Living in the Gray Area Between Student and Employee
On a Saturday morning over breakfast, I opened my Twitter feed. I’ve recently been getting more involved in the “Science Twitter” world, which means my feed is flooded with posts from some very successful, but also very tired, graduate students. My heart dropped a little when I came across a classmate’s tweet about their inbox being very active on a Saturday morning, and how they felt like they could not turn off email notifications, even on weekends. This is an all-too-common sentiment that I’ve felt myself and I’ve heard expressed by others — and it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve come across tweets from graduates saying that they finally understand work-life balance after entering industry post-Ph.D. (even though the U.S. ranks 29th in work-life balance globally). The idea that overwork and exhaustion is normal for grad students permeates even outside of social media. I’ve heard professors tell groups of first-year graduate students that working in lab late into the night is what makes an excellent and devoted graduate student. And I don’t think I’ve heard more jokes about any other high-education experience being as soul-crushing as a Ph.D. program; although, I have to admit I’m biased.
The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m writing this blog article that critiques work-life balance on a weekend, a beautiful Saturday afternoon in early spring when I could just as easily, or probably should, enjoy an iced tea and a book on the porch.
That is to say, the work-life balance of graduate students is seriously skewed toward overwork. Although this is the result of several cultural issues in academia, I believe one of the main causes is the ambiguity of a graduate student’s status.
While earning an undergraduate degree, my studies were done on my own time. I was supposedly investing in myself and paying the university for its services, and as such, I was expected to do homework on the weekends and nights and any of my free time that I could find. As students, the onus is on us to set boundaries with our studies, with the idea in mind that we’re ultimately bettering ourselves by putting ourselves through the gauntlet of coursework.
However, undergraduate coursework is different than graduate studies. They have syllabi, clear expectations, assignments and definitive time away during winter, spring and summer holidays. Biomedical graduate students do not have this luxury; we are constantly told that we’re “not undergraduates” when it comes to winter and spring break. As if undergraduate students are babied with time off, whereas graduate students, who also have course loads with the additional responsibility of research, shouldn’t need it.
Well then, what are we? If I am a graduate student, am I not still a student? Should I not still be entitled to these breaks and time off that other students receive if we are investing our free time in education? I’m still paying tuition, or at least taking a serious pay cut from if I worked in industry.
Am I an employee? I am certainly subject to my adviser, who often functions as a manager would in a business. I get a paycheck in the form of a stipend, and I am expected to show up to a work environment and accomplish certain tasks to justify my pay. Isn’t my training and onboarding similar to what a new professional would have to go through right out of an undergraduate degree?
Am I self-employed? I am expected to try and receive funding for my work. And, even occasionally expected to pay quarterly estimated tax like a self-employed person.
The answer seems to be all three, but the label switches depending on when it is convenient for the institution at which we are currently “studying.”
The simple truth of it is that graduate students’ roles are not defined; our status, work and worth are all constantly undermined by these changing roles.
If I were a full-time employee, my job would start and stop at defined times with clear outlines of expectations, benefits and responsibilities. I would accumulate time off, and I would not be expected to spend my weekends at the office. Graduate students do not get that luxury. In terms of time “online,” we’re treated like undergraduates. Graduate students should be available on weekends or whenever or we are needed. There is an expectation that we should devote ourselves to the cause of “knowledge-seeking” as both a profession and a hobby. Our responsibilities are not clearly defined by our departments in a job posting ahead of time, which makes it harder to say “no” to jobs that are not technically ours. I would like to note that professional development and academic administration are not extracurriculars. However, I often get the impression that I’m supposed to be grateful for the “learning experience” of the work I do, without being properly credited or paid, even though it benefits the larger institution.
The institution could do several things to make this better. For one, when sending students letters of acceptance, they should outline the exact responsibilities of a graduate student in terms of hours and how much time they should be expected to be able to take for holidays, sick leave and professional development workshops. Departments should also make sure that their administrative team is large enough to support their student body so that students are not burdened with administrative work or responsible for creating their professional development. If students are doing this work as a stopgap, then they should be paid for it. The institution could also recognize the Hopkins teachers and researchers union as an official union, which actively fights for better working conditions for graduate workers at Hopkins.
However, our time is going to continue to be taken advantage of if we are complacent. Although I hate to give graduate students another institutional problem to resolve, graduate programs will take as much from us as we are willing to give, and so it stands to reason that we must learn how to give less. That means we must set better boundaries with our research ourselves.
I regularly struggle to set work boundaries, especially since working from home has become the norm. I often feel like I should be working more or working harder, and I also feel guilty when I need to rest. But, sometime during the pandemic, I realized that I did not actually know how much I was working. So, I started tracking my hours using an integration between Todoist, my go-to task list and organizer, and TrackingTime. I tracked the time I spent on each research project. I only tracked time that I was actively working: no breaks or social media scrolling.
Now, I had something to go on: a solid record I could trust. I could see exactly where and when my time was spent. I could see when I’m working nights and weekends that I shouldn’t, or where I needed to pick up the slack.
Having done this, it is easier to stop myself when I see I’ve put in a solid five hours of real productive work in a day. If I get asked where I am spending my time, I know exactly where it went. If I’m feeling particularly tired, I can see it reflected in my work hours (and it’s probably a result of overworking the week before).
I silence my work-related notifications after 5 p.m. and on weekends. I try not to work on weekends unless a deadline makes it absolutely necessary.
I’m in my third year of my Ph.D. now. With the knowledge of the past three years, I’m less eager to please, and therefore more willing to enforce my boundaries with work. I’ve seen the consequences of what happens when I don’t enforce them. Being propelled by guilt and anxiety to work longer hours means I do not do my best work. Instead, I use more time to do a task and end up even more tired and guilty. Eventually, my body will override my desire to get more done, and I’ll become burnt out and unmotivated. Days will pass without being able to get much done at all. Not setting boundaries only perpetuates this cycle of unhealthy work.
Had my responsibilities, expectations and boundaries with my graduate studies been more defined at the start, I probably would not have had to go through all the pain of figuring this out. However, the graduate student role is woefully undefined by the university, which means we need to intentionally define it for ourselves instead of being propelled by feelings of not working enough or being productive enough.
So, I encourage you to give less, set your boundaries and track your time for yourself. There will always be more work, so you need to take care of yourself the whole time you are working, not just when it’s done.
“Work-Life Balance.” OECD Better Life Index, Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development, oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/work-life-balance/.
- Tools for Staying Organized
- Working from Home: Tips for the Long Haul
- The Graduate Student Association: a Voice for Graduate Students Across Campus
- The State of the Union: US Graduate Student Employee Rights in 2019
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