Stop Offering Unpaid Positions to Grad Students

Graduate students want to get paid for their work. It should be as simple as that, but it isn’t.

There is an understanding in the academy that being a grad student also comes with accepting being broke. There is an implication that you should be working hard (for free) to one day land that perfect academic job that will magically whisk away all your student debt. In fact,  lack of funds is often one of the main points of discouragement for entering a PhD program. During my Masters  my cohort was lectured about PhD programs and how they essentially put “real life” on hold. “Don’t plan on moving, getting married or having kids” I was told.

Grad students get paid for their teaching, but most places it is  for a disgustingly low amount of money and often times, they still have to pay the University tuition every semester. Often at larger Universities, these teaching positions are really just jobs grading or marking for large (usually online) first year courses. With the cost of living going up in University towns and the pay staying relatively the same year after year it is no wonder there is this reputation of the starving grad student. Professors with tenure track jobs will often romanticize their unpaid work as just another part of the job. No, I am not literally starving (not to say that other grad students aren’t) but I am not paid for the majority of my labor. The hope and indeed, one of the alluring aspects of a PhD is attaining one of the few  secure, well-paid jobs at the end of the road.

Landing that coveted academic job also means putting in work above and beyond the basic requirements of the PhD. It is no longer simply enough to write your dissertation to be qualified for a job at the end. Almost always this means engaging in “service” which is the academic term for “work you do for free that people in other industries get paid for”. Service work for graduate students often includes jobs such as being a part of student associations and planning conferences but it can also be a bit more self serving to the student’s career such as publishing articles and book chapters or giving talks at conferences. Did you know that most academics don’t get paid to write published work? My colleague Emma goes into detail about the backward system of academic publishing here. We at FirstPersonScholar are working hard to combat the problems with writing in academia but it’s not the only area of tension for grad students.

This process doesn’t even touch on grad students who are seeking work outside academia. For many, industry or administrative work is plan B (I prefer to call it “plan 1”) and grad programs across the country are “getting with the times” and cluing in that there just isn’t enough academic jobs for everyone. With the reputation of programs at stake, many degrees require professionalization training and workshops for looking for work outside the academy in fear of housing too many unemployed doctors. My colleagues and I joke about our professionalization class being seen as “the clue to quit now” and start making money. We are told that we already have “real world” experience and that indeed, what we are doing in our degree is valued (to some extent) in other industries.

Most people can understand that grad students have specialized skills; something to offer in the workplace. Their subject areas may be timely and they most likely have great writing and editing skills. And yet, most people don’t know what to DO with a potential employee with these skills. Coming from an English background, it isn’t uncommon to see undergrads and Masters students go on to work as a technical writer or communications specialist (which is one of the only co-op positions most Arts students can hope to land over the influx of STEM positions). But for someone such as myself who wants to keep doors open for (potentially non-writing/editing) jobs in the games industry, my degree experience isn’t enough.

I had a heartbreaking moment a few months ago when I sought help at my career center to turn my CV into a resume only to see so much of my hard work during the last few years getting rephrased or completely deleted from the document due to certain experience being connected to my position as a student. I felt like I needed to be a student in disguise to show how capable and valuable of a worker I was. I had conversations with games industry recruiters who were interested and impressed with the work that I do and yet, stuck on my status as a student. “We can talk when you are done school” is a shitty and presumptuous thing to say to a grad student. Something no one says to someone who is currently working and looking for another career.

The fact of the matter is that industry people do not know that grad students are employees, they are in their careers, not waiting to start one until the degree is presented at convocation. Maybe I’m the minority here, but I am 100% willing to drop my degree for a lucrative job offer. I am no longer tied down to anything based on sunken-cost fallacy and the perceived “glitz and glamour” of the academy.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been presented with opportunities based on my research and/or public persona; new ways to gain experience like so many unpaid-internships offer . More times than not, my time has been wasted with these offers. Why? Because people like to “reserve” grad students. They like to say they have a researcher backing their project. They like to say that they’ve covered their bases: They have a writer, someone who has access to the studies, the knowledge. These pitches always sound great: new ways to disseminate my research, practical experience and networking opportunities. And then, another heartbreak, “There’s no money I can give you, but who knows in the future what it might lead to”. These are the moments when I try to negotiate the experience gained versus the time spent away from working on my degree. Do I cut other “service” for this one? I have spent hours talking about my qualifications and experience to these people only to hear there’s no money involved and that is just not acceptable.

Grad students are teaching undergrads for less than a fast food employee makes, fighting to be able to make a living wage. They produce research and come from perspectives that change how we as a society work together, something applicable to every industry. They are highly intelligent, highly skilled dedicated workers who think altruistically enough as it is and deserve to be paid.

If you are offering any sort of work to a grad student, tell them right away whether or not you are paying them. For some of us, the conversation might unfortunately, have to end there.


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