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MIT graduate students vote to unionize (thetech.com)
638 points by Metacelsus on April 9, 2022 | hide | past | favorite | 378 comments



I'm very curious to see what the long term effects of unionizing will be in Academia. I'm hopeful and optimistic it will improve things in the long run. Yes there will be some unintended consequences but academic life is already very rough if you're not tenured.

Academia likes to cast itself as a true meritocracy. If you work hard and publish good papers you'll do well. In practice it's more of a gerontocracy where senior members can single handedly destroy a young investigators career. (It happened to me and I saw it happen to several people). There is little to no recourse against this.

Arguments against unionization from already tenured faculty usually sound like: "If you want to be the best in your field you have to work harder than everyone else. Forming a union won't change that fact and may even discourage students from working so hard. This might interfere with their career goals."

However, the power structures in academia are heavily skewed and toxic. Individually graduate students have little recourse when they are wronged. Life in academia is hard. You have to work long days, the chance of success is very low. At every stage the probability of getting that next job is very low.

A lot of the field agrees that something needs to change, but no one can agree exactly what needs to change or how to get there. The people with the power are the tenured professors who "won the lottery" and are out of touch with the problems they are causing. They aren't going to be the mechanism of change even though they hold all the power.


We were discussing a potential hire at work a few days ago who suddenly turned down the company's offer for another company despite our team being his "dream place to work" and promising to not make a sudden decision without talking with us first.

Turns out he was basically forced to go to this other company by his advisor, who had a lot of funding from this other company, or his advisor would "make graduating very difficult".


The dynamics of academia really surprise me sometimes. When I think of "work", I think of two things: "work" (the actual day to day things you do) and "workplace" (the place your work at).

In a traditional workplace, were always taught to value "workplace" over "work" and to never stay at a "workplace" for the "work". That is, if you have a crappy boss and toxic culture, working on a shiny greenfield project isn't going to help and most will advise you to leave and pursue a "workplace" that is more aligned with you.

With academia the dynamics are completely different because now "work" and "workplace" occupy the same space, as in they are equally important, with "work" might be even more important than the "workplace". So you get into a situation where you hate the "workplace", but unlike the traditional workplace, you can't simply up and leave because your "work" is far too important, and continuing your "work" at another "workplace" is from everything I read about academia, difficult to say the least.

Not sure how unions will look in academia but it's clear that we need some sort of arbiter in that space to re-balance the "work" and "workplace" since the dynamics are so different.


Yeah this is related to the reason I'm not sure how much a traditional union can really help here - "school" and "work" become blurred beyond distinction for many grad students. Anyone with funding from an RAship is both getting paid and making degree progress because of their work in the lab. Some items will be very clearly a lab duty and some will be very clearly for personal development, but a lot of time is also spent on tasks that fit into both "work I'm doing in exchange for my funding" and "research training that is counting towards my degree requirements".

I'm not sure how much impact a union can have on anything that isn't purely on the "work for funding" side. I'm all for TAs to unionize with a national org because it doesn't run into this issue and there is also less overall job heterogeneity there. But how do you negotiate highly personalized degree requirements as part of a labor union? There could be some high level policy changes that would help future students, but I don't think we know exactly what would work best. And will these national orgs even choose to prioritize that kind of improvement?

The UAW unions that have formed at a few other places over the last 5 years have helped raise salary/benefits a bit, but there has barely been discussion of fundamental changes that could help fix academic training. It's pretty focused on basic labor rights.

Maybe it is just my department but most people I know wanted to do a PhD knowing the terrible salary, and what they really feel ripped off on is the lack of academic freedom that was promised as part of this training. People want a union because they feel ripped off, I get it, but the union leaders are working towards a pretty different type of resolution from everything I can tell. Maybe this is just the first step in the process, but I'm skeptical.


> what they really feel ripped off on is the lack of academic freedom that was promised as part of this training

Where would this idea be originating? I think that would be one of the first things I would tackle, because anyone making a claim of academic freedom for grad students to just research whatever they want is spinning a tale. Students with this perception are being lied to, so we should first address the following disillusionment by dispelling the notion of academic freedom during Ph.D. research exists.


This is probably very context-dependent. I have supervised PhD students at a top British university and 2 European research institutes, and usually the students had some freedom within the bounds of the project they chose initially. That’s how it should be: you want students to develop some initiative and they are not here just to follow instructions.

Now, sure it is not absolute freedom because it is supervised and the funding was obtained for a specific project. Funding agencies or industrial sponsors don’t like it when the student does something completely different. But then students apply for specific projects. I have never seen any PhD offer that did not have a set perimeter (within which they do have some freedom), so I am not sure they are being lied to about that. Again, that might be context-dependent.


Exactly, it's not about being literally unconstrained, but a lot of biology PhD programs turn into "follow my advisor's weekly (sometimes even daily) instructions to the letter". This can be very demoralizing and it is concerning for the development of future PIs as well.

In addition to micro-management of the thesis project, there's also consideration of outside academic activities. Many students end up spending 50+ hours per week on the work their advisor designed. This leaves little time for the student to explore learning new skills that might be relevant to them - for example programming tutorials, a reading group in a different subfield, mentoring an undergrad project, communicating with the general public, etc.

Obviously there is not time for every PhD to involve all of those things, but currently it is much too restricted. For some people to the point that their advisor forbids them from taking a night class or whatever despite the fact it is outside the (already overtime) working hours of the lab. Research may indeed be the priority, but entirely ignoring other parts of the academic role has not gotten us anywhere good.

What it boils down to is that part of the compensation of the PhD is supposed to be training. Yet as it stands many students are treated as only employees, with no regard to teaching them to become a better researcher and no time allowed for their own personal/career development activities.

Students are being lied to for sure (at least in certain fields/locations). But the solution is not to just be blatantly honest about what PhD currently entails. Part of the shift also needs to be a return to considering the PhD as an important piece of the training for becoming an academic.


Maybe it was somewhat unique, but when I received my offer to become a PhD student at EMBL in 1986, I wrote my own PhD proposal that was completely unrelated to any work that my supervisor was doing, and only very loosely connected to the work that anyone else was doing at EMBL at that time.

However, the funding of EMBL works fairly differently from most universities, and quite a few other research institutes.


IMHO this is the way to go. Students like these tend to have freedom to choose whatever advisor they want. For example, in Cambridge self-funded students typically do rotations to see how labs look like.

This minimizes the possibility of ending up with a bully or someone incompetent. And if you do, it's much easier to run away to a different group.


The funding makes a huge difference. A student that the advisor doesn't have to fund that has initiative and workable ideas will only require occasional face time. To top it off, the ones I've seen that were like this were usually more senior, coming from some experience usually in the industry, and as a result more savvy; therefore they knew what leverage they had and were able to walk away from bad situations. But an RA that gets paid out of grant money will have a lot less leverage.


I am a current PhD student in a CS-related field. My advisors had strict requirements for my first project, but now on my second project I have complete freedom. This was my personal choice, my advisors were/are willing to give me projects, but I wanted to learn how to take a research project from idea to finish. Obviously, CS (and my school) is extremely well funded, so this may be unique.


I think CS has pretty different dynamics than most fields for a few reasons. CS is really well positioned when it comes to both funding received and average funding required to do a project. Similarly, the time required for set up of CS work can often be minimized in a way that is not possible for many natural sciences. And culturally people seem less attached to old school academic status - CS has many viable and relevant career paths for someone that wants to exit academia, some of which even allow for fairly easy reentry to a university position.


> With academia the dynamics are completely different because now "work" and "workplace" occupy the same space, as in they are equally important, with "work" might be even more important than the "workplace". So you get into a situation where you hate the "workplace", but unlike the traditional workplace, you can't simply up and leave because your "work" is far too important, and continuing your "work" at another "workplace" is from everything I read about academia, difficult to say the least.

I think this is a key piece to what makes grad school feel so exploitive. It's almost impossible to switch advisors, let alone universities. This results in a power imbalance that basically doesn't exist anywhere else in the modern, liberal world. If you do switch, it's almost certain to come with a hefty setback in terms of time.

A lot of this could be solved by standardizing the PhD. Passing prelims at school A should mean you don't have to retake prelims if you switch to school B. The fact that you do means you're the victim of a pissing match between universities.

The requirement to make novel contribution to the field is crying out for standardization. How novel? How big? Nobody can tell you. I remember asking my advisor what exactly this meant. Her best answer was just "Ehhh, basically it depends on your committee."

This is absurd. It would be trivial to standardize this. Do away with the committee and the thesis. Put down a number. You publish N journal papers, you get a PhD. But we won't do this because it's this ambiguity they use to exploit grad students further. Everybody ends up doing more work than necessary just to be sure they pass their defense. Fuck academia.


This is definitely abusive, but it's not clear how a union would go about solving this? The CBA could prohibit it (but it's already against policy) or the union could file a grievance (students could already do this), but nothing really prevents this from happening with a union.

I don't even think the union has jurisdiction over "academic" matters like graduation. The Harvard CBA explicitly points out that academic matters cannot be arbitrated like other grievances: https://studentunionization.harvard.edu/files/hgsu/files/202...


Students cannot already file grievances. Grievance procedures are part of a contract, and many, if not all, non-unionized grad workers work without a contract, and if they do have a grievance procedure, they are often only through university-run venues where they do not receive independent representation.


Yeah, unions can usefully do things where they’re negotiating with the university over e.g. pay or benefits but a supervisor? How?

Outside of “My daddy arranged a new chair so I could get in here.” students have ~0 leverage. Academia is feudal, at least in fields based on Ph.D.s. Your supervisor can make it impossible for you to graduate at any time with minimal impact for them. If you graduate and they don’t want you to get an academic job you won’t. That’s what letters of recommendation are for, just with the usual justification flipped.

This isn’t a necessary part of academia. Law and medicine don’t work that way because their terminal degrees are Master’s degrees with elephantiasis. But absent getting rid of PhDs or changing them so radically you might as well change the name the power imbalance isn’t going anywhere.


> I don't even think the union has jurisdiction over "academic" matters like graduation.

The union has jurisdiction, or perhaps we should say influence, over those matters it is strong enough to act collectively to force acceptance of its influence or jurisdiction. Naturally if tries to get full jurisdiction over handing out Ph.Ds, that will be a misguided attempt which will be met with extreme resistance and fail. But if it insists on its right to intervene when advisers inappropriately block their advisees from graduating - that is a realistic (though not easy) objective.

> This is definitely abusive, but it's not clear how a union would go about solving this?

It's very clear. Let's assume the student has not yet accepted a work offer here or there. A group of union reps from the department go talk to that Professor. They tell him/her that this is an informal chat; that they have heard about his threat. They demand that he perform the following:

1. Informally affirm, to them, that s/he will not penalize or impede the advisee in any way, regardless of their choice of employment.

2. Ditto but to the advisee, within X time.

and that if these demands are not met, they will make the affair public: The department will be plastered with posters attacking him for extortion and mistreatment; press releases will be sent out; and ethical charges will be filed directly (if grads can do so), or external legal action may be initiated.

... that is, assuming the Professor does not deny the claim, which of course can also happen, and then things get more delicate and beyond the scope of this comment, but still actionable.


That's a material exclusion.

Regardless, for the parent's example, it sounds like a mis-alignment in expectations between the PhD candidate and their advisor.

I wonder "Why is this coming up now?"

For options, I don't know why the PhD candidate can't accept the lesser option, graduate, and then switch jobs. Or...maybe the candidate made a crafty tale to accept another job without getting called out for a disingenuous "love letter."


This sounds very much like extortion, and I'm curious how any school with a purported honor code or sense of academic standards could allow it.

Even if the student didn't have proof of threats, the situation itself should be enough to get the student a new advisor or oversight with the existing one.

I mean "should" in an ideal sense. I think this kind of shit is common.


If the professor in question brings the university a lot of grant money, especially if they're tenured, a lot gets ignored.

As for the honor code I cynically suspect it's more about having an item go use against someone when the university chooses, rather than a true standard that all are held to at all times. If nothing else, it's just tough for a large institution to handle all of its problems at once.


Back when I worked as a tutor, we knew a lot about the professors since most of us were also TAs at some point or worked as TAs concurrently. Some were consistent in busting people for cheating, others tried to avoid it at all costs (because they based their self-worth on their Rate My Professor page), but a few were just capricious and arbitrary. On their good side? "Eh, everyone uses Stack Overflow [or forgets to do anything to hide their plagiarism, not even bothering to edit the author name Javadoc comment on the code they copied] every now and then." On their bad side? "Copying others' work is unacceptable, you can either take an F in the course or plead your case to Academic Integrity."

Of course, the ones who showed favoritism were also the ones who practically printed grant money, so nothing ever happened while I was there (and I doubt anything ever will).


With code, as long as it works, so what. Plus learning a language requires copying to learn how to do it correctly. Would you want to be required to be completely original learning French? It makes no sense to burn people for doing what it took industry decades to figure out.


> With code, as long as it works, so what.

Working as a lab instructor a lifetime ago, I graded two students' C assignments that both worked (mostly) but clearly without understanding what was going on.

It took me a while to figure out how they worked; as it turned out, they declared the same variables at the top of each function in the same order.

They didn't have globals, they weren't passing values around: the stack was being allocated across the same memory for each function, so the variables "just worked."


I had the same experience when I was a TA a long time ago. Reviewing the code to a homework set I noticed that two students mixed up the naming of two variables (I think min/max were switched).

I ran a whitespace sensitive diff and noticed the only difference between the two files was the author name in the header.

The professor sent a sternly worded letter to the class about not cheating, and nothing else came from it AFAIK.


In my experience, the people who get caught cheating (not necessarily the ones who get punished for it, of course) are usually the ones who don't understand the code to begin with or how they might go about creating their own solution. These people also oftentimes came to us and just openly admitted they copied code they found online and wanted us to check over it before they submitted it.

I never said anything about the accuracy of their code, but I was willing to explain how it worked so they could decide if they thought it was accurate. Most did not take me up on that offer, instead opting instead to bug people in their class until they found someone a) smart enough to help on assignments and b) dumb enough to help them. They didn't care about learning how their code worked or why, they just wanted an easy A.

The few who did take me up on my offer tended to be people who didn't understand the assignment to begin with and, after explaining the problem and how their solution worked, went out and did their own work. I always enjoyed those ones, they tended to want to do things legit but either were too nervous to go the professors/TAs or couldn't make office hours and couldn't get timely answers over email.

The people who just didn't care I was more than happy to talk about at at our weekly meetings. If their TAs weren't also tutors, our supervisor would keep them updated on who came in asking for a thumbs up on copied code.


Because the goal of the assignment isn't to write code, it's to learn what code to write. If you're copy and pasting from someone else you're potentially skipping out on a lot of learning. Granted, good luck passing the exam with copy and paste, but I've seen someone do basically that for 5 years, don't know if they ever graduated but they were grinding it out.


I didn't go to grad school, but because changing advisors is generally a reset, there's no good outcome for the student in this situation.

Status quo: take job forced by advisor; student doesn't get dream job

Drop out and take dream job: student doesn't get degree they were pursuing

Advisor is fired over this: student must find an advisor that will resume advising on current thesis or more likely find a new advisor and start on a new thesis... But if it becomes known that this student was related to the firing, student may have a hard time finding a new advisor.

Advisor is disciplined over this: advisor may retaliate by no longer cooperating with student's progress, and then you're back to finding a new advisor.

Institution backs advisor and disciplines student for 'causing trouble': maybe find a new institution.

So... If there's no good outcomes for the student, it's tricky.


As a current graduate student, the sunk cost can sometimes be too high just to up and move advisors. In small places, you will simply not have someone else whose interest align with yours, and even at a place like MIT, the advisors have their own specialty, and especially after your second year at Ph.D. moving or changing advisor can be quite difficult and basically "reset" all your progress. So, a lot of time, the choice becomes moving and voiding all your work you've done so far, or gritting your teeth and carrying on for "just a couple more years until I graduate."

Source: was an undergraduate and Masters student at MIT, then left to do a Ph.D somewhere else with a much better/less toxic advisor.


>> the sunk cost can sometimes be too high just to up and move advisors.

This isn't really the definition of sunk cost, which is the appearance of having tangible impact on decisions while being independent of the future choice. If it has bearing (as in this case) it's material to the decision and not sunk.


It's "advising" in the same sense that you pay a gangster for "protection".

Nice career trajectory you got here, but in a field like this one... shame if something bad happened to it...


That sounds like a reasonable parallel.

In the field of Machining most of our new folks come from one particular Community College that offers a Machine Shop with a few CNC machines.

The sole instructor was a friend and would give me heads up on excellent machinists.

Stanly retires and new instructor brought in.

Fast forward a year and a competing companies CEO now sits on board of college.

He gets all the heads ups from the new instructor and we are left with the slackers to hire..


Is there no grading system to refer to?


You can ask applicants for grades, but if you get heads up on good candidates, you ask them to work for you before they go looking. So if someone else is getting heads up, you're only getting candidates that didn't pass their filters.


An advisor is your gateway into your field of interest. To graduate, a student must publish a notable work in the field. If you lose your advisor, then you will likely need to start over with someone else - delaying your graduation by 2-6 years depending on the field.

Even if the university offered a new advisor, it would be unlikely to help the student.


Would a death or a retirement have the same effect?


Professors are "supposed" to help avoid the retirement effect by not accepting new grad students, in some cases where this is not viable they can continue with an emeritus title and provide the entry point that their students need. Similarly, a professor leaving for another institution will likely make right by their students.

In the case that none of the above is possible the institution will probably try to do right by the student, but it's a bit of a crap shoot. Even if the institution confers the PhD, the student is still beholden to the publish or perish culture of academia - and their (former) advisor would have helped navigate them to a thesis which their former advisors peers would accept. If the latter doesn't occur in a big way; then the student won't have a good career ahead.

I've known 1-2 people who for various reasons decided that the grad student life was the optimal career station for themselves as it provided the benefits of an academic career without the overhead of grant applications etc.


Not really, no.

Generally, for retirement, faculty try to "draw down" their labs, and there's very often a "I'm going to see X student through to their defense, and then I'm done" as the end of an academic career.

For unexpected deaths, generally there's a scramble to help cushion the students, get them in with new advisors, etc. But often, their former advisor's grants, data sets, etc. are still available. Unless one is really early in the process, the goal is to help the student finish their current work in a timely fashion.


“Every banana republic has a Bill of Rights.” -Anton Scalia


The last thing you want to do late in the PhD process is get a new advisor. In many cases that is akin to starting over.


That is f*cked up and I hope people that dropped grad careers chime in in the future about situations like this, especially when more unions pop up.


There are so many horror stories about academia waiting to come out.

The way vulnerable people are exploited and mistreated in what is, in fact, a work environment; moral hazards and conflicts of interest everywhere; lots of untrustworthy research results and inability to reproduce research.

Universities are big business and ought to be regulated just as much as any other big business


Can you expand on what regulations you feel are lacking and how you'd like to see them implemented?


> Can you expand on what regulations you feel are lacking [..]

It's fundamentally wrong for one human (the PhD supervisor) to have so much unchecked power over another (the PhD student).

Without changing how the entire system works, I'm not sure how you fix that by means of regulation.


It's not really unchecked though. There's the department vice chair, department chair, the college dean, the dean of student affairs, a student senate, a faculty senate, etc. etc... there's a structure here for resolving grievances.


> there's a structure here for resolving grievances

That may look good on paper. Yet a 20-something student vs an academic surrounded by supporters and wielding power and influence, it's only ever going to go one way.

I've personally been on the wrong end of it. After reviewing my options, noting that my supervisor had just been elected Fellow of the Royal Society in London, I decided to bite my tongue, complete my PhD, and leave.

The relationship was so broken I didn't even say goodbye to my supervisor (literally cleared out all my stuff from the lab very late one night), and I've never spoken to him, or had any contact with anyone in his research group ever since.


"it's only ever going to go one way."

I have seen it go the other way as well.


Yeah, that's all just a dog and pony show. If you escalate an issue with your advisor through any of those channels, your career is toast. You might as well just quit.


Agree, and let's also remember that these are wholly voluntary situations. Unchecked power is a pretty big charge in a situation where the student can (Yes, at a cost) always walk away.


> Agree, and let's also remember that these are wholly voluntary situations

Someone is in a position of power over someone else, and is exploiting that, and a response is to claim that this is a "wholly voluntary situation"?

Really?!


I take it you think we should do away with workplace discrimination laws, the minimum wage and OSHA too. I for one, wish there were more thumbs in my canned chili. It's been a little bland lately.


> It's fundamentally wrong for one human (the PhD supervisor) to have so much unchecked power over another

Why is this fundamentally wrong? Short of a truly equitable society (which I think most agree would be a dystopian nightmare), I don't see this as fixable. The problem is that the power is abused.

The best way to fix this is high trust societies, not creating one more institution with a disproportionate amount of power.


> Why is this fundamentally wrong?

It's the unchecked nature of the power.

Politicians have upcoming elections to worry about. Tenured professors ... what do they worry about?


> Tenured professors ... what do they worry about?

Class assignments and number of classes taught per semester, teaching times and locations, class sizes, advising assignments, committee assignments, TA allocations, grader allocations, internal grants, withholding or revoking consulting permission, withholding internal department funding, lack of promotion (there is still a ladder after tenure), and most of all reputation, which in academia has higher currency than currency.

Tenured professors still have a job to do and they still have a boss (lots of bosses, as I said), and if they don't do their job they can still get fired (I've seen it happen), or their lives can be made miserable.

If there's an issue of academic dishonesty then there there are processes at journals, conferences, and funding agencies to address concerns. I've also witnessed these processes work as intended.


> Tenured professors still have a job to do and they still have a boss (lots of bosses, as I said)

We are apparently talking about very different kinds of professors at very different kinds of institutions.

Unless he were to actually commit a crime, I don't think there is anything my ex-boss could have possibly done which could have ended up with him being removed from his post. He was simply too important to the institution in terms of his reputation and his ability to attract external funding.

How he treated his students was really neither here nor there, as long as the money and the citations kept rolling in.


It sounds like you got a raw deal by a powerful asshole, and are now painting with a broad brush. Not every professor has so much power as your former boss, so saying that the problem is that professors have too much unchecked power, and the fix would be to bring more oversight, is missing the mark. Because what happens when the person at the top of the new oversight pyramid is an asshole? You've got the same problem, and the solution wouldn't be to again make sure he has more oversight.

> He was simply too important to the institution in terms of his reputation and his ability to attract external funding.

This reinforces my idea that you should always go with an advisor who doesn't have this kind of clout. Not that you should have known this ahead of time or you did anything wrong, but I have heard sad stories from large labs enough to be thankful for avoiding them in the past, and it's the advice I will pass on in the future.

I think if you wanted to get at the actual problem and a solution to it, I would say the problem is sad narcissistic jerks aiming to become kings of their research kingdoms, and then they act as tyrants when they get a hold of large sums of grant money. That may be the experience some people have had.

A solution to this that you may like if you want more oversight may be to treat a research lab more like a corporation with a board of directors (I can hear the researchers recoiling) or some other governing body over the lab and the students itself. What do you think of that idea?


> A solution to this that you may like if you want more oversight may be to treat a research lab more like a corporation with a board of directors (I can hear the researchers recoiling) or some other governing body over the lab and the students itself. What do you think of that idea?

Rule by committee. So many examples of that working out great.

How about keeping the apprenticeship aspect just having more masters? One year of just comprehend exams, one year where you’re supposed to devote half your time to research with an advisor and half to comps, and three years where you work on six different projects with different advisors in six month chunks? Some of those will be written up as failures, but basically you end up with 3+ Master’s theses. That’s a great deal more love research academia than legal academia and they don’t seem to lack for scholarly work or impact.


This would require revisiting a lot of things - it basically assumes that all projects can be broken down into one-year, coherent and publishable chunks. I love Masters students, but they are often not the most productive, as they rarely get to wade really deeply into a project, and almost never get to develop a project of their own.


I like your idea a lot, but I don't think it could replace the Ph.D. proper. You really do need all that time on one project to make a dent in the state of the art sometimes. One year I spent an entire summer generating data for a single figure in my dissertation. That's part of the reason why it took me 8 years to graduate.


It wasn’t always like that in the US. Three year doctorates are still a thing in the UK and in Germany. Lower the standards for a doctorate and make a postdoc a formal necessity for a job as a professor, rather than not formally being one but practically so. You can even call it a habilitation, like the Germans do. If you want a doctorate go for it. If you want to teach at university after you get your doctorate you need to basically do another one, but it’s called a habilitation.


Tenured professor here:

- Promotion. Tenure is awesome, yes, but there are two full academic ranks at my institution above associate professor with tenure, and if I want them, I need to continue to do the same things that got me tenure. Graduate students, get grants, publish papers, etc.

There's also further ambitions like chair, dean, etc. that are often literally elections.

- Internal allocation of resources. Will one of my students be my department's choice for a fellowship? If there's a space crunch (there's always a space crunch) can I get the space I want? If there's internal funds to help support pilot projects or the like, am I on the short list for those?

- Reputation. This is important to me. I want it to be known that "my lab" turns out good people. And that we do good work. This is not only actually a criteria for promotion, but also something I want (I didn't go into academia for the money). It's what gets you invited to things I want to be invited to.

This also includes things like whisper networks. Students warn other students.

- Grants. A number of grants look at things like mentorship and students.


If there is nothing to stop the abuse, abuse escalates and gets normalized. This happens any time there is large system with unchecked large power.

That is why it is fundamentally wrong. Because it ensures widespread abuse.


You can't have power exist and expect it to not get abused.

But this problem is totally fixable. We need to reduce the role that the advisor plays. Grad students should be able to switch labs and universities like most people switch jobs. Once they publish some set number of papers, they get a PhD. No thesis, no committee. The advisor basically is demoted to a fungible manager.


> Grad students should be able to switch labs and universities like most people switch jobs.

Maybe this fixes the problem of abusive professors wielding their power in wrong ways, but it creates new problems as well. For instance, it shifts the very nature of a Ph.D. from a deep exploration of a single topic to shallow explorations of many topics. If you tell me I need 4 papers to get a Ph.D., I'm going to get 4 papers from the easiest venues on the most shallow of topics, because why go any deeper?

And are these solo author papers? What if you were 1 author out of 30 on one paper, and 1 author out of 2 on another? Are each of those 1 paper credit?

Do paper credits transfer between universities? Do some schools require more papers than others? Who gets to decide? Do some disciplines require more papers than others? Again who gets to decide? What about journal papers versus conference papers versus workshop papers? Do presentations count? Do poster sessions count?

If you are in my lab and I've spent time and money training you, what's my recourse if you just quit on me to join another lab?


> If you are in my lab and I've spent time and money training you, what's my recourse if you just quit on me to join another lab?

None. Every employer the entire world over deals with this. The fact that this makes you feel entitled to continued labor by "your" students is the entire problem.


Well that is going to fundamentally change the nature of the whole arrangement. A Ph.D. is not a work-for-hire kind of arrangement, it's more like an apprenticeship. If you want it to be work-for-hire then some other changes will need to be made.

When I hire a grad student I do so with the intention that I will keep them on for the duration of their education, which is a commitment of at least 4 years, sometimes up to 10 (do any employers have 10 year plans with you specifically in mind? No, as a 22 year old fresh out of college, you are fungible to them.) The bonds that are created between advisor and student can be one of the longest lasting and most important professional bonds a researcher makes in their whole life. It's so important that academic genealogy is actually tracked and recorded. There's a concept of a "grand advisor" or your advisor's Ph.D. advisor. So for all the negative stories you hear about a narcissistic asshole advisor wielding power and abusing underlings, there are far more stories of amazing intellectual relationships that can take a decade to fully bloom.

Your proposal would serve to virtually eliminate this relationship. The employee/employer relationship looks nothing like this. It's transactional and makes employees seem more like mercenaries than team members, no matter how much corporate culture wants to convince you that you're part of the team and a member of the family. You can actually find that environment during a Ph.D.; I know I did. You can make mistakes (sometimes huge mistakes) and not be fired. You can admit you don't know something or that you lack some skill and that's okay -- it's expected that you are still learning. Professors are happy to spend the time to teach such skills because they know they will be used on their own project, so it's worth while.

Here is what your proposal would do to my hiring practices and the way I run a lab: If you want to be an employee with the freedom to quit at anytime and move from lab to lab, I will conversely be quicker to fire you and to hire other better students from other labs to take your place. If you are going slow on a paper and you miss a deadline, I'm not going to shrug it off and say "Oh well, on to the next". I will probably fire you and hire someone else who won't miss deadlines.

If you make a huge mistake, like frying a $30k piece of equipment (true story), you'll be fired instead of met with understanding that you're just a student. Because that's what happens when you shift more onto the employee spectrum.

It's definitely also going to tighten the market for Ph.D. students significantly. This could be a good thing depending on your perspective, it would give you less competition. But it would also give new students fewer opportunities. I would think long and hard before hiring a grad student as opposed to research staff. If you make Ph.D. students too expensive, you'll just price them out of the market. Part of the deal of being a Ph.D. student is there's a general recognition that they will be working on projects they are not really qualified to work on yet.

As a 22 year old undergrad, you don't know enough about the domain to be useful. I need to invest years into you before you're even going to be publishing papers; if you can just leave me after that training to work on another project, I see no reason to invest that time in you in the first place. Instead, I'll just hire staff researchers who know what they're doing. Yeah they're more expensive monetarily than a grad student, but they also don't take up all of my time and make stupid mistakes that burn out expensive and one-of-a-kind electronics.

All in all, I believe your proposal is really throwing out the Ph.D. babies with the asshole professor bathwater. Honestly I joined academia to escape corporate hell, so as far as I'm concerned I'm going to keep treating my students as students rather than employees.


Decent labor standards would be a start.

Universities are rather analogous to sweatshops in how they operate and the economic reasons for doing so. And I suspect that, in much the same way, this state of affairs represents a sort of Nash equilibrium that cannot be significantly altered except by an outside force changing the rules of the game.


In grad school we definitely had decent labor standards though. I mean, I was worked really hard, but I can't say I was worked any harder than I was in private industry. And the pay wasn't great, but it was more than enough to support myself, and the understanding has always been that you get free tuition as part of the deal, which is pretty great, so that makes up for a lot of the pay deficit. I could see better pay for students with families, but other than that I think grad students have it pretty good these days.

An example of a specific labor standard you'd like to see implemented would be welcome.


As I’m sure you know, Most PhD students stop taking classes by the end of the 2nd year, and focus entirely on research and teaching thereafter, which means that the “free tuition part” is just a sham to avoid classifying PhD students as workers, and to hence avoid paying them for their labour.


As a grad student you are there for an education and your education doesn't only (or even mostly) happen in the classroom. If grad students want to be treated more like employees and less like students, the relationship between student/advisor will shift more toward an employee/employer relationship. This may result in more pay but it will also result in different expectations. For example, if you want to be treated more as an employee, then I would have a lower tolerance for mistakes a student would make. If you want to be an employee I will start hiring for skills rather than potential. As employer/employee relationships have developed maxims like "fire fast", this attitude change may work against grad students.

Also just to be precise, tuition isn't just to pay for classes, it goes to pay for all of the resources you use as part of the university community. If you are done your requirements you will still have to pay tuition. And students don't stop taking classes by the end of year 2 (or 4 depending), they stop taking required classes. Since your advisor pays your tuition, you can negotiate with them if you want to take more than the minimum. You are done your requirements after 2-4 years and don't have to take more classes, but of course you can (I did). Maybe this is something unions can help with.


This.

My indulgence for "I spent three months going down this rabbit hole because it might have proved interesting" is way hired for graduate students than it would be for research staff, because that's part of them being students.


Not to mention that PhD students would mostly be self-learning anyway.


>Universities are rather analogous to sweatshops in how they operate

Could you explain further?


One very specific example I'd like to see is protection for foreign students on visas in the event that they report academic misconduct - there's lots of ways they can lose their funding after that, even if there's not retaliation, and that's bad for the system.


People who have no experience with academia would think your story is false and outlandish.

People who have experience with academia would think your story is commonplace and borderline uninteresting.

This has been my experience with telling and hearing stories like this.


Something similar happened to me. My advisor gave me a bad reference at a place I wanted to work because he wanted me to go somewhere else.


That really sucks but I'm not sure what the connection between this professor's probably illegal action and unionization.


Unions are generally vehicles of resistance to illegal and/or oppressive actions. HTH.


It doesn’t help, actually, because they were implicitly asking how a union will help specifically with that example. In corporations unions have the leverage of stopping work. What’s the leverage here? We’ll all stop pursuing our education…?

I guess the calculation is that the tuition hit would be leverage? Like what, is a union going to force a code of conduct for professors? How is it going to be enforced when it already exists and half of these comments are about it being ignored?

I don’t get the union solution here. The incentives are wrong. Particularly on the Ph.D. track, how would a union specifically help address illegal behavior to the extent that you just “HTH” it as the obvious answer?


There's a few things a union can do in this situation. What they can't do is prevent blowback from the professor -- not even the university has leverage there.

The resources a union have typically amount to (a) a grievance process, (b) work stoppage, and (c) a pittance of a legal fund. Work stoppages don't occur because one professor mistreats one student -- there's no rule against that, but unions are democratic and that motion would simply never pass unless the harm was particularly egregious and the victim was especially charismatic. Politics be. A grievance could "succeed" but ultimately they're pretty toothless -- the university has little leverage over a prof, the union has less. So we're left with a pitiful legal fund -- know how everybody hates dues? Unions are weak as a result. The student could potentially sue their prof through the ordinary legal system. They could be awarded monetary damages, but they would not be awarded a degree.

The professor is the judge, jury, and executioner for the doctoral thesis. Other professors in the department will be working alongside the offending professor for the rest of their lives so whatever politics be in the union, they're way more intense in a department of professors. And even if you do find a sympathetic ear with another professor in the same department, they're probably not in your specialty, because when there are two profs with the same specialty in a single department, one hired the other and they're bosom buds. And this is the real reason that individual grad students don't speak out, file grievances, etc. against professors, and known rapists carry on for decades: to act is to throw away your degree, and with it, your entire career.


These sorts of abuse work on the implicit threat of retaliation if you don't agree to the abuse. A union provides a roughly equivalent counter-threat, which acts as an incentive to not be so abusive.

Would we love to not operate on threats and counter-threats? Sure, but that would require the mutual consent of both parties, and the ones in power have rejected that outright.


Stopping work. Same as other unions.


And again, since you’re making me belabor the question instead of answering the obvious one, what does that look like? Isn’t that more harmful to the student than the institution? Again: what is the leverage?

I’m from a three generation UAW family, married into IBEW, and I was on the line at eight years old. I’m not exactly hearing about unions for the first time here. I’m also struggling to understand how they’re the obvious answer to education problems shared in this thread, in your estimation. Think you can share 10 or, even, 20 words to help clarify?


Most large schools make most of their money charging undergrads tuition. A significant portion of undergrad instruction is done by grad students. If grad students stop teaching undergrads (or, as some have, keep teaching but stop issuing grades) the theory is undergrads and parents will threaten admin. This has worked in some cases.


That’s relevant to grad student/university relations. It has no bearing on “This one specific professor is a total power hungry asshole and the university loves them because they’re very research productive. You, on the other hand, are one more fungible grade student.”


That's the theory, anyway. If you want to take a crack at steel-manning this particular case, I've replied upthread with a fuller breakdown of the politics of why the union almost certainly won't do a lick of good


What might be different about grad students is the weird market dynamics. They're well-educated, overworked, and underpaid. They should be able to get a decent job outside of academia from hiring managers sympathetic to not being in academia. Except for foreign students and people who really want to be in academia, there's a lot of pressure that should have made work conditions much better.

If someone ready to pay you twice as much with normal hours and less drama doesn't improve conditions, I'm not sure if a union can.


Aren't graduate students there in order to get credentials that help them land all those better jobs outside of academia? I think you're imputing hiring pressure that they're pursuing, not experiencing.


Not necessarily; I myself and a lot of my friends in academia are here because we really do care about the research we are doing, and believe what we are doing here is really going to impact society in 10-20 years in the future. I'm sure there are some people here who are only doing a Ph.D. to get a better job afterwards. But at least for myself I know I rejected a job that has a 5x base salary (even without counting the RSU) because I really believed in what I wanted to do. If you take the opportunity cost in account, it really doesn't make sense in 100% of the cases to get a Ph.D. first to just go into the "better jobs" in industry afterwards.


That's absolutely fair. I really should have narrowed my (rhetorical) question to the group of students who will eventually "leave for better jobs" outside academia.


Ignoring professional degrees like MBAs, MDs, and JDs, you either go to grad school to do research and/or teach in academia or to learn very specialized skills and go into industry. For the most part, there are usually less specialized roles in industry for people with bachelor's degrees.


Sadly, given my experience as a steward, I don't think a union could actually help in this particular situation.


I'm sorry to hear about your experience. Many people don't have a better choice than keep trying with unions.


Surely a resignation upon graduation is the way to go here - though burning bridges early in one’s career is not ideal.


Why not have them sign with the other company, graduate, quit immediately, and join yours?


Would you have been willing to hire this person without them graduating?


They've paid many tens+ of thousands of dollars for graduate school... they likely place some value on graduating!


Half the reason I'm ambivalent about unionization is that I was involved with the graduate student union when I was in school. The nominal reason for it was to improve working conditions and pay for grad students. In practice, it improved very little, and added a modest amount of overhead, in the form of a union apparatus which fed itself by taking a little bite out of those paychecks every month. To be clear, the net result was still higher pay overall, but not a lot. All in all, it really had only a small overall effect on us students, and didn't hurt the university much. It felt like the real winner was the UAW itself, which is the source of my mixed feelings.


You had an unusually positive experience with UAW. They own the UC system contract, and negotiated pay caps, lowering grad student pay on some campuses.

They also negotiated to discontine coverage for various women's health issues.

Just before COVID, UC Santa Cruz went on a wildcat strike because the union negotiated pay for that campus below the cost of living. A bunch of foreign students lost their visas as a result.

In the second two cases, the grad students tried, but failed to organize against the union.

Most obvious routes to correcting the situation are illegal. In particular, organizing a strike against the union, or organizing a replacement union would have been illegal.


Your comment doesn't make sense to me.

> the union negotiated pay for that campus below the cost of living

...and the graduate student workers voted to approve the contract? Every negotiated contract goes back to the members for approval.

What would this have looked like in the absence of a union? You are saying that with negotiation, UC Santa Cruz got pay below cost of living, but if they didn't have that negotiation, management would have freely paid them more than cost of living? What was the negotiation over?

> In particular, organizing a strike against the union, or organizing a replacement union would have been illegal.

What do you mean? Just get 30% of your members to sign a petition and you can hold an election to change unions. That is literally what organizing is.

If you can get 30% of your members to go on a "wildcat strike" against UC Santa Cruz & UAW, then you can get 30% to sign a union replacement card.


> What do you mean? Just get 30% of your members to sign a petition and you can hold an election to change unions. That is literally what organizing is.

> If you can get 30% of your members to go on a "wildcat strike" against UC Santa Cruz & UAW, then you can get 30% to sign a union replacement card.

Are you speaking based on California public sector union law or the federal National Labor Relations Act? The federal NLRA doesn't apply to state public sector workplaces, including UC Santa Cruz, with that being handled by state law.


My only experience with unionization is at private universities in Massachusetts, so I guess I am unfamiliar with how state law plays in for these public sector unions in California.


UAW set it up so that the entire UC system votes on these contracts. This leads to situations where you have large student protests at union meetings followed by students at other campuses voting to ratify the contract, and then entire campuses holding unauthorized strikes in protest of the contract they just "voted for".

If things were department wide, or even campus wide, the UAW wouldn't last a year in the departments I'm familiar with.

Instead, what you're proposing would require a statewide campaign against one of the most powerful political groups in California. The UAW is well aware of this, and has no incentive to act in its members' interest.


>> You had an unusually positive experience with UAW. They own the UC system contract, and negotiated pay caps, lowering grad student pay on some campuses.

This is pretty normal with all unions. They negotiate higher pay and benefits for journeymen-level members at the expense of apprentice-level incoming members. Management then does their best to purge the journeymen while bringing on tons of apprentices.

Management and union leaders work in concert to ensure the above scenario happens a predominant amount of the time. See also: MLB, UPS, other entrenched and long-running union shops.

It's great if you're a tenured member. Not so much if you're new.

Hey, wait a minute... that sounds a lot like academia now with more steps...


It is amazing that unions get a legal monopoly in this manner, and it is not surprising that, with such rights, they fail their constituents, preferring to amass money and power for a corrupt leadership.

Imagine a world with two or three unions per employer and you could actually pick which one you were under. They’d actually have incentives to deliver!

But we’ll never have that because it means less lobbying money and smaller campaign contributions to our representatives in government.


This is a bad idea for a number of different reasons. I'll highlight one.

The actual "competition" wouldn't be among which union the employees joined - rather they would compete to undercut each other on contract negotiation, which would only bolster the employer's hand.

There are good reasons why this is not common practice - but there is also no law preventing multiple unions.


Unions are competing both for contracts with employers, but also for employees among other unions. If Union A is demanding but gives good pay, Union B is more laid back but has less reward, and Union C is both demanding and gives poor bay then it will fail as A or B grows.

If there are no competing unions and you're in union C, then you've got no options but to quit or try and topple the union (impossible, effectively).


Aren't a bunch of little unions equivalent to independent employees advocating their own interests?


Maybe not, because (a) each union can still aggregate the interests of hundreds or thousands of workers and (b) it's much easier for a few unions to collaborate with each other than for hundreds or thousands of individual workers to do so.

This depends, of course, on how exactly the new unions are allowed to form. It seems unlikely that the NLRB would implement policy in a way that allows dozens of unions, each with a handful of workers; but I guess if that happened, it would end up just like what you're saying.


In recent years, some decisions from the NLRB are leaning in the direction of multiple unions: https://laborblog.vorys.com/2014/07/articles/nlrb/how-many-u...

The idea is that different kinds of workers could be in different unions. A department store might have, for example, cosmetics specialists, tailors, accounting staff and so on; and these groups are distinct enough, from the NLRB's perspective, to have their own unions.


> To be clear, the net result was still higher pay overall, but not a lot.

Then I don't understand your ambivalence. Who would complain about getting more money?


Because it probably cost a lot more to the institution than it brought to the intended target. A middleman takes the bulk of the additional investment, without providing that much value in itself.

And that money came from somewhere, probably partly from profits, but also from other investments (buildings, teaching material, ...). Overall teacher got a little bit more, but both the org and the students lost a lot, comparatively.


At many universities, there's a massive stash of funds: the Athletics Department, which is a completely different organization and therefore off the table.

Also, university administration lover building pyramids of hierarchy. When you add a level to the pyramid, everybody gets a raise. Executive salaries are ludicrous -- and similar to the bank execs in the '08 bailouts, they cut themselves bonuses for "saving money" on handling disasters of their own creation.

By and large, university endowments are treated as separate investment vehicles and are no longer used to ease times of hardship.

Universities have largely been sold out. What was once a venerable public institution is now run like a profit-driven business. Welcome to wal-mart.


It's like class-action lawsuits: sure, maybe you get $2.43, but the lawyers are really the beneficiaries. The individual is just used to justify the whole thing.


No, the lawyer's job in a class action is to hold the someone accountable to prevent recurrences. They did a job, so they ought to be paid.

If some company habitually breaks the law and causes damages to a large group of people you can either pray that the Attorney General takes the case (but they won't, they want to advance their political career) or a law firm will take the case out of pure financial interest. I'll go with the law firm.


Students voted for this union because of major issues with the entire academic training process, not to get a small salary bump. The presence of the union at other schools has not led to any real attempts to fix the systemic issues, yet it adds another layer of bureaucracy to deal with for any students that want to face these issues.


> The nominal reason for it was to improve working conditions and pay for grad students. In practice, it improved very little

It might be interesting to consider how much worse the pay or conditions could have gotten in the union's absence.


As a UAW steward I represented (with lawyers provided by the UAW) students in arbitration who were being treated unfairly by the UC (breaking their own rules). It was a positive experience.


As a former UC grad student, thank you for your labor.


As long as human beings run a union, the union will be self serving.


As long as a tyrant is unchallenged, they will remain a tyrant.


What does this reply even mean? Are you seriously comparing the privileged plights within the ranks of academia to victims of a tyrannical ruler?



Who is running the university? Robots?


Fwiw, UAW has recently had a major shake up, where the corrupt leadership of the overall union just got prosecuted, and actual one person one vote is being voted on, so I expect you (and I) caught them at the worst possible time. I'm definitely more weary of large cross sectoral unions than before my time at UC though.


Teacher assistants or graduate assistants have been unionized at UIC [1]. I have noticed that they have gone on strike a few times. Unfortunately anything you are hopeful of achieving doesn't seem to have changed at all.

The best choice of my life was not going back to school. I think I might do it through my employer but at this point I just do machine learning as a hobby.

The problem with grad school in general is the fact that other than being a gerontocracy is that the optimal strategy for scientific research requires more failures than successes and getting tenure becomes more and more difficult because other than people living longer you don't need more professors instead you just need more TAs / GAs to teach people and educate people to get the people to keep the system working.

Right now Mathematics (specifically Calculus) makes money for a college and or university in contrast to psychology, philosophy and other humanities don't. If this was automated then Mathematics will have less and less professors and or grad students so if the current trends continue then we will probably only see computer science professors dominating universities.

[1] https://uic-geo.net/mainsite/


The UIC grad student union is pretty effective at keeping their teaching hours to under 20 hours per week (so, you complain to them when there's too much grading). But the stipends there are among the lowest of good math departments, certainly lower than many non-unionized places. How much of this is due to the union being ineffective vs UIC being broke and poorly run I don't know. [Source: I used to teach math at UIC]

Overall I am not really convinced grad student unions really make much of a difference in practice, at least as far as everyday stipends and working conditions. I am at a non-unionized place now and we don't work the students any harder. But in principle it's certainly a good idea, and I have indeed seen the union be a useful advocate in certain special situations.


UIC has been underfunded for so long that it is a joke. I don't even think that they even budget that kind of thing anymore and just accept the fact. But, the computer science college is going to have a building dedicated to computer science due to the fact that a bunch of alumni are funding it directly. I personally gave around $100 but I would guess many other alumni will give much more.


What society wants from Academia isn't something you can grind for. Ground breaking research and great education isn't something that comes from working 80 hours a week (most of the time). I'd also suspect that the vast majority of effort in academia is dedicated to simply pleasing the whims of those with power/funding.

A union might increase productivity by both

a) De-stressing those who are actually doing the work of academia. Ensuring that they are financially taken care including living wages, sustainable working hours, and stable employment.

b) Reducing the need/available time for academic make-work.

c) Negotiating with funding bodies to correct lop-sided funding policies where students are funded but researchers are not.*


>Ground breaking research and great education isn't something that comes from working 80 hours a week (most of the time).

is there much evidence for this claim? If one takes a look at the habits and biographies of groundbreaking researchers they all have one thing in common, they have dedicated virtually their entire time to work.

Looking at countries with exceptional educational outcomes broadly you see the same thing, time and resources spent on tutoring and schooling is extremely high.


> biographies of groundbreaking researchers they all have one thing in common, they have dedicated virtually their entire time to work.

I'd argue that most ground breaking researchers had the benefit of researching their own ideas for prolonged periods. Putting in 40 hour a week on your own ideas for 10+ years is an awful lot of time. Many ground breaking researchers such as Feynman and Einstein had extended sabbaticals of one kind or another which lead to their best work.

It may be out of ignorance, but I'm not aware of any famous researcher who accredits their success to an 80 hour work week.


We're also in an era where groundbreaking research is seldom done by lone unicorn researchers expanding on a stroke of genius.

The Nobel Prizes are still awarded to individuals but often only because that's how Nobel decided the prize had to work over a century ago. Prizes are most of the time awarded to the heads of research groups who's discoveries are made of the backs of dozens of researchers and graduates often working 80 hour weeks, and in some cases hundreds or thousands of technicians.

The only prize that regularly meets the lone genius researcher trope is when the physics prize is awarded to a theorist (partially since it can't go to the hundreds of physicists responsible for verifying the theory).

Newton could see so far from standing on the shoulders of giants, the modern researcher can see so far from standing on the pyramid of overworked untenured researchers.


> Newton could see so far from standing on the shoulders of giants, the modern researcher can see so far from standing on the pyramid of overworked untenured researchers.

On the flip side, is this partially responsible for the declining productivity of science? We're effectively tying brilliant new talent to the whims of elders. ultimately as anyone who runs a large organization will tell you - you aren't going to get ground breaking work from a large org.

Do we need more diffuse science?


I don't really know if there's a way it could diffused - the reality on the ground is that cutting edge science requires cutting edge resources, and since advances are made on the margins major breakthroughs require knowledge across so many areas that one person can't possible be a specialist in everything involved. Both of those aspects mean most major research requires a significant concentration of resources to even be feasible.


>> It may be out of ignorance, but I'm not aware of any famous researcher who accredits their success to an 80 hour work week.

One of the greatest mathematicians ever, Paul Erdős, absolutely did - to the point of using methamphetamines to work harder, longer, and sharper.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Erd%C5%91s

Greatness is rarely healthy.


> What society wants from Academia isn't something you can grind for. Ground breaking research and great education isn't something that comes from working 80 hours a week (most of the time).

I once read a theory, I think it was in the book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life" by Bill Bryson, based on an observation (the accuracy of which I can't confirm or deny, some of the things in the book stretched credulity) that a surprising number of inventions in England were made by rural clergymen. The theory went that these people were usually the well-educated sons of wealthy families, who were parked in some small village that needed a priest, where they had almost no responsibilities apart from occasionally holding mass (they didn't really need to prepare sermons themselves, they could just buy a big book of sermons every now and then and read from that). So they lived lives of leisure and relative luxury, and some of them took an interest in science and technology and actually advanced the fields they got interested in.

The core idea behind academia is probably based on a similar observation: there's a small set of people who will do amazing things if you just let them figure things out without setting goals for them or applying pressure on them to produce something specific, so let's just give these people a decent wage and leave them to their business. But identifying who is a good candidate for such an arrangement isn't easy. In the days of the rural clergymen, this was essentially left to chance (after a basic intelligence filter of having to study to enter the clergy). We don't want to leave it to chance, so we set all kinds of goals and metrics to identify good candidates. But these metrics can be gamed, and for some academics gaming the metrics essentially is their job.


> I'm very curious to see what the long term effects of unionizing will be in Academia.

My friend, today you get to actually experience what sci-fi writer Frank Herbert called "Traveling without Moving:"

The year is 2022.

A virus wreaks havoc on the nations of the world.

A lone free software warrior named gorhill roams the internet to fight for justice, protect the underdog[1], and block ads[2].

At UC Davis (and possibly other schools) the grad students have been unionized now for at least two decades.

1: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kung_Fu_(1972_TV_series)#Plot

2: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/ublock-origin/cjpa...

3: https://uaw2865.org/about-our-union/


Forget having their careers destroyed. The fact is that most people who graduate with a PhD will not have an academic career on the tenure track, and it's really easy to see why once you pay attention to what's going on.

The thing is that academia is not a growing field anymore. So, if a professor graduates more than one student, they're feeding a glut of candidates who will be competing for one job at some point. For instance, in the field of engineering as a whole, 7.8 students graduate with PhDs per professor over the length of an average academic career [0]. In environmental engineering, that number is a whopping 19.0! (Also from [0]).

As a graduate student, once you realize the field isn't growing, you can actually see the phenomenon at work. Just look around in all your classes. That same handful of people you see in most of your courses, especially those leading into your intended specialty, those people are probably your competition. Now multiply that by every university in the country that teaches in your specialty. You very quickly come to the conclusion that you'll probably have to wait for someone to either retire or die before you get an academic position, and that's actually 100% the truth.

---

[0]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4309283/


It's true that it's hard to get an academic job, but it's not true in all industries. In CS for example we've been hiring constantly for years and our searches are often not successful.

Moreover not everyone who graduates with a Ph.D. wants on the tenure track, and universities are increasingly creating non tenure roles to meet this demand. I'm not on tenure track and I don't think I'm missing much compared to my TT counterparts. I don't even want tenure, it's not at all what it's cracked up to be.

Your citation also leaves a lot to be desired. From your link:

> Nowadays, less than 17% of new PhDs in science, engineering and health-related fields find tenure-track positions within 3 years after graduation

Two of the things we ask during hiring are:

- "How is your research agenda different from your advisor's."

- "What funding agency will you target for your first grant proposal and what research will that be based on?"

Most newly minted PhDs cannot answer those questions satisfactorily. It sometimes can take 2-3 years doing a postdoc to be able to find a suitable research agenda that is sufficiently differentiated from your advisor's.

Moreover:

> We recognize that in using a simple model, several parameters that are not part of our analysis may pose limitations (Ghaffarzadegan et al., 2011). One consideration is that many engineering doctorates are not interested in academic positions and may not even compete for tenure-track positions in academia. Another consideration is that some engineering graduates are foreign citizens who take academic positions outside of the USA.3 Another factor is inter-field hiring. Engineering doctorates might obtain positions in other fields such as science or business, which would also diminish the gap.

Okay, so they discount people who don't want to work in academia, and also foreign students who won't work in America. I'm sorry but what? Foreign students who won't be working in America after they graduate are most of our students. Probably 70% of our grad students right now (and the situation can't be much different at MIT). It's pretty hard to take this paper seriously when they just handwave all that away and say "but in the steady state..."

And then the grand conclusion of the article is to throw up their hands and say (paraphrasing) "there's probably nothing we can do about this so we just have to be more forthright with students about their prospects." Okay then...

I'm not saying it's not hard to get an academic job, but at the same time the measure shouldn't be academic tenure track jobs. There are lots of non-TT positions across the country at top research universities, SLACs, and community colleges.


I think your view on unionization is very US centric. In the UK at least there is a university union. In fact it is currently striking over a range of issues (mostly related to pension cuts).


In Canada as well (e.g., York is known to have a strong 'activist' graduate union that periodically shuts down classes over labour disputes).


We know exactly what the long term effects are because some grad schools have been unionized for 50 years.

The effects are: slightly better working conditions, slightly less discrimination, slightly better healthcare. Just look at what say, the grad student union at University of Michigan is able to gain for their students.

Neither apocalyptic nor utopian predictions are anywhere near the mark.


It sounds like the situation is pretty terrible already and hard for it to get worse; might as well try a union so these folks suffer less from a broken system.

Versus the alternative, “we’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas.”


FWIW, speaking as someone who has had tenure, the problems don't end there. The whole thing is broken all the way through.

There are good places and good people, but the system is dysfunctional and too many critically problematic behaviors and dynamics are incentivized.

Society at large isn't helpful either, as outside influences tend to be politicized badly on both ends of the spectrum in multiple ways, even when the other side is trying to improve things in good faith.


While it's not particularly widespread, there are places in the US where grad students have been unionized for decades. The Universities of Michigan and Wisconsin are two of the oldest, dating from the 70s iirc. As a grad student falling under the collective bargaining agreement for the University of Michigan, I feel pretty good about it. Not only do they pay us pretty well and give good healthcare, but the union has been essential in making the administration set up better-than-average covid policies, like free asymptomatic testing and non-retaliation for choosing to work remotely (sometimes). There are also a ton of corner cases where subpopulations of the grad students have a specific issue, where the union has been a very good advocate.


This is graduate students unionizing.

Everywhere I’ve seen this, the principal complaints are wages, housing, acknowledging they are workers, and working hours.

Grad students are used as slaves. This is trivial to avoid just by paying them what they actually need to live. This is a university, what they can’t figure this out? No, they just overplayed their hand at the bargaining table.


The intensity of the competition is severe enough to make it a toxic situation even if the established scientists were completely ethical about it.


>Arguments against unionization from already tenured faculty usually sound like:

An argument against a union at MIT came from un-tenured graduate student Kevin Wang : https://thetech.com/2021/10/21/why-we-do-not-need-a-gsu

TLDR: he didn't think paying the 1.44% annual union dues (~$620/year) is going to be worth it. He based this on comparing MIT salary increase history to other universities with and without unions.

Also, KW was previously in Germany & UK so he's presumably familiar with the stronger worker unions in Europe.

The MIT union vote was 66%-for and 34%-against. The 34% have various reasons to not join a union but I think we can guess that many of them think the $620/year salary deductions will not be worth whatever benefits the union can negotiate.

I'm not saying KW is right but I think it's more constructive to consider the opinions of MIT grad students who actually vote (e.g. Kevin Wang) rather than your synthesized quote from tenured professors. The collective bargaining unit will negotiate with university administrators (not the tenured professors) who set salaries etc.


Kevin's entire argument made zero sense. And thank God everyone worked so hard to convince people not to listen to him. Stipend increases are a function of places like NIH who set a lot of people's stipends. The union can and does get benefits in many other places. Like healthcare, better mental health services (which are bad at MIT), stipend increases for the lowest paid students, limits on how much you work as a TA, etc.

He gives Columbia as an example. The new Columbia contract is great! https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/01/07/columbia... $100 million in extra spending for students over the next 4 years.

> The 34% have various reasons to not join a union but I think we can guess that many of them think the $620/year salary deductions will not be worth whatever benefits the union can negotiate.

Well.. they are wrong.

If you look at unions like University of Michigan or University of Toronto the healthcare benefits they get compared to MIT are worth more than $620/year. The MIT grad student healthcare plan is very bad and expensive. And the working conditions as a TA are not good compared to other places. You have very few protections as a TA. For example, I know someone who was forced to teach an extra section for no additional pay, because another TA had to leave for medical reasons. That's totally unacceptable and would never fly at UMich or UofT.


It IS interesting to note that if most unions went dues-optional they'd starve from lack of money.

If their members were really convinced of the value that tragedy of the commons wouldn't occur.


If you made tolls on a toll road optional, the road owners would not be able to keep up with maintenance, yet I think most drivers value the road...


So what's this 'road' in your analogy that was installed by the union, that wasn't there before, and that introduced a lot of utility, comparable to a road?


The implication in the comment I was replying to was that if people see the value in something, they will voluntarily contribute to its maintenance.

The fact that many workers would not pay optional dues does not prove that the workers don't see value in the union.

Obviously the purported value of a union is in the ability to collectively bargain on behalf of its members (and to provide tangible support for workers participating in strikes or who are pursuing legal action against an employer). Unions may do this or not, but the argument that gp made is not a good one.


It's a hilarious tragedy that the person you're responding to has the definition of 'tragedy of the commons' backwards in their mind


It's actually a decent comparison, because a large percentage of the cost/benefit is building the road/union, and comparatively little is the maintenance. But the tolls/dues remain the same across.


No, it's because if dues were optional, the only game-theory-efficient outcome is that no one pays dues.


If dues are mandatory, The only game-theory-efficient outcome is that the union takes as much money as possible and provides as little benefit as possible.


So a business


The tragedy of the Commons is when there is a public good that, if most people contribute, everyone gets back more than they put in, but because it's rational for each person independently to not contribute (since it isn't strictly necessary for them in particular), it fails to happen.

You know, like not contributing your Union dues.


> If their members were really convinced of the value that tragedy of the commons wouldn't occur.

It’s called a Tragedy for a reason.


In an ideal world I think unionization at least has the potential to fight back against the "One bad letter of recommendation and your career is over" aspect. Whether it will work or not I have no idea.

There is simply way too many questions on the academia stackexchange about how to confront a superior without making them feel confronted (or wrong). The power dynamic is ugly.


But why? It's a supply and demand issue. When demand is high and supply is low, the hiring committees will definitely look over one or more bad letters. But when supply is high (as it is most of the time thanks to overproduction), well the hiring committee will choose the best package deal.

I'm sure the university will be happy to claim that they'll discount bad letters just because it will be politically helpful, but as long as the hiring committee sees them all, it won't matter. They'll choose the best package.

Not that it matters, because most of this happens by word of mouth. I've seen professors write glowing letters of recommendation to cover their butt. Then they privately bad mouth the person.


I doubt that a union could do much against the alleged toxic aspects of academia that you are pointing out. There’s nothing they can do, for example, to change the fact that tenure track jobs are rare, which is what drives a lot of the stress for grad students.

More likely they will be involved in labor disputes involving how much TA work the grad students have to do.


Correct but they can advocate for other types of positions and intervene when a university fails to educate students about non academic jobs.


> However, the power structures in academia are heavily skewed and toxic. Individually graduate students have little recourse when they are wronged. Life in academia is hard. You have to work long days, the chance of success is very low. At every stage the probability of getting that next job is very low.

A "research precariat" is what keeps German universities going as well. This is an international issue; even the OECD seems to have studies on the subject. Would be interesting to see a cross-country comparison of who really has the "best" universities --- or university systems, as this kind of issue does not tend to be specific to one institution.


The UC grad students have been unionized for decades, and just added gsr positions in addition to the teaching positions. Mostly right now it serves to protect student's research time from heavy teaching requirements.

But honestly, professors are also increasingly far away from the levers of power to create more permanent positions. There's a lot of bureaucrats making decisions who are mostly accountable to themselves.


Even though I think many senior academics are often terrible jerks and sometimes capable of behavior that borders on criminal, I don't see unions as being much of a help at all.

I've been soured recently by one big event that happened at a place where I sometimes work. One guy was accused of doing something unwoke in his time off the job. Normally, this guy was a big union booster and even a union rep in some negotiations. It turns out, though, that didn't matter because the other union reps wanted his promotion. He had zero relationship with the management because he was frequently aggitating for this union cause or that union cause. So when push came to shove, the management hated him and they were able to cite the lack of support of his so-called union buddies as proof that he was bad.

I think students think that the union will bring them some kind of lightweight version of tenure. It could help in a few negotiations or some extreme cases, but I think that all too often it will just be another layer of self-interested semi-managers who are just as corruptable as the regular managers.


It is interesting that you used word 'gerontocracy', because it is the same word used by Thiel to describe current true owners of US financial system. I certainly do not disagree. I think some fresh blood is needed -- and not just in there or academia, but also on just about every political level.

I am personally kinda done with people, who don't understand basic technology. They should be retired. They should not have any real influence on what the current generation is doing.


Its interesting that the people who create and encourage this system so fervently push for major social reforms and claim their social theories will create better societies.


> Individually graduate students have little recourse when they are wronged

Changing supervisors without 1) losing your funding and/or 2) having to start over on your dissertation is extremely difficult at many universities.

As a result, academic supervisors wield excessive power over their graduate students.


Academia (in the U.S. at least) is one of the last vestiges of the old master / apprentice system.


I thought we'd gotten rid of indentured servitude, but grad students are locked into years of absurdly low pay[1] and an extremely asymmetric power relationship with their supervisors. Add in the increased risk for depression and suicide and it really doesn't seem like a great gig.

[1] Engineering students at least. Humanities students are paid just a bit less than the minimum wage they'll be earning after graduation.


Aren't non-contingent faculty already mostly unionized through AAUP?


> Academia likes to cast itself as a true meritocracy

The more an organization/community says one thing, the more likely the opposite is to be true. Think about Google and “Don’t be evil.” Or companies that tout “work/life balance.”


What would that say about the organization that itself is the union?


I don’t know. I’m not very smart.


> In practice it's more of a gerontocracy

Right, unionization will just make this worse. Protect the insiders, those already with jobs.


Tenure does not provide much protection in biomedical research—only funding. In fact at top tier institutions tenure is almost meaningless often with <50% salary guaranteed even with a teaching load.

I think the abuses of seniority are much less than in the past—both wrt extraneous labor (hey, help me paint my house) to sexual pressures.

Re unionization—-its complex and a function of teaching load as a TA versus, class work as a student, versus your own research with mentors.


I was a graduate student with a research assistantship position at the University of Washington in the mid 2000s, a few years after they unionized and got a contract with the UAW.

By the time I was there, even though it was only a few years after the union struggle, I didn't hear much about the union, at least in my department.

But what I knew it meant was: we had good health insurance, we had a guaranteed minimum stipend, we had the right to actually take vacation during university vacations, and a certain number of sick days. I knew from talking to oother students, that before the union contract, grad students with assistantships didn't necessarily have these things (it depended on department), and sometimes literally got no vacation or allowed sick leave at all.

I was aware of no ways that the presence of a graduate student union harmed the grad students involved -- to the contrary of some suppositions in this thread. Grad student unions exist in dozens of universities, some for years now, so it's possible to look at actual experiences, not just forecasting supposition. I was also aware of no ways the union harmed research or academics at the university (beyond of course costing them more money to treat the grad students right).

I wonder if a few years after I left, most grad students even realized what the union had won for them. The union was not very visible, once the fight for a contract was over.


I was also a grad student at the University of Washington and my feeling was that the union was a net-negative. I remember one time in particular when my advisor had an extra funding source for me but the union rules didn't allow her to hire me in that position. It's hard for me to understand why business the union has in inserting itself in between the relationship between me and my advisor.

On top of that, the union took a portion of pay pay from each check. I wish they would give me a refund.


In general the presence of collective bargaining is going to limit the presence of the few best case employment scenarios, but with the advantage of preventing a lot of the really bad cases. It is a collectivist action after all.

Sure you didn’t get some advantage you could have gotten from a kind professor. But it protected many more people from abuse and low pay


How did it protect other people? Who were those people? How much were they protected?


from OP:

> we had good health insurance, we had a guaranteed minimum stipend, we had the right to actually take vacation during university vacations, and a certain number of sick days. I knew from talking to oother students, that before the union contract, grad students with assistantships didn't necessarily have these things (it depended on department), and sometimes literally got no vacation or allowed sick leave at all.


I was in a union as a PhD student. The union did nonsense things like running a (bad) cafe. My pay was set by my funders so the union didn’t have any say on that or any leverage on anything else at all really. Wasn’t sure what the point was. I just opted out after a while. I don’t think they added anything of value whatsoever.


I have 7 close friends that graduated with CS PhDs from UW in recent years, and they all feel positively about the union.

Here's a table from the union comparing before and after unionization in 2004: https://www.uaw4121.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/UW-ASE-Be...


For anyone not familiar with the world of academia, grad students actually have a good bit more power available to them by organising sensibly than you might think. The same is also true for early career postdoctoral research staff. This is because most of the work that actually matters is being done by these individuals, in a very pyramidical structure, but the money stops rolling in without the work that the base of the pyramid is delivering.

Tenured professors and others win research grants, and are only as good as their last grant. If they stop running on the treadmill, they won't get any more grants, as their pitch becomes less compelling than others'.

They win a grant, but the actual research work is then done by postdoctoral researchers and grad students. They do the actual work, write it up, and pretty much everything else. Often they even win the grants in the first place. The exception is that when there's some credit to be gained for the work, the professor will reappear to take center stage and give interviews.

If the grad students organise, the wheels could begin to fall off quickly - if projects are delayed, grant payments won't come through. If they are not teaching classes, someone else has to teach them. If the research isn't getting done, someone has to speak with funders on calls. Someone has to write reports. There's more to be done than the professor can do, and they will rapidly end up snowed under, unable to function, and unable to deliver papers on their grant. That will make it harder for them to get their next pet project funded.

Unfortunately, many people go into academia believing it to be a bastion of meritocracy where their efforts and skill will be rewarded, and they spend some number of years believing this before they start to realise what is actually going on. Some will make it to be a professor, others become disillusioned and go elsewhere. In my view though, the model is quite broken, and too reliant on a professor claiming credit for others' work without challenge, even though the work of their (hidden) team was the meaningful intellectual input, and some of them would probably be better as the professor.


You write like the professors are just sitting around raking in the glory, but not doing anything while they let everyone else does the work. The reality is that professors tend to work just as hard as their grad students. I completely agree that academia is very disfunctional, but it actually affects all levels. I am familiar with many academics that work >60h a week every week, in fact I believe the most outrageous examples of overworking grad students comes from academics who work crazy hours and expect everyone else to do the same.

What many don't see is that the way academic financing works is that academics spend probably >30% of their time on writing grants and evaluating others grants and then they have to report on the grants as well. Then there is all sort of other buerocratic work that they have to do, and the view by most of the admin staff that surround them is that academic time is not counted, which means most reporting systems are made so it's easy for the administrators but not the academics.


> You write like the professors are just sitting around raking in the glory, but not doing anything while they let everyone else does the work.

I've worked at two major research universities in multiple labs. While this is not entirely true, it is more true than not.

Professors work hard, but many are not working hard on the actual research work, especially once they have been tenured for a long time.


It depends on the lab. Just like in private industries, some superiors merely phone it in, while others are a lot more hands on with their subordinates.


It's true that professors rely on grad students/postdocs to do work. And, at least in my experience, advisors are actually pretty good about giving students credit for their work -- having successful students reflects well on the advisor. But a student is even more dependent on their advisor than vice versa. It's not like undergrad where the main thing that matters to your future employment is to collect the diploma, because for most fields the main reason to get a PhD is to continue in academia, and academia right now is an extreme employer's market. The things you need to leave grad school with are 1) impressive recommendation letters, like "best student in N years, reminiscent of <mid-career hotshot> at that age", and 2) (lots of) refereed publications. If you manage that, the diploma should be automatic.

Yes, you can push back against advisors who require 12 hrs a day in lab. But if that means you take longer to produce work, your letters might be just good instead of positively glowing, which might mean you fail to launch in academia. Several hundred other people will apply for each tenure track job you apply to; those with "just good" letters tend to get crowded out. The tenured advisor might have a bruised ego because their publication rate has slowed, or be more frazzled because they have to save money and write more proposals, but at least they still have a job.

Also, PIs themselves generally work a lot as well (often the ones insisting on lots of hours from their students think, rightly or wrongly but based on their own experience, that that's the only way to succeed....). I agree academia is broken, but think it's at a deep structural level, and more complicated than schools exploiting students and hanging them out to dry.


I think your comment is pretty spot on. Just three things I'd add to, are that 1) the advisor is not intentionally downgrading your letter to "just good", but it's that they're obligated to write a better than "just good" letter for someone who has been more productive both in terms of research and in being a leader in the community (these two things go hand in hand). Writing the same letter for two students regardless of what they accomplish would be unfair.

And 2) sometimes getting more funding is simply not possible, as in the advisor has basically reached the limit of what they can do. There's a limit to the number of proposals that one can submit and the number of calls that fit their research agenda. So what I think you're missing is that if an advisor has less funding, there's going to be more pressure to finish sooner and less freedom to explore ideas beyond what's written in a previous grant proposal.

3) I've never heard of a tenured professor that concerned about their publication rate. In fact, most of them don't even update their CVs or websites with the last few years of papers. It's always the student who is trying to get more papers.


On the other side of this equation, I think international students comprise a potent reservoir of strikebreakers.


In my experience, international students are very active in grad student unions. Also, good luck bringing in scabs during finals week. Admission runs on a schedule, visas add delays, and even if they show up in time, they'll soon be informed that it's a closed shop and scabbing has financial penalties. Oh, and there's typically a high degree of solidarity between profs and their grad students -- you don't just get admitted by a university, you get admitted by a committee of professors in the department you apply to.


Yup - especially because student unions (in the labor-union sense, not in the faux-government US sense) are the norm in many places abroad rather than an exception.


There's a reason why Academia and Big Tech love immigration.

And then there's the argument they use to justify why immigration is good, like diversity, inclusion, globalization, ... which may be valid or not.

But isn't it just perfect when your objectives are so closely aligned with what is considered morally right.

To regard these agents as moral actors instead of self-serving profit seekers is just lunacy.


Except in general people from other countries may be more amenable to union organizing and joining, since they often come from cultures where unions are viewed more positively than in the US, and where more of the workforce is unionized, and may possibly even have experience themselves with unions, or else have family members who do -- or if not with unions, with other kinds of collective political action of sorts that have become less common in the USA

I think this has been shown to be true in grad student unionization drives in the US.


Speaking from my personal experience - which includes involvement in unionization drives, that has never been true. I think this is supported by the evidence.

Maybe if you're talking about immigrants from Western Europe. Otherwise, no.


> where more of the workforce is unionized

Is this fact coming from the weighted average of how unionized is the workforce in the diferented countries from which workers comes to USA? Is this true for high and low paying jobs? Are the migrants from these countries representative of the workforce of their country?

Could you provide proof? My first reaction is to be agnostic upon this claim.


I know from observation that international students are often involved in grad student unionization efforts, especially in leadership positions -- anecdotal but generally noted by anyone else paying attention.

The rest is, yes, a theory I have that I don't currently have the data to back up -- and the theory is not just about union density in countries of origin, although that's part of it.

But as far as that part, just for some quick napkin math sanity check, if we're talking "countries from which workers come to USA" -- let's choose Mexico for example. First google hit (this is just a sanity check) says "Approximately 90% of Mexican production workers in industrial enterprises that employ at least twenty-five employees are unionized."

As far as international students, the top countries are China and India. China is it's own thing where unions exist in a completely different context. First google hit for India says "Over all, in India, 34.13% of regular non-agricultural workers are trade union members" -- this is of course much higher than the US. (First google hit says 10% USA, although that may be general not "non-agricultural").

The US is very low in unionization rate compared to most countries, most countries on the planet are going to have higher rates.

But I'm definitely not going to convince you of anything in this HN thread, it would require actually doing some research, like probably original research,, probably including sociological qualitative research actually talking to immigrants and such, not just the off-hand googling I am willing to put the time into now. It's just a theory I am sharing, yes. It would be an interesting research topic... for a grad student in some social science field. :)


> But I'm definitely not going to convince you of anything in this HN thread

You'd be surprised :). I appreciate your response, it was an interesting read.


Reading my post again, I think to be fair we should say that Mexican unions can often definitely be corrupt in a way that doesn't serve the interests of workers. While this could result in people from there being very cynical about and uninterested in unions -- that is often my personal experience with people from former soviet countries -- my personal experience with people from Mexico (totally anecdotal and subjective sense, not proof in any sense) is still that they come from a culture where it's generally understood that collectively organizing as workers -- and collectively organizing for grassroots political power in other ways -- is a good thing, and a culture where they may have some experience doing so, very differently from most people in the USA.

It's just my theory based on my personal observations and thoughts though, yeah!


Not if the international students get unionized. They're actually the most prone to unionization if the union is able to defend them.


are you an international student? I am one, and the position of international students is much more precarious than most other PhD students: their very presence in the country depends on the whim of the advisor. In many unionization efforts that I’ve seen, there’s been lots of leadership from international students


Not really, strikes are a short-term thing and bringing in new international students is something that takes many months at least.


In fairness, these already seem to form the majority of PhD students at universities near me


> They do the actual work

Used to think this as a grad student. Now as a professor I see how naïve this attitude is. There is so much work beyond what grad students are tasked with including getting research funded, staffed, and results out the door. Grad students are cogs in a research machine, cogs that need to constantly be readjusted and recalibrated because they are quite green (sorry, it's true) for a number of years. Most 22 year olds coming out of undergrad into a PhD program are not doing what you would consider publishable research for a number of years, and what work they do is usually heavily based on a foundation of research that was laid to get funding in the first place (usually by the professor), based on ideas that have been thought of and refined over a number of an entire research career (not by the grad student doing the "actual work"). Grad students may have great technical ability, but they have next to 0 research sense and ability. As I said, doing research is so much more than the technical aspects and writing the paper.

Grad students love to feel like since they got a paper published, that they are 100% responsible for what happened in that paper, and I just have to ask: where were you 2 years ago when I was up at 4am finalizing the Nth draft of the grant application, based on research that I have been working on since 6 years before that? Oh, you were partying, drunk off your ass at a frat in undergrad, and when I started this research project you were learning your times tables. So tell me again how you're 100% responsible for the results here, and I'm just taking credit for all you have done on your own?

Sorry if you haven't noticed this post has turned into a rant at someone I have in mind, not at you. But I just needed to say this.


I was with you until that rant in the second paragraph, it's pretty insulting to treat your grad students as if they must've spent their time partying.

Being as green as grad students are, it's entirely understandable for them to feel good about themselves about their first publication, especially when you also consider the problem of imposter syndrome. Working on my first publication, getting feedback on drafts, finalizing results etc has been a big confidence booster when working directly with people who've been doing research longer than I've been alive.

Then again, I understand the work the advisor/professor has done to set things up for me (was even surprised that I'm supposed to be the lead author despite being under their supervision) and my advisor is always pretty clear on matters relating to credit, often even more than I expect. So perhaps I just haven't seen the sort of friction leading to your rant.


> it's pretty insulting to treat your grad students as if they must've spent their time partying.

Sorry I thought I was clear I had gone of on a tangent with someone in particular in mind. That wasn't literally directed at all grad students.


I had gotten that, I could've sworn I added a caveat about "unless you know that the student you're referring to was like that" but looks like I did not.


I’m sorry, but you sound like a terrible, patronizing advisor; anyone who views their students as “cogs in the machine” is someone I would not want to work with.

Yes, professors work hard, but let’s not kid ourselves that they’re involved with the nitty-gritty research work. You just sound like someone who’s bitter at young people.


Again, kindly see my reply about attacking me personally. If you feel affronted by my calling grad students cogs, make a case for why they are not. I spend plenty of time shaping those cogs into fine researchers, and they're all better for it, so my results speak for themselves. But you're kidding yourself if you think a green 22 year old fresh out of undergrad is able to perform at a level much higher than a cog in a research lab. There's usually a researcher in there, but it takes a lot of work, usually years, to properly shape their minds.

I'm quite young myself so I don't understand why you would say I'm bitter at young people, but I guess it just goes to show I hit a nerve and you want to lash out at me even though you know nothing about me, not even my age. You want to form an opinion about me and my personality and my entire professional posture based on a rant go ahead, but keep it to yourself.

As for professors not being involved in the nitty gritty research, there's just no basis for this statement. Like I said I've spent almost a literal decade getting my research agenda up and running, and that's pretty much the common case. It takes at least 6 years to get tenure. Students joining me today are getting involved in a project that began when they were preteens. Students claiming full credit over research done at that point is pure hubris.

How do you think research labs come to be without professors getting involved in the "nitty gritty"? Research happens over a long timescale, longer than any one grad student's tenure.


"Yes, professors work hard, but let’s not kid ourselves that they’re involved with the nitty-gritty research work. You just sound like someone who’s bitter at young people."

This week I've:

- Worked on a research grant that doesn't have any students on it, so who else is doing the "nitty gritty research work"?

- Gone through a student's research code line-by-line to try to hunt down a particularly pernicious bug.

- Done a ton of data wrangling for another project to minimize the number of hands currently using a restricted-access server.

If the parent poster is painting with an overly broad brush, so are you.


>I’m sorry, but you sound like a terrible, patronizing advisor; anyone who views their students as “cogs in the machine” is someone I would not want to work with.

He pointed to the state of affairs, not how he treats them. Understand?


lol I hope for the sake of your graduate students that your institution has a union. Your personality sounds exactly like the countless professors I've seen abuse their workers.


edit: sorry I'm just going to disengage from this, I feel trolled so that's that. If you want to interrogate my position, then maybe ask a question. No questions have been asked so an interrogation is not what's taking place here.

Ranting about a third party not involved in the discussion here, who nobody knows, is completely different than writing a response to someone, attacking them directly, and calling into question their professional capabilities directly, then doubling down and tripling down on that even after they asked you to stop is just rude and unnecessarily antagonistic. I asked you to make a point a couple times now and you don't have a point to make except to attack me personally, so kindly find someone else to troll.


i'm sure that your students are very happy to criticize the person that pays them, and who has a complex about them not being deserving enough, to their face

edit: if you expect to be able to use your own anecdotes as evidence against unionization, expect them to actually be interrogated. if this is how you handle conflict with a random person on the internet, i shudder to imagine how you handle conflict with someone who works for you.


bruh you spent all of your first post writing a rant attacking one of your grad students don't act all high and mighty now


The grant that covers the largest portion of my salary doesn't even have grad students on it.


> They win a grant, but the actual research work is then done by postdoctoral researchers and grad students. They do the actual work, write it up, and pretty much everything else.

In this scenario, which does happen but is not the only way it works, the convention is that the student or postdoc is first author and the advisor is final author on the paper. That seems fair to me.


Order of authorship is quite dependent on discipline - in comp sci and engineering the convention is as you say. In other fields they prefer alphabetical order or other orders, as I understand.

Some journals have started requiring specific disclosures of activities that each individual carried out.

Interestingly for some of the professors, some publications' ethics codes don't consider merely obtaining funding as meeting the requirements for authorship of a paper. Of course they'll claim other activities, but a quick review of the papers and input they claim to have made will likely give rise to probable doubt. There's a few papers looking at "prolific authorship" in different disciplines.


I just went through this with a small grant. My only colleague in our dept. quit just before COVID started, so I was doing both full-time jobs on the grant. The university froze hiring and raises in 2020. I wrote all reports, wrote the new grant, handled all of the budgeting and admin. In late 2021, our PI retired and we finally filled the vacant admin position, so I had to train the new hire and the new PI about how the grant worked.

During that time, I received zero merit raises, and as a thanks from the university, they took more money from the grant so we could no longer afford a research assistant. My new colleague with zero years of experience was hired at the same rate as me; she almost immediately started venting to me how she doesn't get paid enough. She wants to earn a big promotion, so she is making her own changes to our reports that end up taking a lot more time. I put my notice in last week. I need to recharge for a month or two before I get back out there.

Basically, most of the value I created went to the university and our PI, and I was expected to be thankful for the opportunity. In spite of that, I think I left the dept. in better shape than it was in when I arrived.


If a professor is only taking credit for underlings' work he / she will, at some point, stop getting good students...


In theory this should be true, although the information asymmetries involved (especially for international students who go based on citations or notable papers or "reputation") mean that it can be hard to lose the flow of good students.

Ultimately if they are a tenured prof and can keep winning grants, they can offer postdoc and postgrad contracts, and that is effectively the only internal currency that matters for a student that needs to find a postgrad position.

With a limited number of chairs, it's hard for someone else to get a "rival" chair post and then compete internally, to give students the choice (which you'd get in a free market). If the institution has a good reputation, they'll likely have a flow of willing students regardless of how they act.


Yeah in my experience professors are pretty good about giving credit (the student is the first author on the paper, does the conference presentations, etc).

The comment above is right about the general structure (professors pitch, students deliver), though. And perhaps right about claiming credit in some fields, although not mine.


I'd agree it very much depends on the individuals. I have worked with people all across the spectrum. My advisor was absolutely in the "good" camp - we'd openly describe call academia the "world's biggest hidden pyramid scheme". He led a small, tightly knit group, and the group followed the two pizzas rule.

I've also dealt with people who tried to come across like this, but were the absolute opposite - they'd grown a pretty large research group to get their chair, but had a reputation of over-promising and under delivering. They'd promise things without the technical knowledge to understand what they were saying they'd do, then causing morale problems among their team when people found out what had been promised. They absolutely didn't follow the two pizzas rule - you could barely find their whole group, let alone fit them in a room. This prof would try to give the impression they wanted others to grow and succeed, but ultimately it was all about them, and preserving their carefully crafted hierarchy. They didn't like to hear "no", and couldn't bear the thought that they were over stretched and not delivering, so everyone would tell them things were fine, as they under-delivered, exacerbating the situation...


In these kinds of departments, I think the professor PI is understood as basically a management position -- they get the funding, they "hire" and manage the right grad students and other staff who do the work -- and yeah, then they take credit for it. So they aren't "only" taking credit for others work, they are performing administrative and management functions. And if they do that job well, they will not stop getting students. Because it can be the only game in town (literally, in the "town" you are in), and switching labs is a set back (switching schools/departments even harder and more so).


In the UK, most students are members of their universitys' branch of the National Union of Students.[1]

The unions have a big presence on campus and a bar with heavily discounted drinks and organise a lot of the social clubs and events that happen outside of the study.

They also negotiate with the university and faculty, fighting for students, and you can get individual advise and help too.

Enrolling to the student union usual happens almost automatically when you turn up and register for your dorm, classes and doctors etc.

The staff of the university (academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, etc) tend to belong to The University and College Union.[2]

I didn't know this was abnormal in other countries?

[1] https://www.nus.org.uk/ [2] https://www.ucu.org.uk/article/1685/About-UCU


The health of the student union is a very good litmus test for the culture of the university. Anyone looking to study at university in the UK should check out the student union and try to gauge how independent it is from the institution and whether they're actually active as a union or just an extension of the university's student experience department.

Can you find out much about the history of the SU at the intitution?

The names of previous people elected into officer positions?

What sort of jobs do those people have now?

Do you get a feeling like they might have used the officer roles to maneuver into those jobs rather than to actually advocate for students? (hint: SU Officers doing their jobs properly will be in conflict with faculty staff and see the worst of the institution, and therefore are not very likely to want to hang around after graduation)

Are multiple officers taking credit for the same achievement (campaign, event, milestone)?

Is there a good spread across demographics among the officers?

Do they get training? What do they say about their training?

What's going on on their social media? Does it feel like it's being used to market the university?

Source: was an SU rep


Phd student salaries in uk are probably the worst in the developed world. The student union in uk hasn’t been doing a good job to make salaries competitive with other countries at the PhD level.


Exactly. Unions end up becoming chums with the university admins. The students come and go but the admins are around a long time. Eventually the university just turns the union into a lower tier of management that effectively keeps all of the students in line. The admins learn which "issues" are favored by the unions and which issues hold sway with union. Then when they want to fire someone, they just frame it as an issue about which the union doesn't care.


I’m curious, what’s the going rate? I was a phd student in France circa 2013 and the salary was 1.3k€/month.


Currently about 16.5k tax free. If you live in London you get slightly more, and if you're an STFC-CASE student you get more again (total of around 20k in London). It equates to somewhere between 19-22k if you were paying income tax. For anywhere outside London and Oxford/Cambridge (where rents are also extremely inflated) it's a fairly liveable wage. Shared housing pretty much anywhere else is in the range of 500 a month, possibly a bit less in the North of England. UK citizens generally don't have to pay tuition fees directly, they're all rolled into the PhD "grant".


This is true, and they are valuable. But a students union is best thought of as a very distinct sort of organisation; they are not the same as a labour union.

(You obviously know this, but it may help prevent some misleading comparisons down the line…)


This is why I continued that people (including students) who are employed by the university are typically members of The University and College Union.

This includes "lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK."


It is abnormal in the _USA_. The USA is not a very typical place, so probably should not be taken as representative of other countries, or even other rich countries.

I suspect a similar kind of student organization is normal in Europe as well as the british commonwealth, at least, but I'm not sure.

It is not how it works in the USA.


A student's union is not the same as a labor union. The student's union represents students.

This is a labor union representing graduate student-workers who are employed by MIT.


Again, The staff of the university (academics, lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, etc) tend to belong to The University and College Union.[2]

If they are employed by the university in the UK, they typically belong to this union.


We used to have the same system in Australia but it was abolished by our centre right party (Liberals). The result has been an erosion of student rights and tertiary education quality.


The lack of protections for graduate student workers is shocking IMO, especially in student housing.

Grad student workers of course don't get paid vacation, sick time, or anything like that. But you can't even just lower your hours since you're paid with a fixed stipend.

Contracts may be largely 20 hours per week, but they have all kinds of carve-outs where the university can force you to work up to 30/40 hours, like at the start and end of the year and during on-call (which is also 100% unpaid), taking time away from exams.

And universities mismanage the hell out of grad students, such as only giving purchasing power to one person instead of having backups. Or having horrible on-call coverage where you can expect 3+ calls per night, many of which are pointlessly mandated "escalations".

All of these problems can be fixed so easily (time off, on-call pay/coverage), but an enormous administration with a toxic culture of "No" prevents progress.


Universities are subject to very little oversight and regulation.

They basically are selling a luxury good to very unsophisticated buyers (you can't get much less sophisticated than the average 18yo). A lot of what they are selling will not be worth the time or money put in.

Instead of subsidizing them like crazy, the government should be looking into their dodgy practices.


> Universities are subject to very little oversight and regulation.

This varies by state too. Many of the UC's in California right now are basically becoming corporations. They argue that them making more money means they can better serve students, but they routinely lobby for less funding from California. That's because that funding comes with certain conditions, like accepting more Californian students.

The UC I went to, UCI, is facing a huge housing crisis and has been building a ton of new housing, but the amount of in-state students they're accepting hasn't changed since before 2010. Instead they've drastically increased the number of foreign students they've accepted. Those students usually pay more than twice as much as in-state and, counter to narratives about "increased diversity", often come from a very specific class background.

Their whole strategy is basically to wean themselves off of state funding so they can run the UC like a profit-driven corporation


US Universities have enormous overhead costs. And unfortunately the PhD students / post docs are paying with their blood and sweat for these.

My advisor had to spit 150k to the university to have me as a student (including a 20k fee for lab usage, despite the fact my PhD was a theoretical one).

From that 150k I was taking 22k - 3k of mandatory health insurance. I could barely make it given that I had to pay > 12k per year for rent and utilities (with roommates).

Meanwhile the University would splash money to get athletic coaches or give bonuses to the executives or open branches in dictatorships.

I think unions should focus on university management, because they have been acting unchecked for way too long.


It's mostly caused by the explosion of lifestyle inflation at universities. Rather than just providing an education and doing research they are now expected to be mental health counselors, promote "diversity" (aka we need more of certain skin colors over other skin colors), and make "democratic" decisions. In practice this means everything is filled with bureaucracy and you need to go through 5 committees and 3 vice chancellors before anything gets done.

Football and basketball are actually profitable at most R1 schools, even though the coaches make lots of money.


How diversity has anything to do with institutional mismanagement.

And no, US universities do not run as democracies. The appointed deans and the president run the show.


Diversity is fundamentally the antithesis of elite schools. The goal of elite schools is to be exclusive. "Inclusive" and "exclusive" are antonyms.

Elite schools artificially limit supply for brand management. There are incredibly complex politics which govern who is admitted, balancing:

- Intellect, since that improves brand

- Connections to power, since that improves brand (e.g. George Bush Jr)

- Appearances of diversity (e.g. having lots of skin colors), since the opposite hurts brand

- Donations

- Athletics, since that gives visibility and improves brand

... and so on.

A lot of this is about mixing the rich/powerful with the brilliant. The former look brilliant by association. The latter gain connections to wealth and power.

Diversity consultants are one piece of the corrupt equation.

The alternative is a university ecosystem which doesn't label everyone with university brand stamps, and aims to provide a quality education to everyone. There are countries with those, and they do well. Even taking other cultures out of the equation, Canada is much closer to that ideal than the US, as is continental Europe.


Because these deans of "diversity" get paid a lot of money to bikeshed about useless issues while not actually having any impact on the school. It's run exclusively as a PR stunt to satisfy the whiners in the school. It's one example of the many cases of unneeded, useless headcount in universities that's contributing to bloat. I can't name a single time where anyone with the word diversity in their title at my former college did anything concrete.

> US universities do not run as democracies. The appointed deans and the president run the show.

That's not really the case especially in public universities. If you want to make a change that might step on a lot of toes you need to get buy in from people. They aren't explicit democracies where everyone votes, but nonetheless you need to secure acceptance from people to get things done.

To give you an example of the useless bureaucracy, I once had to submit a reimbursement for some research expenses and was bounced around for several months between different forms and different people. Any 1 part of the reimbursement that didn't match the forms exactly meant the entire thing would be rejected. This was to access grant money that wasn't even the university's, it was the lab's. In corporate settings people don't give a shit and approve it as long as it looks legitimate.


> How diversity has anything to do with institutional mismanagement.

Someone needs to pay for all these useless "diversity" consultants, and they aren't cheap.


When I was a graduate student, I always thought I had a good deal, where I learn graduate degree for free, AND got a living stipend for me and my wife. The relationship between me and the university was two folded: I am a customer as a student and an employee at the same time. And I think student was my main role. And my advisor was mostly my teacher, instead of my work boss. I don't think you can turn this relationship into purely an employer-employee relationship.

You can separate the two relationships by making the university pay the whole salary, and then you pay the tuition from your bank account. You can ask for higher wage, but the university can ask for higher tuition. I think the low tuition has already having this factored in, otherwise how can you get a 2-year / 4-year work training program with such low price?


It's really an employee-employer relationship with on the job training. Specifically your final promotion is a certificate (Ph.D.) that has some industry wide accreditation.

The fact that they charge for tuition actually seems legally tenuous (akin to a company town) which is why I think they all have these tuition waivers for RA and TA positions.

The more I think about it, it seems like there is a bunch of legal issues. Maybe Congress has resolved those idk...


A big reason they charge tuition and then credit it is because it leads to more grants. There's a bunch of bizarre accounting between schools/departments/labs behind all this, but at the core my school "charges" tuition, then my department immediately "credits" the tution using NIH training grant money awarded to my program.


> It's really an employee-employer relationship with on the job training.

I don't think so. When I was a Ph.D. student, I spent most of the time doing my own thing (learning and research), a small portion of my time was spent on working. I imagine this could be different by field, and I know some other departments pay way higher stipend than my department.

I think the lowest paid graduate students belong to social sciences and humanities, but their "work" as graduate students also has lower value compared to other fields. They are also the ones with strongest push for unionization, because they (maybe for good reason) are the lowest paid and because their ideology.


Did you talk to students in biological or other lab sciences? At my PhD institution the materials science students were paid a lot more (and barely taught) because they essentially had a 9-5 job with plenty of overtime.

(Compared to the math department where people would surf between commitments.)


Yes. What you said does not contradict what I said.


That doesn’t change the employer employee relationship. You were paid right?


The thing is this is great if you and your advisor get along. If your advisor decides to blackball your academic career instead there’s nothing you can do.


At most US universities, graduate students who are serving as employees (ie, have stipends and perhaps assigned work in addition to coursework such as teaching) generally have tuition waivers too and don't pay tuition. So your formula about tuition vs compensation doesn't really apply in the individual case.

Anyway, depending on when you were a graduate student, it may currently be a lot harder than it used to be to survive financially as a grad student.

Also wanting things like reasonable health insurance and a modicum of days to take off on vacation or sick leave seem reasonable to me. This is not something all grad students at all universities/departments have.

In general, at many large universities, graduate students do most of the teaching (in terms of hours spent on instruction) -- what is bringing in a substantial amount of the university's revenue. And get treated terribly, at the whims of professors, in very financially precarious situations. It does not seem unreasonable to me to organize to try to get a more secure situation. If you look at the actual changes in university budgets, the amount spent on compensating those doing the teaching is a smaller and smaller portion over time, while the amount spent on administrators is higher and higher. So it might be just as accurate to consider money spent on compensating grad students as competing with administrator salaries as with tuition.


Most PhD “students” stop taking classes by the 2year mark (out of a five year PhD in CS, longer for other fields), and spend the rest of their time doing full-time research and teaching, without getting paid full time.

And while your advisor does not necessarily act like a boss, they have often even more power; they can withhold funding, which can stall or end your PhD, they can assign you dead-end/inconsequential projects, killing your career, etc. It does no service to anyone to not acknowledge the power differential that exists between advisors and advisees.

In general the current academic research model has positives and negatives for grad students, and it benefits no one to pretend the negatives don’t exist.

This is coming from a person who had a wonderful PhD experience and has received offers for TT positions from top universities in the US (I say this not to brag, but to ward off accusations of sour grapes)


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