Are we taking advantage of graduate students?

By Elisabeth A. Maxwell


When I was preparing my graduate school applications the decision to apply to a master’s position versus a PhD position seemed vague. Intuitively, I understood that there were different levels of commitment and expectation of research outcomes but I still wondered what this translated to in the student experience. It was explained to me that a master’s was intended to provide the foundation for understanding the scientific process and help students learn research skills. I was told that a PhD student, in contrast, was expected to become the expert within their specific research area and contribute new knowledge to their respective field. It was often clarified that these definitions translated into one or two publications for a master’s degree and around four or five for a PhD (of course, the exact number varies depending on the field and research focus).

Increasingly, I am encountering master’s students who contribute the level of work that I would expect from a PhD student. Students stay in the program for an extra semester or two so they can lead the upcoming field season or author another paper. At first I thought this sounded like a great arrangement. But more recently, I am beginning to wonder if it is (unintentionally) taking advantage of productive students.

Picture this: a research faculty has a grant but the duration is only three years. They want to bring in some students but decide to only recruit for the master’s program because they don’t have enough support to guarantee a full PhD position. The student that joins the lab is thoughtful, hard working, and contributes to the success of the lab overall. The student meets all of the deadlines in order to graduate within two years but the faculty still has another year left of the grant and doesn’t want to bring in a new student with only partial funding. So the faculty convinces the current student to delay graduation in order to help out with the upcoming field season and add one more publication to their CV. The student gets additional experience and responsibility while the faculty has the piece of mind that the work will be well handled. Sounds like a win-win.

But I feel that this situation does a disservice to the student when considered in terms of financial situation and future employment. Graduate students get paid less than research associates or laboratory technicians, sometimes by as much as $10,000 per year. This is a huge increase when a graduate student salary in a master’s program averages between $20,000-25,000 per year. Additionally, the months or year that was spent leading research projects might not count as “work experience” on job applications if it was conducted while the individual was still enrolled as a student. In today’s job market, where most positions require multiple years of experience, this can be a hindrance.

This isn’t just an experience for master’s degree students. I’ve also seen PhD students who operate closer to the level of a post-doc, taking on major responsibilities for running a lab or facilitating multiple projects beyond their own focus. I think that it is important for us all to remember that graduate students are first and foremost – students. They have entered into graduate school to learn how to be scientists. And while that learning process should involve ever increasing responsibilities, advisors should be careful to remember that the students do not receive some of the same benefits that they would if they were employees.

A student may encounter a situation like the one I described above, weigh out the options, and still decide that, for them, it is worth the experience and enjoyment of their work to delay their graduation. But advisors should be transparent about the options and careful to consider the students’ best interest. It may be hard for a student to refuse an advisor who still has to sign off on their thesis and potentially write letters of recommendation. Advisors can be an advocate for students by having open conversations about funding options and strive to maximize the amount of support that can be provided to them.

Author Biography: Elisabeth is a recent graduate from the School of Marine Sciences at the University of Maine. While her research focuses on marine ecology and small-scale fisheries, she also advocates for positive undergraduate and graduate student experiences and increased diversity in the academic community.

Image caption: Janeb13. CC0 – Creative Commons License.

Categories: Career

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