Orignally Published on
Caffeinated Confidence
April 2016

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When Grad Students Aren't Considered Employees

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 papers. It’s a full-time job.

Yet, for some reason, many US universities 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? 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. That said, 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 scheme 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.