It is not news that being a graduate student, particularly in the humanities, means working for a pittance, often with no job security, let alone benefits. Even at the most prominent institutions, the salary of a teaching assistant does not cover the basic cost of living—a full graduate student salary at Duke doesn’t even pay a “living wage” in Durham, N.C.
But the fact that one is no institutional check on the whims of senior professors who think of themselves as rock stars in need of an entourage (more Cher than Plato) makes life much worse. There are so few jobs for young academics—even the ones who are coming out of elite universities—that a single bad word from an adviser can mean the end of a career. Just as in the communist and socialist regimes that academics so admire, the universities all have an elite class at the top (permanently installed thanks to tenure), while the masses scurry around trying their best not to upset the rulers, lest they lose their livelihood. Maybe capitalist bosses are pigs too, but at least one isn’t subject to their moral preening as well as their abusive behavior.