Grad School is a Job

Grad school is a job. A conversation on Twitter tonight got me worked up about this point, but I’ve heard it questioned a number of times in my five years in postgraduate education. And it seems that each time I’ve heard it questioned, it has irked me just a little more.

Grad school in the sciences is a complicated transaction. You are given free access to the highest levels of academic education. You have the freedom to think freely and develop your ideas into original, often thrilling, research. You develop deep intellectual and personal bonds with your peers and mentors. You also work long hours doing highly skilled technical work for near-poverty wages, put your mental health at risk, expose yourself to personal disasters, and graduate trained for a job that may not even be there.

Grad school is not like a “normal” job. In theory, it is only part-time; a temporary training post or apprenticeship for better things later. But if you are being payed money and given health insurance, if you are required to perform certain work, and this arrangement lasts for somewhere between four years and a decade…I have news for you. You have a job.

I don’t think this is just semantic. Many grad students, especially early in their programs, suffer from impostor syndrome or various related insecurities. They feel unworthy of the honor bestowed upon them, and worry that it will be revoked once they are “discovered” as “frauds.” But understanding yourself as your advisor’s employee, not their disciple, can actually be empowering. They need your work almost as much as you need their signature on your thesis. You, in fact, are doing a huge favor by working for them.

This sense of empowerment scales up, by the way. If you are struggling, you are not alone—not by a long shot. Your problems are shared by many. And if you are valuable to your own lab, we as graduate students are invaluable to science as a whole. The research enterprise, as currently structured, literally could not operate without us.

There is real power in that realization. There is a reason that universities, when trying to prevent grad students from organizing unions, say that we are not employees. Just last week, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia, had this to say on about the current efforts of that school’s grad students to unionize:

“But there’s a deeper principle for me at stake,” Bollinger said Thursday. “And that is, I really think of our graduate students as students, not as employees. And that has a large meaning to it. I think we feel a responsibility for students beyond what it means to be an employee. So that’s been my position.

“I think universities are special places in that sense of having a relationship with students that is different from the employer-employee relationship, and it’s built around this scholarly temperament that I talked about [during the panel],” Bollinger said.

There is a reason that the university administrators of the world would prefer we think of ourselves as students only: Realizing that you have a job is the first step to asking for a better job. More importantly, it is also the first step in going from mere commiseration with your fellow students to active solidarity.

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15 Responses to Grad School is a Job

  1. Being a graduate student is a choice, not an obligation. Everyone knows the odds going in. If you don’t think that being a grad students is an honor or have ended in a bad situation move on. Grad school is no fun if you don’t want to be there. As a grad student some of my best times were my hardest times. If you think being a grad student is tough, wait until you see what being a junior faculty is like.

    • Sam says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’d take issue with one point: I really don’t think “everyone knows the odds going in.” I know I sure didn’t when I was first applying to MS programs five years ago. And from talking to upperclass undergrads more recently, most don’t have a totally clear idea of what grad school is like, even if they’re considering applying. The least-well-understood parts are the funding and job-like aspects. People should know how that part works before applying…but many don’t, and a few get really burned as a result.

      We as a community should do a better job of being clear and honest with potential students about what they’re signing up for…but that’s not a substitute for policies to give grad students, post docs, and other academic workers more security and support, if only to prevent the professional disasters that, while rare, do happen to grad students. (For the record, I’m actually in a really good place with research and support from my advisor, but in 5 years of grad school, I’ve seen several friends get treated really badly and/or forced out unfairly.)

      Whether or not it’s an honor is kind of beside the point. It’s a great honor to play pro football (and the pay is great, to boot) but that doesn’t make it okay for the NFL to obfuscate the danger of brain injury for years and then claim that players “knew the risks”.

  2. Margaret says:

    Not sure I fully agree. You are a *student* when you are a grad student (at least in the U.S.). This is enforced by the U.S. tax code, in which you are treated in the same way that undergrads are (limitations on contributions to retirement accounts, for example). If you happen to have a half-time TA or RA position, then you *do* have a job. But you should not conflate being a student (and doing your dissertation) with being an employee (and teaching or doing research for a faculty member). I think it’s really important to remember the difference. Otherwise you’re liable to end up working for free (more than 20 hours per week) in the name of doing your dissertation.

  3. Melody says:

    I’ve been in my program since 2011 and I haven’t felt like a student in years. I get payed well below the poverty line for my state to perform an essential service to my department and my University (at my uni, if you don’t have a TA or RA position, there’s no point to even being there). When our graduate student organization complains that we’re dedicating the entirety of our lives to a job that pays us below minimum wage and attempts to unionize, we’re shot down every time and told to find more outside funding. As if it’s that easy.

    I agree with Mark that it is a choice, and I often have to remind myself of this. But I also agree with you, Sam- it was not an *informed* choice. No one really knows what a shit deal they’re getting when they go into this. I think we expect the soul-crushing workload with a bit of excitement, really, but are blindsided by personal toll it takes on us. I doubt I would have taken this path if I’d have known it would lead to my divorce, regular visits to a therapist, and having to live in a developing country for a year (just to have a competitive edge on a possibly non-existent job).

    But that’s life!

  4. gabe says:

    Two points, on a topic near my heart:

    1. There is no such objective thing as a “job” or a “not-a-job.” Things that we would see as quite obviously jobs today were in the past considered not-jobs. For example, in the nineteenth century, coal miners were said not to be employees, because they owned their own tools, worked out of the sight of the mine owner (who obviously didn’t go underground with them), and were paid by weight, not hour. This phenomenon was called “the miner’s freedom.”

    Other things that we see as quite obviously not-jobs have similarly been seen in other times and places as ordinary forms of employment. Sex work, for example, is still commonly seen as a form of social deviancy rather than a form of employment, though in many other social contexts this view has not been shared. (There are admittedly fewer examples of this, because the general pattern over time is for not-jobs to get redefined as jobs under pressure from the people who are not-working them and want some rights, rather than the other way around.) This is a question of historical determination, not objective reality; there’s an enormous sociological literature on how the concept of “employment” is incoherent and utterly plastic. So its definition is derived in historically specific and contingent ways, through ideology, law, culture, and political conflict. (In fact, this process of arriving at a definition through social conflict has been central to modern history, so much so that the conflicts that have determined what counts as employment are so familiar that you may not even have noticed them as such: is picking cotton a job, or is it a guardianship for a less advanced race?) What this means is that when a group of people is determined to redefine some form of activity, to turn a not-job into a job, it’s actually both possible and legitimate. In fact, it happens all the time. This brings me to point 2.

    2. I really couldn’t care less about whether or not people “knew what they were getting into.” You don’t lose your right to try to change some institution or relationship for the better just because you had full information about it when you entered into it. By that logic, you should never vote; just leave the country if you don’t like it. If someone hurts or offends you, don’t talk it over with them, just break off contact. In other words, don’t solve problems — just avoid them! I realize that’s how academia teaches people to act: avoidant, anxious, and self-flagellating. It’s no coincidence that you find such high rates of depression, anxiety, and the like among academics.) There’s nothing wrong with standing up for your own interests and well-being and advocating for the things you believe in, under any circumstances.

  5. gabe says:

    Also, in this vein, it was apprentices in artisanal workshops who formed the first unions.

  6. Pingback: When Grad Students Aren’t Considered Employees

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