Unionizing 3/29/23

Thoughts with Richard Bleil

This is a topic that I had written on before, so if it seems redundant, I apologize.  The other day (from writing this), an article crossed my path online about medical students unionizing.  I’ve heard of terrible treatment of these students, with long hours and heavy responsibilities, but my experience with graduate school was different.    Honestly, I’m not sure if this article will come out pro or con unionizing graduate students. 

Back in MY day, graduate school hours were long and ridiculous.  You spent your entire life in the building where your lab was, often sixteen hour days, only going home to sleep.  Of course, that’s also where your friends were, and where the excitement was.  Personally, in my group, we could also come and go as we pleased, taking random days off to go do something fun as long as we got our work done (our lab was not traditional where we had to watch reactions; it was all theoretical so programming and mathematics). 

Unfortunately, there were professors who took advantage of their students.  They would expect the students to be present and already working by the time they arrived, and to stay after they leave.  And God help them if the professor came back for some reason and they weren’t there.  There was nearly a riot when one particular graduate student was approaching graduation.  He was not well liked because he simply didn’t pull his weight.  When talks about him graduating came up, the comments I heard were along the lines of “if he’s done enough to graduate then I should have graduated years ago.” 

The difference is that then, it was a cultural event, at least on a microcosmic scale.  In return for our hard work, we all got a free education.  Better, actually, because we all had tuition remission, and we were all paid a teaching stipend for the labs.   This was standard nationally, not just where I went (those universities that didn’t offer tuition remission offered larger stipends instead).  It wasn’t enough to get wealthy, but it was enough to live on if you’re frugal and you had a Masters or Doctorate when it was over. 

It might have been the field (chemistry) that I was in, and maybe not all disciplines needed lab teachers as much as in my field, but my understanding is that things have changed.  There are still abusive advisers with unrealistic expectations, but I’m told that they no longer offer tuition remission.  The professors are simply doing what they learned themselves.  They had advisers who treated them like indentured servants, so they never learned to see their students as anybody deserving of respect.  Perhaps there should be training for advisers in higher education.  But to be treated with unrealistic expectations, and to pay to be treated in that way, is perhaps too much.  Yes, I’m sure that all of their friends are still there in graduate school with them, but when you never get out, where else would you find friends?

Unfortunately, there’s always a price to be paid.  As graduate students unionized, tuition remission disappeared.  Perhaps it’s related, or perhaps it’s the new view that education is an opportunity to make money, but it is now the reality.  If a professor’s research really requires students to work sixteen hour days, then simple mathematics tells us that they will need twice as many students if they are restricted to eight hours maximum.  It costs money to host students (even if they are doing work like teaching), so perhaps that’s why the tuition remission disappeared. 

When I was in graduate school, there came a point when I could tell, on first meeting new students, who would succeed and who would fail.  The secret was an easy one; the students who wanted the degree would fail.  Eventually, on their way to pursue a piece of paper, they would get tired of the hoops and trials and simply drop out.  Often they became what is colloquially called “ABD”, short for “All But Diploma”, but this is not a degree and is frankly meaningless.  It’s short for dropout, because if they don’t have their diploma, they left something out.  A good friend of mine was ABD because he simply forgot to provide a copy of his thesis to the library, a technical oversight that he corrected some thirty years later.  But whenever I saw “ABD”, I wonder if that meant that they left out the defense of their thesis?  Or did they not even write their dissertation?  If they didn’t write their dissertation, did they complete their research?  Why should anybody expect the same kind of treatment as somebody who completed to get their degree?

There has to be a happy medium.  I don’t know why nobody is studying this problem.  Are the new graduate students there just because they want the title, and anticipate working no harder than their party days in undergraduate college?  Shouldn’t graduate students be held to more rigorous ethical and work standards?

Like I said, no answers here.  I’m pondering questions but cannot see that happy medium.  Students, even in my day, should not be treated as indentured servants and we knew it even then, but they should be expected to have higher expectations, and work far harder than typical undergraduates.  Graduate school should be a gathering of like-minded serious students who are there for the love of learning, with professors who build on this love rather than imposing their own demanding standards because they hope for some form of glory. 


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