A Job (Un)like Any Other

In my role as Graduate Student Representative, for this year’s Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference I organized a workshop on graduate student labor titled “A Job (Un)like Any Other: Graduate School as Academic Labor.”


The impetus for this workshop was to disabuse the notion that graduate school is merely training for a career to come. The allusions to professionalization skills or the impending job market signal that the “job” part of academia lies after grad school. Yet this hides the fact that grad students are already workers in many ways, whether they are working as teaching or research assistants, interning at institutions relevant to their research, or taking on extra jobs to make ends meet. These appointments come with their own set of complications, adding stress to the tasks of meeting program requirements, finishing a dissertation, and networking professionally.

There are pros and cons to being both an employee and a worker-in-training. Working as a teaching assistant, for instance, gives us experience for a future career as a teacher as well as a better sense on how to be successful student. Likewise, taking a part-time job outside of academia allows for a break from scholarly thinking and an extra source of income. But these perks can also come at a high price. A central focus of the workshop was therefore the importance of labor organizing at the graduate level, but it also broadly addressed the different types of tasks and remunerated jobs undertaken during graduate school that impact young scholars’ later careers.

The workshop featured a mix of early career and seasoned scholars at private and public universities. Vicki Mayer (Tulane University) spoke both of her experiences organizing unions while she was a graduate student at UC San Diego and of the challenges of incentivizing her students to pursue these activities as an administrative member at Tulane. Brady Fletcher (New York University) talked at length about his involvement in the recent negotiations between NYU’s graduate student union and the university administration. Kelli Marshall (DePaul University), who has written extensively about her experiences on the job market and her work as part-time professor, shared her perspectives on the possibilities and pitfalls of working outside the tenure-track stream. Laila Shereen Sakr (University of California, Santa Barbara) spoke passionately about not assuming the current structures of the university should remain unchallenged.

The conversation was both productive and instructive. The four panelists also provided insights into the challenges of work/life balance, the strategies for organizing in academia (talk about dental coverage!), and possible collaborations between faculty and students. The audience in attendance was very participative, sharing their own experiences and insights into these topics from different stages in their career .

Watch the entire workshop below:

Update (Aug. 23, 2016): the decision by the National Labor Relations Board declaring graduate students at private universities as employees is an encouraging move towards addressing some of the challenges raised in the workshop.