/hour” advertisment, I quit my postdoc. That advertisment helped me realize that quitting was not giving up financial security because I never had that to begin with. 

1 comment:

Agar io said...
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