07 March 2023

Are grad students employees or students?

Many people have noted that grad students are in a weird dual state. Sometimes that are treated as employees. Sometimes they are treated as students. Which they get treated as often seems to depend on which is advantageous to the university at that particular moment.

Over the last couple of years, a combination of events has meant that many professors – particularly in the US – are finding it harder to get graduate students and post docs. So the number of people broadcasting on Twitter that they are recruiting students has gone up.

And what has struck more more and more is that those tweets look like job ads.

They’re not, “Come join our master’s program in my department,” they’re “I have a master’s position to study desert fishes using ecological modelling and environmental DNA” or what have you. 

Opportunities for graduate students are consistently described as “positions,” not programs.

I would have expected this for postdoc positions. I think postdocs have always been more or less this way, because there6s no degree associated with being a postdoc. But I wouldn’t have expected this as much for a doctoral programs, and lately I’m seeing a lot of tweets that are advertising for master’s students like this.

This is probably an inevitable outcome of graduate students being supported by professors’ research grants.

So I think we have to really stop thinking of graduate degrees as degree programs, because we aren’t treating them that was. They are entry level contract positions for scientists, in which you are partly compensated with a credential rather than money.

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