$28 an hour?

$28 dollars an hour. That’s what Penn State’s Graduate School claims that graduate assistants make. It sounds good on paper, but it’s a number that would surprise a lot of graduate assistants. It simply doesn’t match up with our experience. We love our jobs, but we deserve financial security, dignity, and a fair wage for our work.

The Graduate School’s number is misleading for two reasons. First, it assumes that we graduate assistants work exactly 20 hours per week for our assistantships, even though many of us are pressured to work far more than that. In fact, we don’t get paid hourly; we get paid annual stipends. Second, it’s based on an ‘average wage,’ which conceals the fact that many people make far below it, and some even make below a living wage and struggle to get by.

The hours required by our contracts often don’t reflect the effort we actually put forth on our assistantships. A survey of graduate assistants at Penn State found that many people regularly work 60 hour workweeks in the lab, despite the fact that their contracts and pay are for 20 hours. In other words – by the Graduate School’s own math – advanced degree holders conducting institutionally valuable research are making as low as $9 an hour.

Even for those who genuinely work half-time instead of 50-60 hours a week, finding outside work to supplement our stipend is impossible for some and difficult for others. International graduate employees on F1 visas are prohibited by their visas to take any outside work, while domestic graduate employees face pressure to focus only on their assistantships and not seek jobs to supplement their stipends. This affects all graduate assistants, but it hits those of us with families particularly hard. As one graduate assistant observed in the survey, “[not] being allowed to work any other part time jobs at all makes it extremely difficult to make ends meet, even when everything goes smoothly.”  

This number simply does not resemble reality, which Penn State’s Graduate School surely knows. The question here is obvious: if they know it’s not true, why are they claiming it is? As one graduate assistant noted, “Penn State bureaucrats are using this completely inaccurate number to make policies about us and paint us as lazy, part-time workers.” It is a sad indication of senior administrators’ lack of respect for graduate assistants and the way our teaching and research supports the university, particularly because it comes from bureaucrats making six figures.

To make an informed decision on unionization, graduate assistants need the whole truth. The bottom line is that senior administrators at Penn State are misleading members of our community because they don’t want us to have a voice. We, our families, and our community deserve better than that.