June 19, 2007

A Few Minor Differences

Recently Kevin was asked to meet with two young German students who plan on undertaking Masters degrees in the U.S. next year. Being the only one in his department who received his degree in the States, he was asked to speak to them about the differences between the two countries and what they might expect from their time abroad. Here’s a rough approximation of what transpired*:

Student #1: I am very concerned that we will not be able to make ends meet in America. The rent there is so expensive! I read on-line where they expect you to pay $1,600 for a one-bedroom apartment in New York. We would never pay more than 300 euro for a one-bedroom apartment in Würzburg. And anyway, everyone I know still lives with their parents. How can I afford to pay such high rent on a graduate student salary?

Kevin: Um, O.K., well, New York is a lot more desirable a destination than, um, Würzburg, so naturally it costs more. But almost every salary is enough to afford housing of some sort. You just might have to take a room in a big house with a bunch of other graduate students, but that’s just part of the fun of being a graduate student. In general, American 30-year-olds don’t still with their parents.

Student #2: But how will we ever furnish this apartment? Is everything there as over-priced as the rent?

Kevin: No, actually, everything in America is much, much cheaper than in Germany. Not only do you guys have this outrageous 20% value added tax (V.A.T.) tacked on to everything, but the same things also just cost more in Germany than they do in America. For instance, a pair of Converse sneakers costs $35 in the U.S.; in Germany, the same shoes cost 65 euro, or about $90. Part of that is the V.A.T., but part of it is that all the cool stuff is imported and is subject to an additional import tax.

And then, even the stuff that you make yourselves just costs more because every factory worker and cashier gets four weeks of paid vacation, 30 paid holidays and a mandatory 35-hour workweek. In America, you’ve got poor saps working for $5.25 an hour – no benefits. That makes stuff insanely cheap. Take advantage of that!

(Students #1 and #2 scratch their heads. Is Kevin perhaps one of these greedy North American capitalist pigs they have been reading about? Student #1 continues, warily.)

Student #1:
But what about food? They cannot make the food cheaper than we do.

Ohmygod! Don’t even get me started on the food. No one grows more expensive food than you guys do. I went to the grocery store the other day to buy some chicken breasts, and I couldn’t believe it: 8,50 euro for two chicken breasts! That’s nearly $12 for one part of a single chicken. What do you raise your chickens on? The golden kernels of freedom? In America, chickens live lives that are mean, nasty, brutish and short, and their plump juicy breasts will only set you back about $3.50.

Student #2: But what about health care? I have never had to pay for health care before, and in America, the health care is supposedly very bad and very expensive. The University recommended that we sign up for health insurance through the school, but they expected us to pay $500 a year! What should I do?

Kevin: Are you sure they said $500 a year, and not $500 a quarter, or a month or something like that?

Student #2:
No, it was $500 a year. I’m sure. And I refuse to be cheated like that!

Kevin: (Long pause.) OK, look: That is an insanely good deal. You will never find better insurance for less money anywhere in the whole country. It just doesn’t exist. Most people, even those in good health, would have to pay about $500 a month if they couldn’t get health care through their employer. And some employers will even make you pay about $100-$200 a month of your health insurance from your own salary, and that’s in addition to the co-pay you’ll have to fork over every time you visit the doctor. That adds up to way more than $500 a year.

Besides university-sponsored health insurance is actually pretty good. They might even pay all your contraceptive costs, which is really the only health-related expense that most young people have. So please, just take it and be grateful.

Student #1:
OK, fine, but what about the work obligations? I heard that Americans work all day long – 10, 12 hours a day sometimes and often on weekends, too. And the school has said it will pay us $30,000 a year to help teach undergraduate classes. But if they are going to pay us so much, they must expect us to work like slaves. And if we have to spend all our time teaching undergraduates, how will we have time for our own research?

Yes, that is the dirty secret of an American university education. Quite simply: They don’t expect you to spend all your time teaching the undergraduates, just about three or four hours a week. They just make you work because there has to be a good tax-reason why they’re paying you $30,000 a year, which is really just a living stipend while you continue your research. And since none of the professors want to teach the undergraduates, they make grad students do it. It’s a pretty good deal actually. You’ll be getting paid about $500 an hour. As a scientist, that's probably be the best salary you'll ever make!

Yes, I think you are really going to enjoy your time in America. Now, run along, students, and don’t forget to sign up for the health care!

(And the German students leave, more confused than ever.)

*Obviously, none of this has been reported verbatim. Kevin might even claim that I have embellished some parts of his speech. But I’m the one with the blog!

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