It takes about five years to complete the coursework and independent research necessary to earn a Ph.D. After completing a Ph.D., it is customary to work as a postdoc for a year or two before applying for tenure-track faculty positions. Salaries for postdocs range from 35k to 40k. For associate professors it's 45k to 60k. These are good jobs with benefits. Still, nobody would earn an advanced degree in anything other than law, medicine, or business if they had to pay tuition. Five years paying 40k a year in tuition plus living expenses is just too much. Fortunately, at U of M (and many other schools), Ph.D. students don't pay tuition. In fact, Ph.D. students are guaranteed four years of funding, tuition waivers, benefits and a modest stipend. Though the details differ between programs, the bottom line is that Ph.D. students at U of M normally don't pay a dime. Remember, this is good because we want scientists and researchers and engineers and professors and nobody would do this if they had to spend 200k+ over five years just to get a job that paid 45k.
The exact details of how the costs of a Ph.D. student are covered differ between programs and individual students. Departments generally have some base level funding available for Ph.D. students. Individual professors can also write the cost of Ph.D. students into grants they are applying for. Students are encouraged to apply for outside fellowships to cover some of their costs. The sources of each student's funding package differ, but the vast majority of students do end up working as a GSI or GSRA at some point in their studies. The compensation for GSIs is governed by a contract that is negotiated between GEO and the U of M every few years. The compensation for GSRAs is currently based on the GEO contract, but there is no formal contract, as I understand it.
Right now there is a push to allow GSRAs to vote on whether they want to join the GEO union. There is also considerable push back from the administration at U of M, some GSRAs and some outsiders who should keep their noses out of other people's business. Here is what I understand about the current discussion regarding GSRA unionization and some thoughts on the process.
Advocates for GSRA unionization argue that GSRAs should enjoy some formal level of workplace protection. They argue that there should be rules governing acceptable behavior of GSRAs and the professors for whom they work, and a system of handling grievances.
Opponents have several arguments against GSRA unionization. Some argue that including GSRAs in a union would hurt research at the U of M. Some argue that it would alter the important mentoring relationship between professors and their graduate students. Still others argue that GSRAs are not really employees. Overall I have been disappointed by the lack of well-reasoned factually supported arguments from the anti-unionization camp.
GSRAs can be hired as workers to work on specific research projects that may or may not be related to their dissertations. Hiring a student as a GSRA can also be a catch-all method of making sure a Ph.D. student receives their funding package. In the latter case, a student may receive a GSRA appointment for doing their dissertation research. I will admit this is a bit of a gray area in the continuum of employment in the traditional sense. On one hand, a student's dissertation research benefits them directly in that it is a requirement for graduation. On the other hand, a student's research also benefits their advisor; the advisor is included as an author on any academic presentations and publications that are produced with their funding and/or in their lab. If we are not going to consider these later GSRAs employees, then it would be really good to know what percentage of GSRAs are doing dissertation research and what percentage are doing other research. Telling GSRAs who are hired to work on outside research projects they are not employees seems dishonest.
The argument that GSRA unionization would hurt U of M's ability to conduct high quality research seems somewhat flawed. First, is the ability to conduct high quality research dependent on overworking and or mistreating GSRAs? If it's not, then unionization probably won't have an impact. If it is, then, well, the GSRAs probably need some form of protection. A really good way to address this might be to look at other top research universities where GSRAs have unionized. Looking at the reasons behind GSRA unionization, what administration fears were, and what the impacts of unionization have been at other schools could help inform the debate at U of M. As I understand it, UMass and the University of Washington are among the top tier research universities in the US where GSRAs have unionized. I think it would be really informative to look at what happened on those campuses.
My personal experience as a GSRA is very limited but also very positive. SNRE is a small program with Ph.D. students and GSRAs. My colleagues who are GSRAs work with great advisors and in our conversations, I haven't heard any complaints about their working conditions. Still, it really gets my goat when people outside of the University tell us we can't even vote on whether to unionize or not. I think the decision to unionize should be left up to the GSRAs. Give all of us an opportunity to vote on whether to join after an honest discussion of the potential advantages and drawbacks of unionization.