Are grad students "employees"?

May 25 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

This is not a new topic to the bloggosphere - DrugMonkey alone has roughly 47,390 posts that touch on elements of this questions. But I bring it up here because of some major differences that occur among various fields that are important for thinking about the question of whether or not grad students should be viewed as employees. I don't think the situation in the biomed fields is necessarily representative of "science", particularly in light of the large roll that TAships play in non-medical fields. Without tipping my hand too much, I'll provide my opinion later in the comments section, after others have a chance to weigh in. To the polls!

35 responses so far

  • European Assistant Professor says:

    In Europe, depends where you are.

    PhD students = students
    They only get a tax-free stipend to live on, no pension, no health insurance, no pre-specified holiday time, mostly no duty to the department (meaning that you can't use them as TAs and in fact very few do teach pre PhD) and they only work on their research.

    Continental Europe (i.e. everywhere else):
    PhD students = full-time employees
    They get a salary, pension, paid holidays, paid sick-leave, health insurance, the whole thing. They also have some percentage of duty to the department outside of their research (in my country it was 20%), which is usually for teaching or admin duties (organising events).

    This makes for an interesting budgeting situation when you try apply for EU funding that spans several countries with different rules...

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    Hmmm.... First, I don't think they are true employees. Everything done by grad students is meant to educational. Even when projects are assigned to grad students, I think they are provided as learning experiences for the student. Albeit my TA experiences were not all that rigorous (coordinated course materials with guest lecturers, A/V guidance, taught 2 lectures). Perhaps if I had more grading (outside of grading responses to the questions I provided on the final), I'd think of it differently....

    That being said, my APPROACH to grad school was always as an employee. Maybe this is due to my background, but I didn't take anything for granted and didn't want to take advantage of the fact I was getting money to go to school. But then again, that's not exactly what you were asking.

  • At my institution we are considered neither a student or an employee and saddled with the moniker of trainee even though we have no teaching responsibility. Since we have no teaching requirements we are essentially lab grunts and expected to dedicate our full efforts outside class, committee meetings, etc, to the lab.

    If we aren't employees, we must be as damn close to it as you can get without being one.

  • studyzone says:

    At my grad school (flagship state R1), grad students unionized several years ago, and are thusly recognized as employees. The union covers all grad students, regardless of their status as TA/RAs or trainees. Stipend, tuition and health benefits, but no set vacation time (at discretion of PI), retirement benefits, etc.

  • Namnezia says:

    When I was in grad school I always considered myself as a student. After all I was working toward a degree, my PI had to pay my tuition, I got grades, I had a student ID, was on a student visa, sounds like being a student to me. And for me it was free (as is for nearly everyone in biomed). The stipend was a bonus.

    Not sure what the argument is here.

  • Mokele says:

    Why are the two exclusionary categories? Several highly skilled labor jobs (electrician, construction, etc.) have modern-day apprenticeships similar to grad school, in which the apprentice learns and works simultaneously. Interestingly, what little I know of such programs is that the professional union covers apprentices too, with the assumption that they will become future professionals and union-members as a result.

    Just because you're a student doesn't mean you're not getting paid and generating value for your PI, and conversely, technicians certainly learn via their work too, even if they're not students.

    Essentially, I'd argue that grad students are essentially apprentice scientists, located somewhere between students and employees in many ways, but also in a different enough position that shoehorning them into one or the other category will never be accurate.

  • Bashir says:

    Tough to give a concise answer on this. I'm guessing that this is less about graduate student status in the technical sense and more about attitudes towards how they are treated during graduate school?

  • lylebot says:

    When I was in grad school I considered myself an employee. I received a salary and benefits for my research work. I was a member of a union. I had a boss. Yes, I was learning, but so is everyone in the early stages of every career. Some careers have a longer learning phase than others. Many careers require some kind of certification for advancement. That doesn't mean you're not an employee while you're working on the certification.

    Now that I'm a professor, I consider my students employees. I have expectations for the work I am paying them for, and if they don't meet those expectations they could potentially be fired. If they get fired by me they'll still be students at the university, but they'll have to find other employment.

    I tell students I'm advising to not treat a stipend as a bonus; that's just a recipe for disaster. If it's a bonus, what will you do if it's taken away? Unless you have some other source of financial support, you'd have to find other employment, right? I don't understand the argument from the other side.

  • Jessica says:

    European Assistant Professor says the UK does not get health insurance but we do have a National Health Service, We do tutorial and lab demonstrating.

    Wikipedia - "An employee contributes labor and expertise to an endeavor of an employer and is usually hired to perform specific duties which are packaged into a job. In most modern economies, the term "employee" refers to a specific defined relationship between an individual and a corporation, which differs from those of customer or client."

    All of which a PhD student does, and more.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Namnezia- do you, as manager or whatever, derive value from "students" for which you would otherwise have to pay a real employee? (whom you might also have to train to do the job, or else hire a trained person for more $$. just like most other workplaces)

  • NatC says:

    I'm with Namnezia - Grad students are students. I don't think the (usually minimal) amount of TA-ing grad students do magically turns them into employees. At least for sciences students. And having a stipend doesn't alter that.

    But in the US system, I think the argument changes if you're considering sciences students vs humanities students. Senior humanities PhD students are often more like part-time employees, part-time students.

  • Confounding says:

    Graduate students are students. I've never found treating them like employees works particularly well.

  • GMP says:

    I think Bashir is right -- I suspect the question may be "If they are employees, then the employer has the right to demand stuff in return for the money paid" -- so the PI can demand papers, certain work hours, certain amount of time off etc because he/she pays them. Employees also get certain benefits, like health.
    If they are not employees in any sense, then the PI has no right to demand anything really beyond successful academic progress -- the stipend is there to provide a livable income while studying, if it says 20 hrs of work per week then no one has the right to require more, you do not have to produce papers unless explicitly required in student handbooks to get a degree etc.
    My opinion is the following -- if the students are paid on a federal grant, then the student and the PI both have duties to the funding agency to produce some new science, and the PI is entrusted with managing how to best do it. So yes, certain work must be performed in exchange for the stipend, at the managerial discretion of the PI, thereby making PhD students funded on federal grants employees.

  • Grad students are not employees, but it would be beneficial if all parties (PI's & grad students behaved more professionally). As a PI, it is my understanding that you can not fire a grad student. Once you've agreed to take them on, they are your responsibility no matter how irresponsible, disrespectful, stupid or incapable they are. YOu can strongly suggest that they think about other options but you can not fire them. Ergo - they are not employees.

    However, transparency & clear expectations are always a good thing. Behaving professionally and treating your grad student time as a job helps keep on focused. If you had a "real job", you would not go out and get hammered the night your team won the conference finals and not show up to work the next day. Or you take off to the beach mid-day because its sunny. These are things that many grad students do (and I did before I was saddled with wee ones who regulate my time). Which is fine and dandy if you're making up the time, but many are not.

    If you visit the website of my PI, you'll find hir lab rules which outline how much vacation time is appropriate, what hours you should be working etc. Plus acting professionally helps make sure you're getting your shit done.

    mind you this is coming from an older, jaded grad student who has a very professional PI. Not so common is my understanding.

  • heather says:

    I'm fine with grad students just being students except for one thing... No maternity leave. A pregnant grad student has to take a leave of absence, losing student status, including pay and, what's more, losing health insurance.

    All a pregnant grad student can hope for is a benevolent adviser who let's her take paid time off without a leave of absence. And for the grad student father? Good luck.

  • Adam says:

    I always thought of my PhD (in UK) as an apprenticeship. But then are apprentices students or staff?

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I've always observed that the best/productive dynamic is when the Students act like employees, and the PI treats them like students.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well put, C-b.

  • I think that PhD students are perceived as employees or students based on which one is more convenient or beneficial at the time. This is also how I perceive it myself.

    I actually describe my PhD to my non-academic friends and family as an apprenticeship. In response to skepticism that I would be wasting my time with more school instead of getting a "real job", I emphasize that I get paid well over minimum wage and have very few course requirements. And for life-work balance, treating my work as employment (though more in the entrepreneurial sense and less in the 9-5 sense) helps me to live a sane life. But, according to the Federal government, my fellowship stipend (though taxed) is not Earned Income so no tax breaks associated with Earned Income (such as an IRA) for me.

    Also, I play the "student" card when I can, for movie discounts or using on-campus facilities. Though I would gladly pay for these myself if my PI could direct University fees into my pocket instead of the administration's. But that is another discussion.

  • Not sure what the argument is here.

    Benefits perhaps? Things like health insurance would be nice for starts. When I was a grad student, my institutions idea of "health insurance" was to go over to the clinic next door which was used to train the 3rd and 4th year med students. Half the time I knew more about my diagnoses then they did. That was comforting.

  • becca says:

    The truth is, all types of variants on student/advisor and employee/employer exist, and each type can be useful or pathological depending on circumstances.

    Ideally, I think that for graduate students on research assistantships, PI:student :: grant agency:PI (as opposed to university:PI or employer:employee). That is, they provide you money to do [science] and you need to do well to keep getting money. But you are not under contract, and the specific science done is not mandatory.

    @heather- it's perfectly possible for universities to ensure students have parental (yes, you read that right, applicable to both mothers and fathers) leave. Penn State defines us pretty carefully as 'students' for most purposes, and still has such a policy. Anyone who tells you that "if you want maternity leave you have to be an employee" is
    1) illinformed
    2) dealing with very special circumstances (perhaps in a collective bargaining environment where faculty are unionized there might be logistical problems??? I am speculating here) or
    3) blowing smoke up your ass.

  • Namnezia says:

    DM - Who says students don't add value to their labs? When I was a grad student I feel like I certainly did add value to my lab, but also that the main beneficiary of my work and my publications was me. Plus all the skills I learned were useful to me and helped further my career. So I was grateful for this learning opportunity.

    As a PI I approach students differently than I do a technician. With a technician I usually ask them to do certain tasks and give them a certain amount of freedom based on their experience level, but there's not much mentoring going on. With students I spend a LOT of time doing actual mentoring, from teaching techniques, to helping troubleshoot experiments, to going over literature, to helping them design their long-term projects and experiments, etc. Not to mention teaching their classes, running workshops, journal clubs, etc. Not that my techs don't receive any of this, but it is not to the degree that a grad student or postdoc would. That's the difference between an employee and a student.

    In terms of benefits, of course grad students should get them. I don't think anyone will argue against that.

  • neurowoman says:

    Graduate student status is dependent on whether they accept money for tuition and stipend for a research assistantship. This is very clearly laid out for anyone who has done a budget. The graduate student stipend is for half-time research assistantship(0.5 FTE in our institution's jargon) (or less time/less money, depending on the agreement), meaning you work for 20 hours/week doing research as directed by the PI who directs the grant from which it is paid. The other 20 hours/week you are a 'student', which can mean taking classes, attending seminars, reading, writing your thesis etc, but usually eventually becomes X research 'credits' per semester. So technically, you could be spending half your time pursuing your thesis research, and half your time doing some unrelated research for the RAship money, but functionally these become the same thing.

    Grad students who want to be simply students can decline the RAship and pay their own tuition, assuming someone will still advise you & pay the costs of doing the research in the lab.

  • neurowoman says:

    Btw, the half-time status as an RA means that although you are an employee, the institution does not have to offer benefits such as health insurance, although many do so now. As students, you do have access to health care at the on campus clinic. This may be deliberate on the part of universities.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    When I had an RA, I was an employee while working as an assistant, and a student the rest of the time. Same for TA. When I had a fellowship, I was a student all the time.

  • Canadian_Brain says:

    I feel everyone is not really getting the point of this discussion. If we wanted the webster's dictionary definition, we'd look it up. Obviously grad students (and even, to some degree, post-docs) are not employees and benefits vary widely between organizations/schools/countries.

    However, I assume proflikesubstance is trying to get to the question of how you treat your trainess, in an "organizational" sense. That is, does organizing your lab like a typical workplace help produce good science? Does forcing your students into a hierarchical setup work?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I'm getting at how students should be treated, both within the lab and within the university from the higher admin. Do students wear different hats depending on what they are doing? Are students that TA considered more as employees than those supported on an RA, from the perspective of the university?

  • Respi Sci says:

    I have the advantage of working in industry so when we
    receive students to perform research in the lab (not talking about
    co-op program students on their work semester but general rotation
    students not being paid), the built -in atmosphere or ambiance of
    the lab is one of professionalism and respect, both in how they are
    treated and how they are expected to behave. They are not employees
    yet aside from minor points we treat them the same as employees.
    These minor points include allowing flexibility in their work
    schedules for attending classes and time off to study ahead of an
    exam. We understand that the student may not work a full 7.5 h day,
    or at least during the regular working hours that most employees
    work. Also, we accept that students need instruction for equipment
    usage and training for methods that an newly hired but experienced
    employee may not need. However, the learning curve for the student
    is expected to be sharp and in a short time they should function
    independently. The key point for the students is that they, just
    like the employees, are expected to deliver experimental results as
    results get published, not excuses.

  • hematophage says:

    Both? I don't exactly work for my prof, I have my own project and he supervises me. Sure I TA, but that's one semester a year for two years out of five. But at the same time, being a grad student IS a job. I work every day, a lot of the day and I think about my project even more of the day. I don't think the fact that I'm a student and constantly learning makes it any less employment, I mean, ideally you're doing that anywhere.

  • @proflikesubstance yes, in my experience, I end up wearing a different hat depending on the context.

    I would also argue that whether I get treated as a student or employee depends on whether or not it is beneficial to the administration in the particular context.

    On matters where employees have benefits or rights, we tend to be treated like students:
    * For regular functions in the program (dinners, yearly retreat), faculty spouses are invited for free. Grad student spouses have to pay, if they are invited at all.
    * Have to go to on campus health clinic first (also would be true for any dependents on my health plan, too), whereas employees would be on a more standard health plan.
    * Limited budget (if any) for conferences. While an "employee" would be on company time, and would likely have all arrangements done by someone else, reimbursement for presenting lab's work is often capped at a few hundred bucks and grad students might have to beg or secure a small departmental grant, or pay out of pocket, or fit 7 people in a single hotel room, etc, etc. This varies across labs, of course, but it wouldn't for employees.
    * Expectations that I am available in the evenings for meetings, classes, etc.
    * Stipend < Salary

    On matters where students have benefits or rights, I tend to be treated like an employee.
    * University holidays, Spring Break, Summer Break, etc, don't exist.
    * Expectation that I be in the lab, working on research during normal hours.

    I think that, overall, the unclear status of grad students allows, at its worst, opportunity for exploitation and, at its best, a lot of stress on grad students.

    Overall, I think I prefer to be treated like an employee, albeit one with some independence. I appreciate the clarity of the relationship with respect to my time commitments and the school/department/PI's financial commitments.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think neuromusic's comment roughly summarizes what I am seeing - that grad students end up as either employees or students as context dependent. For my own purposes, I see the work students do as a TA as more of an "employee" model, whereas the research and classes as more of the student side of things. Granted, graduate students evolve through the process and may require more mentoring or direct involvement of the PI at different stages.

  • Miss MSE says:

    At my university, the TA's have a union, so they are treated very much as employees. RAs are attempting to unionize, but current fall mostly in the "student" bucket (except for the fairly generous health care plan). Fellowship students are in our own limbo land, as it's often unclear to anyone (sometimes including the IRS) who by or if we are employed at all. In engineering, it also seems those professors who spend the most time interacting with industry via consulting are most likely to have the "employee" mindset with their students.

  • CSgrad says:

    It seems like a false dichotomy. I'd go with the people who
    said that PhD students (it's a little different for MS students)
    are like apprentices - both employees and trainees.

  • C B says:

    If I was an employee, I would not work days, nights, and weekends for the amount of money I am being paid. I definitely do not consider myself an employee.

  • Emma says:

    Just came across this interesting Nature post - - which makes the point that classifying us as employees may mean grad students were treated better.
    I also wrote about it here, not sure I came to any concrete conclusions though!

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