We are more than just grad students: we are academia’s unacknowledged workforce

By Sarah Nason


One issue we talk about time and time again in the academic community is the sheer number of roles a professor is expected to fill: to name a few, they must be mentors, grant writers, lecturers, and full-time researchers – all while not losing their heads. There certainly remains a lot to do to promote a better work-life balance for professors, especially for those early in their careers, but I think we have at least reached a consensus of appreciation for the issue. Unfortunately, I don’t think the same can be said for the graduate student (and while we’re at it, the post-doctoral fellow).

It’s certain that academia demands a diversity of expertise, no matter your primary role in a lab or research group. Typically, everyone is doing more than their job description. In my view, this is not the problem: doing things outside your pre-defined limits is usually a benefit, actually. It helps you learn new skills, it can give you a chance to show initiative and take responsibility, and overall it helps you grow. These are all good things not only in a misty-eyed “it’s not about the destination, but the journey” kind of way but also in a concrete “put it on your CV” kind of way. For me the problem is that the benefits of going above and beyond are only realized if that effort is acknowledged in the first place. Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that extra graduate student labour often gets exploited rather than rewarded.

I know graduate students who have been asked to do all sorts of extra tasks: do outreach to local high school students, manage the social media outlets for the lab, order and receive lab supplies, bring things up to code for safety inspections, even translate a slide deck for a research chair renewal. Of all the examples I can think of, I can only name one who was actually paid for their effort. I suspect we all know these kinds of stories. Unsurprisingly, this unrecognized extra labour falls disproportionately on women, eating up their time while the graduation timeline and requirements remain the same.

The reality is, we’re graduate students. Our role is to take courses, read, write, and do research. Heck, we pay tuition to do that. Yet it’s not just the case of a few underappreciated superstars: every graduate student is doing much more than their thesis work and teaching assistantships. We are mentors, counselors, lab managers, field and lab technicians, and social media representatives, to name a few. The title “student” rarely comes close to representing what a graduate student actually does.

Now, it certainly doesn’t always have to be financial compensation. My point is that the work should just be acknowledged appropriately, whether it’s a title to put on a CV, written recognition in a reference letter (especially for women), or even just a “thank you.” Sometimes this can and should be pay: if a student is spending 10 hours a week doing something other than their course work and thesis work, I would argue that should be compensated. Some professors do a great job of this, but in my experience they have been the exception rather than the rule.

So, I throw out a call to action: professors, take a moment to consider if there are students in your lab deserving of some credit, and if so, find an appropriate way to acknowledge that effort. Make sure your students are being rewarded for going the extra mile! Not only will this create a positive culture in the lab that rewards initiative, but also your students’ careers will benefit (which means you will benefit). It’s the right thing to do, but it’s also just common sense. And mention what you are doing to your fellow faculty! You never know the influence you might have.

That all being said, I know not all professors are going to take up my cry, so graduate students: I urge you to advocate for yourselves and others. If you feel that you are doing more work than is being recognized, or you know someone who is, have a conversation about it. (Not to hammer on this point too much, but: male students, if your fellow female students are being exploited, ally up! Help them out!) Ideally, you can talk to your prof and not be worried about it, but if that is not the case for you, look to other mentors: your committee, your graduate program coordinator, the post-doc in the lab, other grad students. If other people that your PI respects are on your side, it should be possible to arrange something that is fair.

My hope is that if we all pull together, we can help evolve the graduate student experience from its miserable stereotypes to a more fair and equitable experience for everyone.

Author biography: Sarah is a Master’s student studying the evolutionary biology of wētā (giant insects from New Zealand!). As a trainee of the new funding program ReNewZoo, her work is focused on integrating academic research into zoos and aquariums to achieve conservation outcomes together. She tweets @nasonicus, co-hosts The Friendly Podcast, and manages blog content for Le Beagle. She also spends a lot of time thinking about corgis (the empirically best dog) and how to obtain one. Sarah can be reached via e-mail here:

Image Caption: A frazzled grad student attempting to find that holy work-life balance. Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash.

Categories: Career

Tagged as: , , ,