Is Grad School a Job?

Or, the crucial difference between a W-2 and 1099

Photo: rjcox/flickr

For graduate students, the complications of tax time can be compounded by the general ambiguity of our status. I’ve been working toward a PhD in the humanities for the past six years and have frequently puzzled over the question: is graduate school a job?

While I’m a student in title, I’ve long since finished coursework and thus haven’t taken a class in years. Graduate students in my program act as teaching assistants for large introductory courses and I’ve also taught my own course, so I argue that our arrangement is a form of employment. We receive financial support for this labor, and so that we can also continue our progress in the program — first taking courses, then completing major and minor field exams, then undertaking dissertation research and writing. In 2016, a ruling from the National Labor Relations Board declared that yes, we are employees:

Are they students? Or are they employees? NLRB rules that graduate students are employees.

Along with this recognition of our status comes the same kind of protections that employees in general receive under U.S. law. Particularly relevant to grad student concerns is the right to unionize. Students across the country have been taking a lesson from adjunct and part-time instructors about the potential benefits of collective bargaining, which can push increasingly corporatized and bureaucratic education systems to recognize the needs of those who teach, grade, mentor, and provide intellectual labor on their campuses.

My university, a prestigious research institution in the Midwest with approximately 7,000 postgraduate students, has decided to take measures to prevent our work from being recognized as regular employment in both legal and financial terms.* During the past year, as students on campus have expressed interest in unionization following the recent NLRB ruling, administrators have been hatching plans behind closed doors to prevent this. Students in my department have just received word that effective this fall, our work as teaching assistants will now be called “Mentored Teaching Experiences” — that we aren’t employees, but mentees. Mentees who are just fortunate to receive monthly checks from the university.

Our duties and workload will not change at all. We’ll still participate in department service, teach sections, meet with undergraduate students, plan lessons, and grade papers and exams. Only now that work will be considered a learning “experience,” instead of real labor.

Previously, we’ve had taxes regularly withheld from our teaching assistant funding and received W-2s like most regular employees. Under the new designation, we will receive 1099s and report our income more like freelance writers and independent contractors. With this new system, we’ll need to pay quarterly estimated taxes — and possibly self-employment taxes.

This adds both stress and perhaps an additional financial burden to students, many of whom are already in a insecure financial situation. A large majority of graduate students are in their twenties and will spend many key years of earnings growth and savings (during a vital period for taking advantage of compounding interest!) to make very little money during a process that is intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically grueling.

The stipend that grad students in the arts and sciences at my university receive varies by department, but it’s generally in the neighborhood of $20,000 for the academic year. Previously, this has been paid out in ten monthly installments from the end of August to the end of May. It’s unclear whether the pay schedule will remain the same. Limited access to information places grad students in a position where we have very little power or control. If we don’t know what’s going to happen, we can’t respond in a timely manner to advocate for our position.

Why might we want to unionize? Consider the year that the university, with no advance notice, changed our health insurance plans so that prescription drug coverage would NO LONGER BE INCLUDED. At all. This was pre-Affordable Care Act, of course. I won’t even get into the distress and ridiculousness of this whole episode, but given the outcry of students we did have this coverage restored the following year.

A slight digression: We are fortunate to have health insurance coverage, yes. But it seems like this would suggest the relationship between graduate student and university is one of employee and full-time employer. Further complicating this dynamic is how the university makes health decisions for us. For example, we don’t have coverage that will allow us to choose a primary care physician or our own OB/GYN, but must turn first to the student health center for our medical needs. Going to your yearly “well woman” visit in a building on the area of campus that is comprised of undergraduate housing and facilities is fine, but when you’re nearing 30 the sense of not being treated like an autonomous adult is keen.

It is imperative that we be able to organize collectively so that we can advocate for our position, instead of living in anxiety knowing the university can make at-will changes with potential ramifications in almost every aspect of our lives.

The manipulation of our employment (or, I suppose, now non-employment) status is one of many strategies used by the university to reinforce its power. I’ve come to see how this power dynamic fosters a sense of dependency that can be detrimental to graduate students. Prone to insecurity about our abilities and often tying our sense of worth to dissertation projects that test our intellectual (and often psychological) limits, students trying to complete PhD programs in the humanities already live in a years-long state of vulnerability.

The engineering of our financial situation further places us at the mercy of the school where we both attend and instruct. To top things off, our university puts limits on how many hours we are permitted to work in “outside” employment as a condition of receiving teaching stipends, thus restricting our ability to generate other income.

My time at the university is almost done, as I finish the last chapters of my dissertation and look forward to entering the next phase. When I think about other graduate students, who will be living under the new rules, I’m frustrated by the fact that they’ll be opening up 1099s instead of W-2s come tax time. Whether they pay quarterly estimated taxes on their own or have taxes withheld from their paychecks might seem a point of annoyance and bookkeeping hassle, but in this situation the distinction evidences the university’s desire to maintain control and to not recognize the labor essential to supporting its educational mission.

*This number also includes graduate and professional students in the medical, business, and law schools, many of whom are in a very different financial and educational arrangement. This is a good point for me to note that my account relates to my experience as a PhD student in the humanities, and more broadly in the school of Arts and Sciences. I recognize that graduate school experiences vary wildly depending on discipline and degree program.

Jules Hammond is the pseudonym of a PhD candidate researching and writing in the Midwest. She plans to pursue a career (with W-2s, God willing) in the museum world.

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