When Grad Students Aren’t Considered Employees

I feel like every other blog post I write starts off with the same theme: grad school is such a weird time in a person’s life. After all, you’re simultaneously trying to make it as an adult (pay bills, start families, etc.), yet are still forced to live the student life of crappy wages, weird work hours and never-ending papers and assignments. However, despite this odd balancing act we grad students find ourselves in, that doesn’t make what we do any less of a job.

Grad students are working adults. We are not interns. We are not volunteers. We work for our respective schools (either through research and/or TA duties) and are paid as such. Sure, we may have a required amount of classes to take, but the point of grad school is to do great research, bring in funding and publish lots of papers. It’s a full-time job.

Yet, for some reason, many universities (at least, in the US) fail to see us as actual employees. And they’re not the only ones. In fact, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has ruled many times over that grad students are simply that, students. And that’s a problem. Because without being umbrella’d under the term “employee”, schools aren’t required give us all the benefits they give their staff and faculty. And they take full advantage of that fact. After all, how many of us get full or even partial health care benefits? How many of us are able sign up for a retirement package or receive disability benefits? And how many of us are guaranteed paid vacation or maternity leave? Though I was lucky enough to join a lab with a reasonable faculty advisor, I’ve definitely heard horror stories of the other side. For those unlucky ones, asking for even a single day off may be almost completely out of the question. And what then? Our time spent working has the potential to be completely controlled by the faculty we work under. We have no legal way to demand reasonable work hours or benefits.

And let’s not even get started about the compensation. The typical stipend for a grad student ranges hugely in the United States from about 13K to 36K, depending on both the discipline and the type of assistantship. These stipends very rarely take into account the cost of living in your area, nor any additional costs of parking, textbooks, transportation and a number of other expenses a typical person comes across. In fact, though it’s common for STEM PhD students to receive full tuition support, this is apparently not a universal thing. As a result, grad students not only may have to to take on additional student debt on top of that which they accumulated from undergrad, but some must even seek to stretch their time even thinner and take on additional jobs to supplement their income. Additional jobs, might I add, which are not allowed to get in the way of your degree program.

So why aren’t graduate students considered university employees? Why can’t we negotiate our income, benefits and work hours like a typical employee? Well, some university officials consider grad school a means to an end. It is a way to gain experience and training in a professional career—a type of apprenticeship, if you will. Others point out that student-professor collaborations are different from employer-employee relationships, and thereby a universal bargaining process may not be the fix all solution we are all hoping for. And some even point out that having stricter work schedules for grad students may jeopardize the research and creative thinking that can come out of universities.  However, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with any of the above reasons (which you can read about in some of the sources linked below), it’s hard not to see how a change in this type of thinking might benefit us grad students; and not just in regards to better work-life balance and income, but in regards to how we view ourselves in the grand scale of things.

Though grad students may be commonly viewed as cheap labor that’s a dime a dozen, we are invaluable in our fields. How many professors do you think would get as much research done if it were not for our hard work and dedication to our discipline? How many more papers do you think are published because we spent endless hours performing experiments and keeping up to date on the new, exciting research in our fields? Academia relies on grad students to get things done and it is through this realization that we are important—that we matter—that we can start demanding a better work environment and demand a system that doesn’t allow us to be mistreated or have our issues disregarded by our advisors, departments or even our schools.



One thought on “When Grad Students Aren’t Considered Employees”

  1. As a former grad student in a STEM field, I completely sympathize with you and I agree that the need for some kind of protections for some grad students is real. However, I do see one major issue with your suggestion that all grad students be universally labeled as employees. The problem is that there are A LOT of graduate programs that provide no financial support at all for their students and/or do not require a thesis or dissertation (e.g. MBA, MFA, some MS and MA degrees, Pharm.D etc.). If your program or adviser doesn’t provide financial support then you’re not an employee of the school. Furthermore, if your program doesn’t require you to write a thesis or dissertation, then you’re not even providing free labor to the school. You can also leave your adviser relatively easily in those situations because if you don’t have to do research or your research isn’t tied to a grant (which it wouldn’t be if you’ve never been employed by your adviser), there’s nothing to prevent you from getting out of a bad situation.

    As far as I know, the indentured servitude, master/apprentice aspects of grad school really almost exclusively apply to students in STEM fields because we can’t leave our advisers without having to start our research all over again from scratch. There may be other fields where this happens too, but STEM fields (and i’m including social sciences in “STEM”, for the record) are the only ones I can think of. Anyway, that means you’d either have to start calling STEM and STEM-like grad students something other than “grad students”, call grad students in non STEM and STEM-like fields something other than “grad students”, or find some other way to address the needs of the students that need help while not spending extraneous money on those who don’t.

    My university actually dealt with grad school labor abuse problems by unionizing the grad students. All TA’s, graduate assistants, research assistants, etc were unionized under Graduate Assistants United, and the union successfully bargained with the university to get us health care coverage, maternity leave, vacation time, and many other things I can’t remember right now. They couldn’t give us everything we ever wanted, but they gave us a lot and they also provided some protection when advisers ignored the rights of their students. If an adviser wouldn’t listen and the department wouldn’t help, the GAU rep would have a pleasant chat with the adviser to explain the legal repercussions of ignoring their student’s rights. It was pretty awesome because it covered the grad students who were likely to be abused by the system without asking the school to pay full benefits to, those that didn’t need it. I know the word “union” is a dirty word in some parts of the country and it may not be practical to start one in every university. However, if you’re having problems where you are, it probably wouldn’t hurt you to at least look into getting a chapter of the GAU started there.


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