Heavy debts for graduate students

Three graduate students have spoken to CBC News about the financial hurdles they had to overcome to pursue their studies in Ottawa.

Sarah Laframboise: 10 years of sacrifice

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

This doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Ottawa says she has accumulated more than $100,000 in student loans so far. The money she earns as a graduate student barely covers living expenses, let alone savings.

Somehow it’s kinda awkward, she says. Her limited budget means she constantly has to make sacrifices to save more money. I always get stressed going to the grocery store. I was never able to walk in and buy what I wantedshe explains.

It also means saying no to social events with friends, dining out or other little luxuries, especially as Ms. Laframboise and her partner start thinking about settling down and starting a family.

Ms. Laframboise earned $19,000 a year as a master’s student, and her salary rose to about $23,000 as a doctoral student. After winning a coveted scholarship last year, she now earns $35,000 a year.

Sarah Laframboise says she is happy to earn more now, but feels that it is still not enough to compensate for her 60 hours of research each week.

Karine Coen-Sanchez: unequal access to funding and opportunities

A mother of two in her late thirties, Karine Coen-Sanchez said there was no absolutely no chance that she can pursue her doctorate at the University of Ottawa without also working full time.

According to Karine Coen-Snachez, many graduate students face economic barriers, but students of color often face additional financial challenges.

Photo: Courtesy of Karine Coen-Snachez

We want to continue our studies, we want to encourage higher education. But it’s a huge financial burden to go that route.she laments.

Ms. Coen-Sanchez says she devotes about 35 hours a week to her work and another 30 to her studies. It can be difficult to have any sense of work-life balance when you scatters to achieve his endsshe adds.

Many graduate students struggle financially during their studies and must turn to outside funding to support themselves. But she says it’s an added challenge for many students of color, who face systemic barriers in the scholarship application process.

Ms. Coen-Sanchez is also co-chair of the Advisory Committee on Anti-Black Racism created by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

She says she has seen firsthand that this type of funding is not available to students of color, especially since many of them lack mentorship and guidance on how to apply. There is a problem in the way these scholarships are administeredshe concludes.

Courtney Robichaud: Not just a financial cost

For Courtney Robichaud, a postdoctoral fellow at Carleton University, the cost of pursuing graduate studies has been more than monetary.

Courtney Robichaud testing in a swamp.

Postdoctoral researcher in conservation at Carleton University, Courtney Robichaud says her graduate studies cost her financially, physically and emotionally.

Photo: Courtney Robichaud

My hair fell out and stopped growing from the stress of that time, and I didn’t even realize it because I was so used to being under such stress.she says.

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

With more than $30,000 in debt, the 31-year-old says she can’t help but feel behind her peers. They have a house, a family, savings and a plan for retirement, but I don’t right now.she says, adding that she had to make other concessions, like not being able to afford a car or buying gifts for her friends’ weddings.

During her doctorate, Ms. Robichaud earned $21,000 a year, but had to pay $4,000 in tuition each semester, even though she took no courses. I held as many jobs as possibleshe said, adding that her work options were limited due to the 10 hour rulewhich caps the number of hours doctoral students are allowed to spend working outside of the lab.

As a postdoctoral fellow, she now earns $60,000 a year working about 37 hours a week. Ms. Robichaud believes that this is a very high salary, and that she had refused other positions with an average annual salary of $45,000.

I’m still basically living paycheck to paycheck because I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to saveshe explains.

Ms. Robichaud says she is hopeful for her future, but with the pandemic, inflation and a looming recession, the precariousness of our finances seems very present.

Both Carleton University and the University of Ottawa said they help graduate students find and apply for different funding opportunities, including external grants and scholarships.

In a statement, Isabelle Mailloux-Pulkinghorn, spokesperson for the University of Ottawa, said the institution recognizes the significant increase in the cost of living in recent yearsand has expanded its scholarship offerings accordingly.

With information from Safiyah Marhnouj, CBC News.

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