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Posted on Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:41 a.m.

University of Michigan should not treat graduate students like employees

By Guest Column

The sense that graduate students should be given the choice whether or not to join the GEO is understandable. The impulse to ensure our students are not limited in their options drives much of how we interact with our students in the medical school, and I am certain in other schools at Michigan as well.

It is why we created the Program in Biomedical Sciences, to encourage first year graduate students to sample from among 14 degree-granting programs before joining one. Even once they make a decision about which program to join, we still encourage them to exercise options: which discipline-based courses to take, whom to select as a thesis advisor and committee members, what project to develop for a thesis topic. What matters only is that the student works hard and meets training milestones established in consultation with the thesis adviser.

So, choice is good, and the beauty of the academic research and training environment is the freedom to exercise choices.


Victor DiRita

But the choice of joining or not joining a union is not the same as these academic choices I just described. The choice to join GEO is based on the flawed premise that our graduate students are employees. These young trainees are not our employees; we do not think of them in that way, and we do not want them to think of themselves that way.

We have our sensitivities attuned to any indication that the student is being treated as the employee of a thesis advisor. Our oversight of their progress is predicated on the fact that they are not employees. When students are viewed as employees, either by themselves or by their professors, that's not a choice, it's a red flag.

We take our mentoring responsibility of all our graduate students extremely seriously, probably far more now than when the Michigan Employment Relations Commission first exempted graduate research assistants from the GEO thirty years ago. In that regard, they are more like students in 2012, rather than less so.

Fail-safe mechanisms exist at many levels to ensure their concerns are understood and met whenever feasible. We carry out continuous self-reflection of our training, to build on what is successful and improve or eliminate what is not.

At the core of this is the relationship between the student and the adviser. The best mentors understand how and when to prod, plead and praise, and also that the proper measure of each is a unique recipe for each student. Introducing a third party jars the sensibility of those who properly understand the relationship as that of professor and student, not of employer and employee.

Our students are paid a stipend throughout their training. We provide that support through a variety of mechanisms. Faculty budget for graduate student stipends -- called GSRA positions -- and tuition costs when they write grants. Our faculty are very successful at obtaining external support for their research and we gladly use those GSRA slots to support students.

But the overall educational investment for any one student is vastly greater than that GSRA slot. A student in the medical school starts out on a fellowship from the Dean's office, may then be picked up by a training grant in the second year, or perhaps a Rackham or an external fellowship and, of course, a GSRA slot may be used to pay the stipend at some point.

In any one academic year, an adviser might train multiple students paid from any one of these resources. But nothing differentiates the training of a fellowship student from the GSRA just because the latter is paid on a grant. In fact, we would not tolerate any such distinction. All students have exactly the same rights and expectations no matter how their stipend originated. Their thesis committee evaluates them - and their mentors - exactly the same way without regard to whether the student is a GSRA or a recipient of an individual fellowship.

If a professor does not have a grant renewed, then lab assistants, technicians, lab managers and other employees paid from that grant are at risk of losing jobs. But the graduate student whose GSRA was part of that grant faces no risk of losing his or her appointment. We provide funds to continue covering the stipend, insurance and tuition for that student. Further, the thesis committee makes no determination about the student's progress based on a professor not having a grant renewed. Our commitment is to the education of the student, surpassing the commitment to the real employees paid from that grant.

Michigan is a special place to be a professor. We value educating students here as much as we value doing our research. Actually, we have great research programs because we have great graduate education, which in turn serves our research programs very well. Our graduates are known throughout the world for their success in their chosen disciplines, success that was seeded when they were trainees at Michigan.

The entire system rests on a simple proposition - that we are at the university because we want to train graduate students. And the training we provide is much sought after because graduate students have so many choices. But one choice that will not work for them is the choice to be treated like employees.

Victor DiRita is a professor of Microbiology & Immunology and associate dean for Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the University of Michigan Medical School.


Craig Hennigan

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 : 12:23 a.m.

What I find the most interesting about the anti-collective bargaining crowd is the fear of a free and fair election on the matter. Why do they fight at the level of MERC if they are so convinced that "None of the grad students that *I* know want a union.." If that is the case, then an election should be of absolutely no worry. If that isn't the case, then it is fighting against the will of the majority of your cohorts/colleagues.


Thu, Feb 2, 2012 : 5:18 p.m.

There shouldn't even be an election because we're students, not employees. And students can unionize. Pretty simple.


Thu, Feb 2, 2012 : 4:31 p.m.

Why is GEO fighting it at MERC level? Because they want to change the current law and tilt the system in their favor. Why should those who believe we are not employees sit by idly and let them do it? If we are truly employees, why is GEO so concerned with us fighting it at MERC or ALJ level? Surely, the judge will still decide on the merits if the opposing side is heard. Except, GEO has succeeded in preventing any opposition with the ALJ. There will be 8 or so GSRA witnesses for the ALJ hearing, all pro-union. There will be 0 GSRAs that believe they are students. Why? Because GEO fought to deny hundreds of GSRAs a say in the matter. They don't care about giving anyone a voice, if that voice (and wallet) doesn't support union agenda.

Ian Fulcher

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 4:29 p.m.

yikes! I like the 'choice' angle in the article, but union gives more freedom and protection of choices for many departments. If you're in a cushy spot, awesome! But the "high churn rate" of department heads could mean all that could go away without warning. You may want to consider standing in solidarity with your peers who are positioned in places where they have less stability than you have. Believe me, you want them standing with you when you need them!

Craig Hennigan

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 : 2:41 a.m.

JD, if you have yet to meet those graduate students, then the election should be a slam dunk. So why worry about it? I am more convinced that there is a large contingent that are wanting to be unionized but don't want to talk about it to their peers, particularly anti-collective bargaining ones, for fear of repercussions. Talk to some people who have had to win grievances against abusive advisers and see if the union was the only one that stood to benefit. Talk to victims of sexual harassment, intimidation through student visa removal, or simply those who were overworked by an adviser who threw a tirade when the student fell ill and then ask them if a union was necessary. The "checks in place" at the university do not have the teeth that filing an unfair labor practice has. Even you agree that some departments don't have it as good as others, so you're willing to sell out those students under a 'caveat emptor' mentality? Who are you to say what people should and should not study? Some people become experts in their field not because of the job, but because they love the field.


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 8:58 p.m.

I think someone else spoke to this but I have yet to meet a graduate student that is legitimately for unionization - I've only met the ones that are "standing in solidarity". I was one of those for awhile until I realized that the only people that stood to benefit from unionization was the union itself! I agree, some departments don't have it nearly as good as others. That's why I'm baffled that these departments are able to recruit graduate students when it upwards of 7-8 years to graduate with very poor job prospects once their finished. The solution isn't a union, it's either picking a new career path or taking that risk - a decision each graduate student had to make.

Silly Me

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 4:16 a.m.

Two points: First, perhaps many GSRA's have never worked in a union. I was a unionized construction worker and prior to that a unionized painter, both prior to my current position as a life science GSRA. Contrary to popular belief, I spoke directly to my boss and he spoke directly to me. If he thought I needed a light day, he gave me a light day. If he thought I wasn't working hard enough, he let me know, sometimes with a few expletives. When projects required it, I worked more than the allotted hours with no additional hassle. 60 or 70 hour weeks occurred, but they were duly compensated. The rival, non-unionized construction firm didn't suddenly put us out of business. Second, the adviser-student relationship that I've experienced is much different from what Professor DiRita described. I've had the serious, near hour-long discussion with four different Professors about joining their research group either for a semester long research rotation or permanently for my Thesis research. Each Professor, either implicitly or explicitly, has portrayed the undeniable tone of "What are you going to bring to my research and how will that help advance my personal career?" This is a tone, by the way, that I completely agree with. I want to do quality research and publish quality papers to advance my career. Advisers want to oversee quality research and publish quality papers to advance their career. There are no secrets here. So when I hear Professor DiRita trying to speak for his colleagues by saying "that we are at the university because we want to train graduate students" I am having a hard time taking him seriously. Let's call this relationship what it is.

Craig Hennigan

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 12:59 a.m.

Some myths being told on this thread: GSRA's do not pay taxes on the stipend. This is not true whatsoever. They pay taxes on the stipend as income like everybody else. They are in training for their work. If it were just training for their work and they care more about their students than their research, then every GSRA would be getting first authorship on all of the work they are doing. "I wouldn't mind a union if I didn't get forced into it." That is why there are elections for it. But it simply has to be everyone in the unit if the election is won. Having a union of a few people has no impact. The last myth is that the only abuses to be worried about are from the advisor to the student. This is a total misrepresentation. Most of our grievances at the Wayne State GEO have little to do with conflicts with the advisor, but more about conflicts with the administration. I cannot discuss what some of them are because they are in progress, but there is a lot more than just worries from the likes of Dr. DiRita. Solidarity from Wayne State GEOC!


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 8:46 p.m.

Yes, we pay taxes. And anyone receiving a large sum of money, even as a gift, will pay taxes on it . As a GSRA I published 4 first author paper - my mentor's name was always last except for collaborations (in those cases, either 2nd or third from last). Yes, having a few people in a union would lessen the collective bargaining power. But my mentor and others worked hard to recruit us to their labs - I did not need collective bargaining to get the position I desired, I chose them. As for for abuses being one directional, there are already policies on the books to protect both graduate student and their mentors. If we have administrative issues, there are ways to work that out.

Jinhui Chen

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:18 p.m.

great writing. According to the definition of employee: "a person who is hired to work for another or for a business, firm, etc., in return for payment", a GSRA is admitted to the university to complete a degree as a student. Paying for the GSRA is to guarantee the GSRA's focus on research activity advancing to the degree within the timeline. If they want to be treated as an employee, GSRA is not an appropriate post for them because GSRA is intensively challenged on their intelligence leading to a degree of Doctor of Philosophy. This intellectual activity needs hard working and the inputs from both advisor and student.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 10:53 p.m.

Craig, you seem confused. In the sciences and engineering, and adviser being first author is not considered good for that adviser. The convention is that the first author is the student (or postdoc) doing most of the work, the last author is the PI funding and supervising the work, and anyone in the middle made contributions large enough to get authorship as judged by the first author and/or PI. If you are claiming first authorship on your students' papers, then you don't have a very good understanding of how to build your career. Additionally, at conferences, it is more prestigious for students to present work than for faculty to do so. A good presentation by a student means you are a good mentor and have a strong lab. If you are presenting everything by yourself and claim first authorship on papers, it means that you are a shitty manager and/or have weak students, which is very bad for your reputation.


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 8:36 p.m.

Craig, that's not at all the case in the sciences and quite the opposite. Mentors are almost always the last author and it's the graduate student or postdoc who did the major experiments that takes the credit as first author (Just look up Dr. DiRita on Pubmed and you'll see he's always last).

Craig Hennigan

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 2:45 a.m.

Then advisors should never have first authorship on an article published with the research of GSRA's. That is not the practice though. Advisors take first authorship and the credit on the CV while the GSRA is working for the prestige of the advisor.

David Cotton

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:14 p.m.

If there are, as you say, all these protections, then why are multiple students willing to endanger their relationship with the university and their education by asking for a union? If the students felt they were being treated fairly then their willingness to express a need for change would drop. Therefore, all these protections must not be working. I do not believe that if the union proposal fails the university should return to business as usual. The best students will seek out schools who actually do provide these so called protections. Michigan will be left with the less than best if they choose to continue to ignore the complaints of the students. This is the age of social media. Students use all available resources when evaluating their choices. Including comments from current and previous students. Organizations that refuse to change with the times grow old and die.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:02 p.m.

Honestly, I have no idea why other GSRAs are putting themselves out there by asking for a union. I don't know a single GSRA who is supporting GEO's efforts. If I had to hazard a guess, I would say they may be looking for restrictions on working hours or better pay. The opportunity to buy those pricey blue parking passes that employees can buy? If someone has a solid list of tangible things that GEO can promise, I'd love to see it. I agree that in a few isolated cases, the protections that we have may not have worked for an individual student. That's unfortunate, but not enough of a reason for me to invite a third party into my education and sacrifice a portion of my paycheck. And the fact that Michigan's GSRAs aren't unionized doesn't seem to be affecting the U's ability to attract top-notch, hard-working, bright students.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:37 p.m.

Because AFT and GEO saw an opportunity to collect a million dollars in dues. They had union employees visit students at their offices, labs and homes for 2-on-1 sales pitches that left out critical information while pressuring students to sign union authorization cards. They focused heavily on international students, refusing to leave until the card was signed without telling them the consequences. By the time grad students started informing themselves about what's going on, GEO already had sufficient signatures to lobby for a vote (though first they tried to absorb GSRAs without this). If you think this was started by an overwhelming tide of complaining GSRAs, you are naive. This was shoved down our throats by union organizers.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 9:07 p.m.

I don't understand most of these comments- perhaps because those posting have never been a graduate student or a GSRA and have only heard horror stories from unhappy current or former graduate students. I have been a GSRA for 2+ years. I entered grad school knowing exactly what to expect- long hours and high expectations. I don't feel like an indentured servant (@Ron Granger), and I don't feel like an employee (@Mick52, Victor22, etc.). In exchange for the work that I do in the lab, I receive compensation. I don't pay any money to the university for tuition or fees, and receive a stipend each month for living expenses. Depending on how many hours I spend in lab each week (usually 60+), I would guess that per hour, I make about minimum wage. Was I conned into what many of you might think is this horrible, slave-like existence? Absolutely not. I am here to earn a degree. I am a lot of things- a student, a scientist, a wife, a critical thinker. I am NOT an employee of the University of Michigan. And I don't need anyone to classify me as an employee in order for my rights to be protected. There are systems in place to protect me from sexual harassment, unsafe working conditions, abuse by my mentor, unfair treatment by my graduate program, etc. The last thing I need is to fork over a couple hundred dollars a year to GEO, when they have absolutely nothing to offer me that I don't already have.


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 3:09 p.m.

@Craig Hennigan- You couldn't be more wrong with your comments. It's insulting to suggest Stockholm's Syndrome. I don't see how working long hours doing research is any different than the long hours any of us put in during undergraduate. Earning a degree takes long hours and hard work. The $$ we receive is a stipend, not a salary. It's not enough for anyone to get rich on, it's just enough to pay our rent and put food on the table while we work towards our degree. In my opinion, it's no different than any room & board scholarship an undergraduate might get. I do what it takes to get my experiments done each week; if that means I don't spend much time at home, that's life. If anyone enters a research-intensive PhD program thinking they're going to be working 9-5, 5 days a week, they have been misled about what to expect.

Craig Hennigan

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 1:50 p.m.

You spend 60+ hours in the lab, get paid minimum wage, and don't want a union? lol. Ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome? You say you don't "feel" like an employee, but here is the key phrase in your comment: "In exchange for the work that I do in the lab, I receive compensation" That's what employees do. So being a wife, do you think your husband would like to see you outside the lab a little more? Suppose you had a child, do you think 60+ hours in a lab is conducive to their upbringing? Do we pick and choose who can get an education based on their family situations? These are the types of things that GEO can look out for.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:50 p.m.

Apparently doesn't let you use a commonly used phrase involving the words "hit the fan." Oh well. As Heather already said paying GEO lots of money wont solve the problems that do exist within the various graduate programs. We're in agreement on that point anyway.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:27 p.m.

And in the corporate world you can change jobs without the threat of starting over


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:26 p.m.

You generally cant learn exatctly how a mentor will be in a crunch during a month when theyre putting on their best face - rotations are not an excuse for faculty to condone bad behavior towards a student


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:12 p.m.

If you are only 2 years in you havent seen some of the drama that can go on when people try to publish, graduate, or even just schedule a committee meeting (I know people who have had issues with their mentors even over that basic request). People can lose years of effort towards their degree if they try to stand up to bad mentors without faculty support. Paying the GEO lots of money wont solve that problem but things are not as rosy as you and Dirita make it out to be. There is definitely room for improvement.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:53 p.m.

@UtrespassM- I'm still working toward my degree. I couldn't agree more that there's no place for lazy or unfocused students in graduate school.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:32 p.m.

Couldn't agree more with you!


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:17 p.m.

Did you get the degree you wanted? The lazy and stupid ones should never apply for a graduate school. The graduate school is not for you to defer your student loan payments.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 8:49 p.m.

I agree that there should not be a compulsary union, but I wouldn't exactly say there are "fail safe mechanisms" protecting students from unethical mentors. I think that would be better served by faculty agreeing on and enforcing what constitutes proper student treatment/mentorship/authorship/funding. In my observation there is little agreement on those points and faculty have little leeway in helping students in a tough situation, even through thesis committees, and often succumb to politics over ethics. A stronger set of policies would help avoid these situations and make students less likely to want to unionize.


Tue, Feb 7, 2012 : 11 p.m.

Craig, you're wrong again, but on a subtle and contested point. Just because a union was voted in does not automatically mean that everyone should have to join it. This is the question of right to work and open shops, etc. I realize that as a rabid union-thumper you cannot be persuaded otherwise, but some of us still feel we have the rights to individual liberty and freedom of association (or the freedom to not join an organization we don't like, especially one that wants our money).

Craig Hennigan

Thu, Feb 2, 2012 : 12:20 a.m.

Unionization forces policies to be put in place. There is no incentive for administrators to create a policy in writing without organization. There is also no such thing as a "compulsary" union. There is an election. Saying it's unfair to have to be in a union after voting against it is like saying it's unfair to have Obama as a president because you didn't vote for him.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 8:28 p.m.

If they are paid to provide value to the lab and UM then they are employees and thus entitled to the right to organize. There are too many I have seen too much abuse by profs at UM that needs to held in check. I would like to see tackle the issue of profs have foreign workers working for free in labs. They get these people to work for free because they are here on student VISAS but they aren't taking classes.

Left is Right

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 2:18 a.m.

And BTW, they typically visit for less than a term.

Left is Right

Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 2:15 a.m.

"I would like to see tackle the issue of profs have foreign workers working for free in labs. They get these people to work for free because they are here on student VISAS but they aren't taking classes." Of course it happens. Michigan is a top international research institution. They're usually paid by their own country or university as part of an international research effort. Clue us in on how this is a bad thing.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:30 p.m.

Care to cite some factual evidence for your claims? Grad students cost professors upwards of $60K/yr. If UM wanted cheap labor, they would hire post-docs and technicians. Grad students are both expensive and less efficient than a skilled employee.

E. Manuel Goldstein

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

The grad students are being 'compensated' by the University. They then deserve worker protections against discrimination, and for their Occupational Health & Safety rights.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:28 p.m.

They already have these, despite GEO's claims to the contrary.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 7:32 p.m.

The effort to deny that these graduate students are employees is motivated by the fear that once they attain that status officially, these programs will no longer be able to easily exploit them. It's clearly tempting to spin the situation as one of beneficent mentorship when you're on the mentor side of that equation, but is that anything more than spin? Whenever someone uses a phrase like "Fail-safe mechanisms exist," my B.S. meter hits the red.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 7:10 p.m.

My GSRA position had absolutely no educational or mentoring value. What about me professor Dirata? And on the broader point, there are plenty of jobs that involve both employment and mentorship. Mentorship does not preclude classification as an employee (for example, apprectices have the right to be represented by a union). Also, if you deny our status as employees we will not have access to the protections of OSHA.


Wed, Feb 1, 2012 : 8:22 p.m.

UM_GSRA, you make the point that is most important of all. Unions were intended to protect groups of people who otherwise would have no bargaining power individually. But as a potential graduate student, Michigan pulled out all the stops during recruitment to bargain for US to come to Michigan and to join their labs. Sorry Victor22 but if you picked a crappy mentor, that's on you. If you didn't like the options you had, you should have went elsewhere.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:27 p.m.

Sounds like you made a wrong turn somewhere. Nobody forced you into your position, and it's nobody's fault but your own that it doesn't have any educational or mentoring value. Stop trying to get everyone to pay for your poor choices. We already have protections of OSHA, being unionized or an employee is not necessary for this.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6:11 p.m.

The very nice system also creates monsters. The students who were involved in scientific misconducts should be fired, no degree granted. What is the status of the investigation? The matters should never be closed.

rusty shackelford

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6:09 p.m.

The argument here amounts to "trust us, we're great." If that's the case, there's very little to fear from the implementation of mechanisms--i.e. unionization-- that would insure that the protections DiRita argues already exist remain in place. Some of his statements are patently false, though. This one in particular is a real howler: "We value educating students here as much as we value doing our research."


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 10:23 p.m.

I am not misrepresenting GEO's argument any more than you are misrepresenting DiRita's. The reality is being a GSRA is actually pretty great: you get to work with a leader in your field, learn how to be a researcher, get a degree, and on top of that you get paid $25K/yr with full health coverage. GEO really hasn't offered a substantial benefit to unionizing other than some vague "solidarity" or "you get a voice" arguments. At best, their line is "you better unionize before you lose these awesome benefits you have" even though not being unionized hasn't hurt us in the last 30 years... So why would GSRAs want to pay $440/yr for benefits they already get?

rusty shackelford

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 8:10 p.m.

We both know that isn't GEO's argument. You won't get very far starting from false premises.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 7:01 p.m.

As opposed to the union's argument of "Trust us, we're great, and by the way that'll be $440/yr." Grad students who choose to be GSRAs know exactly what they are getting when they sign up. Many are passing up more lucrative jobs in order to work with professors, so they must clearly believe that its worthwhile. Unionization won't even bring any significant improvements to the GSRA position as we already get the same pay and benefits as the unionized GSIs. GEO just wants a million dollar slice of the pie, plain and simple.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:51 p.m.

I'm not so much opposed to Graduate Student Research Assistants joining a union, it's more that I don't want to be forced to join because others want to join. A lot is said about how it will change the relationship between professors and the GSRAs, but I'm not so concerned with that either. It's more that I don't believe I will gain anything by joining GEO. Everything they've argued for the graduate students they represent, the GSRAs tend to receive. So we seem to be just another revenue stream for GEO. What I'd really like to see, though, is some statistics on what other universities at which the graduate researchers have formed unions. Especially universities ranked similarly to University of Michigan.

Renee S.

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:37 p.m.

Agreed. I was a GSA and decided to not join GEO. The only problem is that joining GEO was a condition of my employment. For not joining, I was harassed by e-mail, paper, phone, and in person; GEO even called my parents, who encouraged me to pay up. I ended up leaving after a year and a half for unrelated reasons, so I'm not sure if GEO would have ever gone as far as terminating my employment, which they had the legal right to do. However, the fact that they had that legal right is a bit scary. Is it right for graduate students union members to have the power to fire me, another graduate student, for not paying the union $200?


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6 p.m.

There are pretty much no universities in UM's league that have unionized RAs. UWash I think is the closest one.

Ron Granger

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:43 p.m.

They are more like indentured servants, and much less like employees. If they were employees, they would gain rights that they do not currently have; rights that all workers have under the law. That, in my opinion, is why some do not wish to recognize them as employees.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6:13 p.m.

I think it is naive to believe this is about "rights." The university doesn't want to deal with the union bureaucracy. The union wants approximately $1million in added revenue for providing no real benefits to the GSRAs.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:14 p.m.

Hmm. If they are being paid to do a job they sound like an employee. If the tasks they get money to do is not a job, is it a part of their education and training? If they weren't paid, would that work get done? If so, who would do it? An employee? How much are they paid? Less than or more than minimum wage? Do they pay taxes on what they are paid? If they are not employees getting paid to do a job, they should not have to pay taxes. Do they not pay taxes because the not pay money they get is below the poverty level? Maybe you should call them paid interns, then you can argue with this guy: <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a> I was a graduate student at one time but I did not get paid a stipend or get insurance or tuition paid. Sure sounds like employees, but I agree as I do with all unions, a worker should not have to join one if they don't want to. By the way, what does GEO stand for? I don't see it in this article. Let me look it up.......oh, it means Graduate Employees Organization. But that is flawed, huh?


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 11:05 p.m.

Actually, our stipends are not tax-exempt. Same goes for any undergraduate who has a scholarship for room and board. Only the portion that goes toward our tuition is not-taxable.


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 6:11 p.m.

Scholarships and fellowships are also a way of getting paid, but those are not typically considered employees. The vast majority of GSRAs have 25% or 50% appointments which mean that they are getting paid for that fraction of the time they are doing research. The remaining 75% or 50% is the research they are doing &quot;for credit&quot;. However, 100% of the research in the vast majority of cases in engineering and sciences goes to the thesis or is otherwise educational in nature i.e. the student is learning how to be a researcher. If they were not being paid through a GSRA appointment, the same total amount of work would have to be done (though it may take longer as the student would likely have to teach to support themselves). When you were a grad student and didn't get paid a stipend, it was probably challenging to make ends meet and you had to support yourself through teaching, fellowships or an outside source of income. In recognition of that fact, the university now also provides support for its students in the form of a GSRA appointment. It makes it easier to be a grad student, but it does not change why we are here: to get a degree. Lastly, we do get taxed (and so do fellowships) and we make money above the minimum wage/poverty line (around $25K/yr with full medical benefits and life insurance).


Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:54 p.m.

I think the crux of your question is this: is there a direct link between the quality or quantity of work done and the reimbursement provided by the source of research funds? The amount, source or treatment of the funding seems to be secondary to your argument on whether or not these students are employees. If yes, then the student is obviously paid for performing the task and could be considered 'employed.' If no, then the student is simply supported while doing independent work toward a degree. The major issue with this whole debate has been that the answer often varies from individual to individual, research group to research group, department to department. Many in the sciences and engineering feel that their work is primarily motivated towards a thesis and that their research is intimately tied with their education. Ultimately the work would be be done by the student, with or without support (as you did). On the other hand, some in the humanities and social sciences hold RA appointments that have little to do with their thesis, and can claim to be more of an 'employee.' Without funding, they would have little interest in continuing with that work. Unfortunately both fall under the RA umbrella, since that is the most convenient way for the University to support all involved. More unfortunately is the fact that because all fall under this single umbrella we cannot classify the 'employee-GSRAs' as employees without also classifying the 'student-GSRAs' as such. I for one would rather see a new category created by the university for the 'employee-GSRAs' that would allow them to join the existing structure of GEO (for employed graduate student instructors and staff assistants, whose duties are also quite separate from their thesis) rather than affecting all under the GSRA umbrella with court rulings and the like. Surely this would allow for those who need/want the union protections to have them while leaving the 'student-GSRAs' in their current mentee status.

Rabid Wolverine

Tue, Jan 31, 2012 : 5:44 p.m.

They do not pay taxes on the stipend. It is looked at as financial aid. This professor is spot on. My wife is a graduate student in Chemistry and while she works very hard at completing her PhD, she is not an employee. As an employee of a company I am not working towards a degree, only a paycheck. She is working towards a degree in order to get a job. That is a distinction that should appease most people.