4 min read

wtf uw 5: "student" employees

This is the fifth and final installment of my “Karl is so naive” series.

I’ve only recently become aware of the big conflict between graduate student mentors' dual roles of advisor and employer. Now I see it everywhere.

Should they take further courses? No just focus on research.

Should they help out at a software workshop or take on a teaching assistant position or spend the summer doing an internship in industry? No focus on our research project.

Should they finish their dissertation now or continue writing for a few months? Don’t waste time on the introductory chapter; just focus on finishing the papers.

Should they finish their dissertation over the summer and then go find a postdoc, or should they stay for another year or two, writing a couple of more papers? (Is the answer based on the student’s educational or career needs, or on what’s best for the advisor’s research project?)

This conflict is maybe not a surprise, given the pressure on faculty to be more productive, to get papers out so they can get the next grant. But it’s so painful to see graduate students treated as students when it’s convenient (when it comes to pay, benefits, and work hours) but as employees by their advisors.

Graduate students' salaries are a painful compromise between “pay them more so we can get better ones” and “don’t pay them so much because it’s coming out of my grant.” At UW-Madison, graduate student salaries are severely depressed by the decision a decade ago to charge tuition to advisors' grants. It would be a lot easier to raise annual salaries by $6k if not for that annual $12k charge for tuition.

I’ve been on a couple of dissertation committees where the conflict was strongly present. Imagine yourself on a committee of five that includes a student’s two co-advisors and two others who didn’t read the thesis. Criticism of a student’s work is often criticism of the advisor, as the thesis may be an implementation of the advisor’s ideas. (Dissertation committees at UW-Madison can now include two “non-readers." I don’t understand the point of committee members who don’t read the thesis. It seems like reading the thesis is the minimal expectation for a committee member.)

I’m particularly concerned about the potential conflicts in the “direct admit” system for graduate admissions. Traditionally, statistics and biostatistics departments have had an admissions committee that admits a class of students who then take a year or two of coursework before choosing an advisor. In contrast, in many departments in the biological sciences, students are recruited by individual faculty members to work on particular projects with specific funding. This “direct admit” system has some potential advantages for students, including a commitment from a specific advisor for a particular project in which they have strong interest. And there are advantages to the advisor, of recruiting a student with known skills and commitment to your research project. But there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, including potential for a student to feel trapped in a particular research lab. And it elevates the conflict between students' educational needs and advisors' research productivity goals. I see increased pressure towards direct admissions of students into research labs, as it leads to more predictable “staffing” for research projects, but I think it’s overall better for students to delay the choice of an advisor and research project.

The story of UW-Madison Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed combines much of what is wrong here. The tragedy of a student who felt trapped in a terrible situation. A faculty member whose abusive behavior was overlooked for years, perhaps because of his success in bringing grant dollars to campus. The shockingly callous and incompetent non-punishment. But it also points to a reason for optimism: successful collective action, of graduate students rising up to protect their colleagues from abuse.

The conflicts and mistreatment of graduate student employees is not at all unique to UW-Madison. The tuition on grants business is maybe unusual, but the tendency to treat graduate student researchers as exchangeable cogs in a large research machine is common, growing, and pisses me off.