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The real cost of academia

How divided time and resources impact working U of T students

The real cost of academia

From September to April, a U of T student’s schedule revolves around the demands of their academic calendar. Therefore, discounting summer enrolments, the last exam of the winter term typically marks an undergraduate’s return to their hobbies or extracurricular ambitions.

However, while some students head to familiar childhood homes or unfamiliar vacation spots, many must stay in the city to meet other ends.

Students who live on their own and foot their own bills — academic and otherwise — do not get to follow the same pattern of vocation and then vacation as some of their peers. These students often resort to minimum wage jobs in food services or retail to survive the four months without the financial support offered by OSAP. Though the anticipated increase of the provincial minimum wage has garnered attention in the press and around dinner tables, the lives of the students who survive on it have not.

The idea that every student at an illustrious college enjoys the same liberties is as damaging as it is false. Young, financially insecure adults pursuing higher education are swallowed whole by unfeasible agendas and exhausting realities. The difficulties they face with their finances in the present actively reduce their prospects for the future.

In February of 2017, Vanmala Subramaniam wrote a piece for Vice on the cost of living in Toronto. Subramaniam highlights how outrageous it is to consider saving money in Toronto on an income of less than $45,000 a year, drawing attention to the approximate 13 per cent rise in the cost of rent and 36 per cent rise in the cost of public transportation since 2008. Moreover, Subramaniam mentions that saving money is even more ridiculous for young people living in a metropolitan city who rightfully intend to experience as much of it as they can.

Not every student has the means to experience the city in the same way. Students generally select homes to rent based on location and cost. Apartments close to schools like U of T and Ryerson — and thus closer to the iconic aspects of the metropolis of Toronto — tend to have higher rental rates. Yet cheaper places tend to cost roughly the same amount when accounting for TTC fees and the time lost on commutes.

Generating a liveable income, even for a single-person household, relies on equal parts pragmatism and luck. In 2012, Jacob Serebrin wrote an article for Maclean’s about full-time university students with jobs. Serebrin states that 18 per cent of Canadian undergraduates work over 30 hours per week.

When working minimum wage jobs, one also has to realistically account for the ways corporations cut financial corners. In 2014, Tavia Grant of The Globe and Mail reported that more and more part-time shifts have been cut down to the 15-hour work week to help employers cut costs. Other tactics include scheduling shifts that come with unpaid breaks, or sending employees home early.

Seeing as the cost of living has not decreased, it is reasonable to suggest that a number of students with part-time jobs struggle to get enough hours, and thus must take on second jobs. The first job covers living expenses, like rent and phone bills, while the second covers things like transportation, groceries, and entertainment. Working four-hour mornings at Job One, taking a four-hour afternoon break, and then working four-hour evenings at Job Two is just the reality of my summer in Toronto.

And this work, though it pays the bills, can prevent students from applying to unpaid internships or even other paid positions that could be beneficial to their careers. Independent students simply don’t have the ability to put the future before the present.

Students living in these conditions likely have less time to revise and submit resumes, CVs, and applications for the academic positions that their peers can more easily complete. Since the workforce expects students to have exchanged precarious academic labour for experience, in the form of internships, students without that experience are less likely to be hired.

This is not to mention that a truly ambitious student will want to participate in as many networking and academia-related events as they can. This can pose a problem if the events are not free, require a certain standard of dress, or cut into hours where the student could be making money.

Even when they are able to attend these events, busy students may not be as prepared as peers who have had time to brush up on the topics being discussed. And when someone shows up to an event after dragging themselves from the TTC and various places of work, a groggy brain and a wrinkled outfit don’t leave strong impressions on potential employers.

Post-secondary education is geared toward the success of those who can devote every waking second to being a student, not those who must also work at providing for themselves. The things that working undergraduates have to do to survive inhibit their ability to utilize all that an academic institution can offer, setting them back in terms of skill and experience. Though higher learning is sometimes depicted as a haven of equality and equity, the living conditions of working students challenge the truth of this ideology — it is still extremely difficult to be a working student.


Jenisse Minott is an incoming third-year student at UTM studying Communications, Culture, Information, and Technology.

In the corporate world, the gender wage gap is closing all too slowly

Businesses should do more to address problems of gender parity in the workplace

In the corporate world, the gender wage gap is closing all too slowly

Gender diversity is much more than an issue of social justice — it’s strategic. It can be very difficult to assemble the best talent at an organization without drawing from a complete talent pool that is equally representative of men and women.

But countries like Canada have a long way to go in achieving gender equality in the workplace. Canada holds the seventh largest wage gap of the 35 countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Sarah Kaplan, the Director of the Institute for Gender and the Economy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, called the gender wage gap “outrageous” and stated that “we’re kind of stuck,” acknowledging that the problem is not disappearing anytime soon.

On a larger scale, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 170 years for the gender wage gap to close. A 2015 report entitled “Women in the Workplace,” created by global consulting firm McKinsey & Company and, estimates 100 years for equal representation in the senior executive suite, or C-suite.

A diverse management will produce a diverse array of ideas for business decision-making processes, which is correlated with enhanced financial performance. Based on a study completed last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a multinational professional services firm, Canada would experience an approximated $105-billion growth in Gross Domestic Product by closing the wage gap and increasing female participation in the workforce.

A common explanation presented for the wage gap — and used to combat the idea of enforcing gender parity policies — is that women leave the workforce for personal reasons and are unable to progress to senior positions as a result. This is largely a misconception; McKinsey & Company senior partner Eric Kutcher states in a podcast that women have a greater likelihood of remaining with their firms than men.

The role of societal pressures in determining a woman’s career trajectory also cannot be understated. Women in business often encounter difficulties when attempting to juggle family and work life, and competing obligations can result in a hit to their professional careers.

Examining gender parity in line roles compared to staff roles also brings this to light. It is possible that societal pressures create limitations that result in women taking on roles that are more flexible, but less likely to lead to the C-suite. Line employees have authority over achieving the organization’s main goals, whereas staff employees provide line employees with special assistance and expertise. The McKinsey study found that although the gender differences between these positions are initially immaterial, over time, more women end up holding staff roles that limit access to senior leadership positions.

There is clearly a gap between what firms say they want to accomplish and what is actually being done. Kutcher estimates approximately 75 per cent of human resources representatives list diversity as a top priority for their companies, though only about a third of CEOs and approximately 20 per cent of managers at lower levels do the same. Since the reporting structure within workplaces is scaffolded to give more senior managers decision-making power, there is a risk that gender diversity policies will be implemented at lower rates.

Fortunately, even though progress may be slow, there are initiatives that go beyond lip service by setting quantifiable measures. PwC has set a goal to make half of its new partners women by 2020. On International Women’s Day this year, Iceland announced that it would require organizations with over 25 employees to prove they provide equal pay regardless of gender, sexuality, or nationality — the first country in the world to do so.

Many firms also participate in Rotman’s Initiative for Women in Business, which offers programs for women at different authoritative levels. The Emerging Leaders program, for example, assists women in middle management levels to learn skills that will help them progress into more senior roles.

Firms should also provide more mechanisms to enforce their policies by setting quantifiable goals and holding themselves to a greater degree of accountability. In 2015, only 14 per cent of the companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange employed a formal policy to increase female representation on boards, as recommended by securities regulators. In fact, most of these firms neglected to incorporate gender diversity policies altogether.

The path to closing the gender wage gap and increasing workforce gender diversity requires initiatives by both governments and businesses. Meanwhile, it is important for students to be aware of what firms are doing to improve gender diversity within their workplaces, particularly for female students making strategic decisions about where they will pursue a career. We can be a part of the solution by engaging in conversation about gender diversity issues in the workplace and raising awareness about this issue in Canada.


Naveli Gandhi is pursuing a Graduate Diploma in Professional Accounting at the Rotman School of Management.

What comes next?

New graduate professional development program at U of T brings ‘boardroom’ skills into the classroom

What comes next?

In a global market with diverse job opportunities, few PhD graduates ultimately become university professors. In fact, the Conference Board of Canada reports that only 18.6 per cent of PhD graduates become employed as full-time university professors.

Few have embraced this reality more than Dr. Nana Lee, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, former chair of U of T’s biochemistry department. Lee and Reithmeier have created a professional development program that will cater to the vast majority of graduate students who will not continue in academia after getting their degree.

For Dr. Reithmeier, it all started when he was compiling outcome data for the graduate students in his department. Of the students who graduated while he was chair, only 15 per cent became professors. The remaining 85 per cent were engaged in an astonishingly broad range of careers, including constituency, law, policy, and communications.

Most faculty and administrators are unaware of the breadth of opportunities available to graduate students. “Some professors — not all of them, but some of them — have sort of a narrow view because… the only grad students that they see or hear about are the ones that go onto [postdoctoral fellowships] or become faculty,” says Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee completed her PhD in biochemistry in 2000. She spent the next few years in the biotechnology industry, where “it’s not just science,” she says, “but how well you work with people, your communication ability, all these – what we call – core competency skills.”

In 2012, the pair established U of T’s Graduate Professional Development program, a credit course which trains graduate students to be ‘real-world ready’. The program prepares students for the transition between graduate school and the workforce, be it within academia or beyond. During the program, students develop an array of soft skills, including presentation skills. They participate in a Three Minute Thesis, in which they are given three minutes or less to articulate their research to a panel of non-specialists. Through this exercise, students are challenged to grapple with how their research ties into the rest of the world.

Students are also encouraged to extend their networks beyond their supervisors and committee members. They are taught to use social media, cover letters, and résumés to tell coherent stories about their skills and experience.

Dr. Lee says, “We briefly go over the importance of LinkedIn and I check their profiles. We discuss the best way to write the cover letter and résumés using CAR [Context / Challenge, Action, Result] statements for a real job opening or a created opportunity.”

She explains, “Let’s say you tutor high school students… if you implement CAR, you would write something specific such as customized individual lesson plans for three high school students over two years, resulting in a final grade performance increase of 10-15 per cent.”

Dr. Reithmeier now serves as special advisor to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies for graduate skills development and engagement. He says his goal is “to ensure that all U of T graduate students and postdoctoral fellows develop a broad skill set and network to be able to take advantage of the career opportunities available to them in academia and beyond.”

Dr. Reithmeier hopes the postdoctoral fellowship will become a plan B for science PhD graduates.

How to build the ultimate LinkedIn profile:

Dr. Nana Lee, director of the Graduate Professional Development program, lists the following as the three characteristics of a successful LinkedIn profile.

1. Profile picture

The profile picture doesn’t need to be taken professionally, but it should be a headshot -— nice and inviting. Ten percent of students use their Facebook profile pictures, which aren’t appropriate for the work environment.

2. Summary

The summary should have three components: research program, interests and career goals. Dr. Lee says, “I encourage people … to use [all of the headings] to their full advantage and list everything that a potential employer might search for. Because some people just do the bare minimum – PhD student, department of immunology – and that doesn’t give a head hunter any information.”

3. Accomplishments

Dr. Lee recommends students use CAR (Context / Challenge, Action, Result) statements to describe their accomplishments. They should write about the impact they’ve made and the initiatives they’ve created. LinkedIn profiles should tell stories, not just résumés.

What can science PhD graduates do that’s not teaching or research?

For those of you considering a PhD, there’s good news and slightly less good news. The good news is that at 85 per cent, PhD graduates boast one of the highest employment rates in the country. The slightly less good news is that only one in five PhD graduates become full-time university professors. In an increasingly globalized market, most PhD graduates pursue employment in diverse fields such as law, management, health, and communications.

These past few weeks, The Varsity interviewed graduate students, post-docs, and professors to give you five non-research, non-teaching jobs held by science PhD graduates.

1. Data scientist

Data scientists collect and interpret large volumes of data. Hailed the “sexiest job of the 21st century” by the Harvard Business Review, the birth of the data scientist reflects the need to organize and to make sense of the 2.5 quintillion (that’s eighteen zeros) bytes of data we create each day. IBM estimates that 90 per cent of the data in the world was generated in the last two years.

2. Government

Government agencies are responsible for creating and enforcing standards that ensure our health and safety. PhD graduates are often hired as technical experts or advisors in healthcare, resource management, education and environmental policymaking. They work for organizations such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which draws on ecology research to provide access to safe and effective pesticides.

3. Communications

Scientific research is not always accessible; we need science writers in the media and in scientific journals to interpret research for policymakers, investors, and the public. Medical writers, for example, work with medical professionals to document research and product use in clear, concise ways.

The ubiquity of social media has given rise to digital strategy managers – executives who develop their institution’s digital brand. Science PhD graduates have found work in this vein at the Institute of Cancer Research, among others.

4. Consulting

Medical science liaisons are employed in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and other healthcare industries to bridge the gap between businesses and medical professionals, who apply the technology. U of T PhD graduates provide environmental and statistical consulting in a variety of firms, including resource management and software companies.

5. Law

At committee meetings, PhD students are challenged to present their data in ways that highlight the significance and validity of their research. It turns out that the skills required to do so are sought after in the practice of law. Many PhD graduates in the sciences or engineering find themselves as technical specialists or scientific advisors at law firms that deal with intellectual property. If all goes well, the firm might even sponsor them to pursue part-time studies in law.

Correction (February 27, 2016): An earlier version of this article listed Dr. Nana Lee as the coordinator of the Graduate Professional Development program. In fact, she is the director.