Graduate Student Labor, Part 1

by Ben Mangrum

It’s now a well-documented fact that the landscape of higher education is changing, and a large part of this change involves the growth of contingent faculty employment and the decline of tenured or tenure-track positions.  In an earlier post on Ethos, Wil Heflin considered how these shifts might discourage academic freedom, a claim also supported by the 2013 AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession.  According to the AAUP, 75.5% of the instructional workforce in U.S. higher education is employed in contingent or part-time positions. The shift toward contingent faculty labor, these accounts suggest, has deteriorating consequences for the intellectual integrity of universities.

Yet another important aspect of this changing landscape is that the category “contingent faculty” not only includes full- and part-time faculty members off the tenure track; debatably, it also includes graduate student employees. Traditionally, graduate students are not considered “employees” in the sense of other part-time workers because institutions of higher education tend to emphasize the student responsibilities of graduate student instructors.  The intent of this legal framing is undoubtedly to safeguard graduate students from exploitation and to protect their ability to learn and conduct scholarship.  In this view, graduate students are less “part-time” workers than “apprentices” who are being trained in their disciplines.

Yet the “apprenticeship” view of graduate student employment (not necessarily education) begins to unravel quite quickly when set within the larger context of the growing disproportionate division of instructional labor.  The AAUP, using data provided by the US Department of Education, distinguishes between five types of instructional labor:  full-time tenured faculty, full-time non-tenure-track faculty, full-time tenure-track faculty, part-time faculty, and graduate student employees.  Given these distinctions, graduate students comprise approximately 20% of the instructional staff in American higher education.  In fact, behind only part-time faculty (i.e. adjuncts), graduate students have been the second largest source of instructional labor for American universities since about 2003.

Figure 1-page-0

Of course, it’s true that graduate students tend to teach fewer courses than adjuncts and full-time faculty. It’s also true that graduate students receive compensation (stipends, insurance, covered costs of coursework, etc.) that is typically much better than the dismal pay of part-time faculty.  Furthermore, the US Department of Education figures show that graduate student instructional labor has not really grown like part-time and non-tenure-track faculty.

My point is not so much about graduate students’ compensation or workload, although these topics are also worth discussing. Rather, what the national shifts in instructional labor suggest is, first of all, that graduate student employees must be understood as members of the “contingent labor” category.  This is true for several reasons, but perhaps the foremost is the national trends that make a “contingent” future in academia increasingly common.  The AAUP defines “contingency” as those workers who “serve in insecure, unsupported positions with little job security and few protections for academic freedom.”  With employment prospects that are so uncertain—or more and more certainly adjunctive—graduate students approach a job market with Dante’s inscription written in fiery letters: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Undoubtedly, like Dante, some of us make it out of the inferno.  But it’s nonetheless the case that the academic futures of a large number of graduate students (56% and rising) will be “contingent.”

I wanted first to frame this series on graduate labor through the issue of a “contingent” future because that precarious status inflects how we ought to understand the other dimensions of graduate student work.  In future posts in this series I’ll consider problems related to graduate student labor such as the daunting time-to-degree statistics, graduate admissions, and the idea of intellectual labor. Apart from these issues, what other problems are involved in the work that graduate students provide to universities?


Image Source:   John W. Curtis and Saranna Thornton, “The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession” Academe (March-April 2013), 7.


Ben Mangrum is a PhD candidate in the English Department at UNC-Chapel Hill.  When he’s not editing Ethos, Ben spends his time writing a dissertation on the postwar American novel and the changing landscape of U.S. politics.


  1. hi, thanks for this. just wanted to point out that the 75.5% figure does in fact include grad student instructors, but excludes post-docs. Wasn’t quite clear from your post.

    • Great point, Sara. I haven’t been able to find data that also includes post-docs. The AAUP report says that the five categories in their study don’t include post-docs because of a lack of hard figures on this form of employment. All that to say, post-docs should be included as a “contingent” category in each year’s totals, too, and would increase the percentages of contingent labor. Thanks for pointing this out.

  2. Thank you for this- I think you’re 100% correct to frame this via the idea of the “contingent” future. I’ll add that it personally took me some time–years ago–to resolve the tension I felt between the idea of a legitimate “apprenticeship” and “real” working status: somehow I got to a point where I realized that the “contingent” future, if nothing else, bound all contingent academics together, or should, as we think, as the majority faculty, about strategies for something better.

  3. Could we solve this problem with an experimental program that adds a service-residency stage, like so:

    1)As part of graduate school, a semester (at least) of secondary teaching training.
    2) After the dissertation, a mandatory “residency” (as medical students have), in which the resident teaches in a jr. high or high school, thereby (a) providing them with firsthand knowledge of the skills and experiences of their future, incoming, college students, and (b) increasing the subject proficiency of schoolteachers.
    4) After that, residents either keep teaching school, or apply for positions in HE. Either way, their students benefit from their up-to-date knowledge of HS pedagogy and culture.

    Of course, this could be an insane idea. If so, I apologize.

Leave a Reply

Ethos is a public venue for discussion. We encourage you to participate in our dialogue by leaving a comment. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>