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.