Asking a professor whether they think graduate students are exploited as cheap labor in the lab is akin to expecting a potential suspect to voluntarily confess, not because any given professor is necessarily in the wrong but because whether they like it or not or acknowledge it or not, they operate within an entrenched hierarchy designed for their benefit, one where in the decades since WWII, universities and the scientific enterprise they support evolved to indeed subject graduate students and later post-docs as well to work conditions rather akin to indentured labor.
Rather than asking professors, examining independent analyses of the scientific enterprise and of graduate student efforts to unionize provides better understanding, and this US- and biomedical research-specific answer draws on such material.
A tenured professor (or principal investigator) typically operates with unquestioning authority as the head of a lab or lab section. Though it’s a work environment with quite the extreme power asymmetry, academia runs on the principle that tenured professors self-regulate but we know from Wall Street and Silicon Valley that self-regulation simply doesn’t work.
In recent decades, some changes and trends in academia further exacerbated this power asymmetry in the US.
Research by tenured professors yields manifold economic and other benefits to the university that employs them,
- Grant money.
- Fees from increased student enrollment using names of star academics as recruiting tools.
- Potential revenue from patents, licensing fees, biotech and other commercial spin-offs, partnerships and the like.
The passage of thein 1980 codified and spurred the expansion of such commercial aspects of federally funded university research. Thus motivated, universities expanded their research activities and, generously subsidized by federal monies, tenured professors eagerly and successfully recruited more students to their labs. Research labs thus expanded and even more so during the late Clinton-early Bush II years when the NIH budget ~doubled over a mere handful of years.
Problem is while faculty were thus incentivized to churn out more and more Masters and PhDs, faculty positions remained largely stagnant even as mandatory faculty retirement got abolished in 1994. This intensified academic competition, exacerbated the supply-demand gap between eligible candidates and available faculty positions, and increased the pressure to publish research papers within shorter time frames.
Too Many Graduate Students, Backbone of Academic Labor; Too Few Faculty Positions
US universities evolved to staff labs not with a full-time workforce on the university payroll with the benefits and protections that accompany such a designation but with a constantly churning temporary labor force in the form of graduate students and post-docs funded through fellowships, grants, scholarships, teaching or research assistantships (, ).
- Notice how the position of the post-doc barely existed pre-WW II and has ballooned since the 1980s. The post-doc is a purely made-up temporary position whose very existence exemplifies an artificially created supply-demand problem between a glut of PhDs and lack of faculty positions that can absorb them into academia, even as it conveniently offers a steady pipeline of well-trained, cheap labor.
- Paternalistically labeling graduate students’ work products euphemisms such as ‘labor of love‘ or ‘intellectual pursuit‘ cannot mask the ugly reality that an inherently asymmetric relationship leaves them little or no recourse against discrimination, exploitation or harassment, all of which are pervasive and massively under-reported across academia ( , , , , , , , ).
- Meantime, universities and graduate student advisors have consistently fallen short in managing student expectations, woefully failing to train and prepare them for alternate career choices. Some of this may stem from a classic frog-in-the-well mindset. After all, a typical academic best knows how to be an academic and can likely offer little or no guidance about other career options.
- In the meantime, since the 1980s, an immigrant student population, *cough* workforce, began swelling the ranks of undergraduate and graduate (Masters, PhD) students as well as post-docs ( ). Coming in on temporary student visas with little parity or bargaining power with respect to the professors who sponsor their higher studies, such students are the very definition of a captive workforce.
- The abrupt squeeze on federal research funds in the wake of the Great Recession was a tremendous shock wave to this gussied up system, akin to a pin abruptly and sharply pushed into a tightly inflated balloon. Its aftermath only further exacerbated an already obscene gap between a supply glut and an even further cratering demand.
The terms of the exchange are a graduate student’s labor in the lab and increasingly, in the classroom as well, in exchange for a degree. Problem is this phony paternalistic mindset deliberately devalues academic labor (, see below from , emphasis mine).
‘The troubles plaguing academic science — including fierce competition for funding, dismal career opportunities for young scientists, overdependence on soft money, excessive time spent applying for grants, and many more — do not arise, Stephan suggests, from a shortage of funds. In 2009, she notes, the United States spent nearly $55 billion on university- and medical school–based research and development, far more than any other nation.
The problems arise, Stephan argues, from how that money is allocated: who gets to spend it, where, and on what. Unlike a number of other countries, the United States structures university-based research around short-term competitive grants to faculty members. The incentives built into this system lead universities to behave “as though they are high-end shopping centers,” she writes. “They turn around and lease the facilities to faculty in [exchange for] indirect costs on grants and buyout of salary. In many instances, faculty ‘pay’ for the opportunity of working at the university, receiving no guarantee of income if they fail to bring in a grant.” Those who land funding staff their labs with students enrolled in their department’s graduate program, or with postdocs. Paid out of the faculty member’s grant, both types of workers depend on the primary investigator’s (PI’s) continued success in the tournament.
Universities, however, also face considerable risks. They must, for example, provide large start-up packages to outfit new faculty members for the competition. Newcomers generally have about 3 years to establish a revenue stream — to start winning “the funding to stay in business,” Stephan says. The need to reduce risk explains universities’ growing penchant for hiring faculty members off the tenure track and using adjuncts for teaching. “Medical schools have gone a step further,” Stephan notes, “employing people, whether tenured or nontenured, with minimal guarantees of salary.” Where tenure once constituted a pledge to pay a person’s salary for life, it now constitutes, in the acerbic definition I’ve heard from some medical school professors, a mere “license to go out and fund your own salary.”
Risk avoidance has scientific as well as financial consequences. “The system … discourages faculty from pursuing research with uncertain outcomes,” which may endanger future grants or renewals. This peril is “particularly acute for those on soft money.” Experimental timidity produces “little chance that transformative research will occur and that the economy will reap significant returns from investments in research and development.”
As in all financial ventures, cost determines much of what goes on in the laboratory. “Cost plays a role in determining whether researchers work with male mice or female mice (females, it turns out, can be more expensive), whether principal investigators staff their labs with postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) or graduate students, and why faculty members prefer to staff labs with ‘temporary’ workers, be they graduate students, postdocs, or staff scientists, rather than with permanent staff.” Postdocs often are a PI’s best staffing buy, Stephan writes, because their excellent skills come with no requirement to pay tuition, which at top private institutions can run $30,000 a year or more. Overall, the need to reduce risk and cost in the grant-based system produces “incentives … to get bigger and bigger” by winning the maximum number of grants and, because grad students and postdocs do the actual bench work, to “produce more scientists and engineers than can possibly find jobs as independent researchers.”
Many universities, meanwhile, took out large loans during flush times to finance buildings and equipment intended to give them an edge in attracting grants. They find their fiscal stability “severely threatened when funding from grants plateaus, or does not grow sufficiently to keep pace with the expansion. They face even more serious prospects when budgets decline in real terms.” The nation’s enormous investment in biomedical research has also “created a lobbying behemoth composed of universities and nonprofit health advocacy groups that constantly remind Congress of the importance of funding health-related research,” Stephan adds. This gives rise to unceasing claims that no amount of science funding is ever enough.
Although one topflight report described this setup as “ ‘incredibly successful’ from the perspective of faculty,” Stephan observes, “it is the Ph.D. students and postdocs who are bearing the cost of the system — and the U.S. taxpayers — not the principal investigators.” Undergraduates also carry an increasing share of the load, she adds: Their tuition, often paid with student loans, rises as more funds go to research. Their teachers, meanwhile, increasingly are cut-rate adjuncts rather than the famous professors the recruiting brochures boast about.’
This decision to greatly expand graduate student enrollment and use them as poorly paid, poorly protected, temporary academic labor in a greatly expanding academic research landscape has fueled years-long demands for unionization across the US university landscape.
- On August 23, 2016, the ruled that graduate students at private colleges are also employees of the colleges where they work and study ( , , see below from ).
‘The National Labor Relations Board issued a 3-1 decision in Columbia University that student assistants working at private colleges and universities are statutory employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-GWC, UAW filed an election petition seeking to represent both graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants, along with graduate and departmental research assistants at the university in December 2014. The majority reversed Brown University (342 NLRB 483) saying it “deprived an entire category of workers of the protections of the Act without a convincing justification.”
For 45 years, the National Labor Relations Board has exercised jurisdiction over private, nonprofit universities such as Columbia. In that time, the Board has had frequent cause to apply the Act to faculty in the university setting, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court.
Federal courts have made clear that the authority to define the term “employee” rests primarily with the Board absent an exception enumerated within the National Labor Relations Act. The Act contains no clear language prohibiting student assistants from its coverage. The majority found no compelling reason to exclude student assistants from the protections of the Act.’
- This groundbreaking decision will surely reverberate across US academia. For example, in April 2018, Harvard graduate students voted 1931 to 1523 to join the United Auto Workers ( , ).
4. Moss-Racusin, Corinne A., et al. “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109.41 (2012): 16474-16479.
5. Clancy, Kathryn BH, et al. “Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault.” PLoS One 9.7 (2014): e102172.
9. SEXUAL HARASSMENT OF WOMEN: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, 2018.
11. The 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators published by the National Science Board (NSF).