The world of graduate studies is as complex as it is individualistic. Every path through the system is different, but there is one consistency —the need for funding, no matter where it comes from.
Brit Paris, a second-year PhD student at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education, serves as president of the institution’s Graduate Students Association (GSA). She and other association members aim to provide a voice for those students that are struggling financially or otherwise, despite financial troubles of their own.
“I came in as a first-year master’s student, completely unfunded, and I scrounged together research assistant-ships, [teaching assistant]-ships, being a special instructor,” Paris says.
“I think at one point, I had five or six different contracts at once,” she adds, describing her early grad school experience.
“Luckily, then, in my second year, I was able to get a major scholarship, and then in my PhD, I’ve been lucky to have major scholarships as well.”
Despite this fortunate turn, Paris still spent her initial year asking family to help her pay rent and asking for odd jobs.
“I was babysitting, doing what I could to pull in whatever income I could.”
Paris falls under the category of “thesis-based” students who often do work for their university under a supervisor hired by the institution.
“This person also becomes their employer when they’re a TA, or an RA,” she describes, but also says the work offered to grad students in this regard can be limited.
“If the student says, ‘I need more… hours to make ends meet,’ [and] the supervisor doesn’t have that for them, they want to then get additional employment elsewhere.”
In the absence of university employment or financial awards, many students must navigate Calgary’s minimum-wage job market.
“We have graduate students who are doing things like TA-ships, RA-ships, but we also have graduate students who are working at Tim Hortons, [or] McDonald’s, trying to make ends meet,” Paris adds.
“University-standard is $18,000 a year. It’s not taxed, but as you can imagine, that’s still quite low, and for master’s students there’s actually no minimum,” she explains.
Despite this, Paris clarifies, “we’re also talking about limited resources in any situation, and so it then comes to the students to take it upon themselves to increase their employability.”
Adding to their woes is the fact that students have a limited window of financial certainty.
“You know you’re a TA this semester or next semester, but you don’t know next year… so it’s always, really, ‘what’s my income this semester?’ and, ‘What am I doing to plan for this semester?” says Paris.
“Planning ahead is pretty much impossible.”
In tandem with the varied nature of graduate studies, there are still some things that students can be sure of for the future.
“We’re expected to contribute to the academic field through presentations at conferences, and these conferences are all over the world,” says Paris, who is planning to attend one in Norway a week after speaking to the Calgary Journal.
“You really need to be there. You need to be presenting your work.”
While some graduate programs offer the luxury of supervisor funding for conferences, for Paris, these events are largely self-funded.
“I turned down one conference I was accepted to present at because the conference fees were too high and I had no funding, so I’d say that’s an issue,” Paris notes.
“But then, I’ve also been where I’m presenting research with a professor and I’ve been the research assistant, and so they have paid my conference fees, but I still had to pay, maybe airfare or something, so it really ranges.”
“When you’re accepted… your supervisor is getting credit as well for you going to that conference,” adds Paris’ colleague Neil Christensen. “So, it moves them to fund it.”
Christensen serves as chair of the GSA’s labour relations committee. According to him, the acquisition of funds for grad students must be more understandable and consistent.
“My funding process was pretty straightforward, but I have heard from a lot of the different programs we deal with that there is less clarity,” Christensen explains. “Maybe they’re not aware [of] exactly where their funding is coming from, or how it’s supposed to work.”
Christensen, a master’s student in the U of C’s computational media design program, remembers applying for grad school, returning to post-secondary after over two decades away.
“The only thing I would have done differently is I would have tried to figure out the scholarships a bit better, because I assumed there [was] kind of a general scholarship that we apply for… but, as I found out, no, you have to kind of do a little more legwork.”
According to Jason Ribeiro, former director of the Alberta Graduate Provincial Advocacy Council (ab-GPAC) and community organizer for Yes Calgary 2026, preparation for graduate studies must also include discovering and improving upon your transferable skills.
“[What] I attribute my success to is really being well-rounded,” Ribiero says. “Your resiliency and your success is going to be premised upon the idea of how well-rounded you actually are.”
Ribeiro explains that a new approach to the possibilities of grad school is needed.
“In a changing economy and a changing dynamic, with higher education institutions that rely largely on more sessional work and temporary workers rather than full time, I would argue that it requires more creative thinking to think about… what kinds of things set you up for success.”
While Ribeiro knows of the financial pressures faced by graduate students, he believes it is important for them to be mindful of self-care, despite the situation they may find themselves in.
“What I’m most hopeful for is that we’re instilling in young people a culture around contribution to society, but also personal health and well-being… you need to take care of yourself.”
Final thoughts to be left with:
“We are living in complex times,” Ribeiro explains. “You need to be healthy, you need to take care of yourself, you need to know where to draw clear boundaries, what is good, structured participation in your education, but not at the expense of your health.”
“Make sure to explore different subjects, maybe you think you might be interested in, because the world at large isn’t a nice, siloed vertical process,” adds Christensen.
“There’s some really tough times, whether it’s financial, or whether it’s your paper got rejected for the third time, or you’re having a difficult relationship with your supervisor. Those who are successful have resilience,” says Paris.
Editor: Simran Sachar | firstname.lastname@example.org