Graduate student workers share joys, challenges of working on campus

Infographic about GSI salaries, by Aasha Turner
Aasha Turner/Staff

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Working as a graduate student at UC Berkeley, one of the top public research institutions in the world, can seem like a dream. Yet, for some, that dream can be tarnished when faced with the reality of campus working conditions amidst the costs of living in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

Graduate student workers include graduate student instructors, or GSIs, and graduate student researchers, or GSRs. GSIs act as teaching assistants with crucial responsibilities such as teaching discussion sections, hosting office hours and grading exams, while GSRs assist in faculty research projects.

Although these graduate student workers serve as a cornerstone of undergraduate students’ academic experience, the behind-the-scenes reality of their labor conditions do not always reflect the importance of what they do.

“Incredibly stressful”: Balancing graduate student life with work

Graduate student workers must balance the demands of their part-time work on top of extensive academic and personal responsibilities.

When he is not in class, Department of Materials Science and Engineering GSR and former GSI John Dagdelen’s day starts in the lab between 9 and 10 a.m.  After attending meetings, working on his ongoing research project and grabbing lunch at about noon, Dagdelen works until 5 or 6 p.m. — at which point he will grab dinner and continue working until about 9 p.m.

Like many GSRs, Dagdelen focuses on one or two research projects, where he works to understand the existing research landscape on the topic, perform experiments to answer questions, analyze results and communicate his team’s findings.

“The people you work with are really fantastic at Berkeley; I really enjoy that. They are extremely creative and smart, and they drive you to new heights,” Dagdelen said. “In my PhD, I get to work on a lot of stuff I want to work on, so that’s really nice just being able to follow your curiosity.”

While Dagdelen described his graduate school experience as relatively laid back, he acknowledged that GSRs can have significantly different experiences based on their department, lab and advisor.

Dagdelen noted research can be different from typical jobs, since his work’s value is determined through factors such as creative thought and intellectual property. As a result, more time invested does not necessarily equal more output from a research perspective, Dagdelen said.

“You are coming up against things like imposter syndrome and coming up against a problem that does not have an answer,” Dagdelen said. “Suddenly you are asked to answer questions that can’t be Googled so that is a very different way of thinking…you are going down into the unknown with whatever intellectual tools you can pack up.”

During his time as a GSI, Dagdelen sometimes struggled to balance his academic graduate student responsibilities with his GSI workload. For instance, Dagdelen had to prepare for his own exams, while simultaneously responding to increased amounts of student questions and office hour requests during exam season.

While Dagdelen enjoys teaching — and was even awarded the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor award — he said grading piles of papers and exams can be tedious. He did, however, point to tools such as Gradescope, which can facilitate the grading process.

Mansi Kathuria — a United Auto Workers, or UAW 2865, Head Steward and a GSI for the Work, Justice and the Labor Movement course in the Sociology department — also emphasized the increased demands placed on GSIs during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to dealing with being ill with COVID-19, Kathuria described managing additional requests to take notes, check in with students and help people get caught up.

“Being a grad student is incredibly stressful,” Kathuria said. “It felt like the university expected that things are just normal again — like put a mask on, come to campus, everything is fine — and not really thinking about what students, faculty and staff are going through.”

However, Kathuria noted feeling satisfied with her work conditions as a whole despite some of these issues.

“Paycheck to paycheck”: GSI and GSR salaries versus Bay Area living costs

While many have expressed happiness with their work, graduate students and the academic student worker union UAW 2865 have pinpointed unsustainable pay amidst high living costs as one of their biggest concerns.

GSI and GSR base salaries are mainly determined through a combination of two factors: percentage appointments and steps, according to the Graduate Division Appointments Handbook.

Percentage appointments indicate the amount of time that academic student employees work — for instance, a GSI with a 50% appointment is expected to work about 16 to 20 hours per week, according to the Graduate Division Appointments Handbook.

GSIs have four steps, starting at $4,649.30 and ending at $5,533.20 while GSRs have 10 steps with monthly salaries starting at $3,667.58 and ending at $7,186.58, according to the Graduate Division Appointments Handbook.

Steps are payment tiers determined by teaching experience, merit and individual departmental discretion — meaning some GSIs can face accelerated advancement and some GSRs can start higher than step-one.

For example, according to Dagdelen, his department starts off all GSRs at step five and moves them to step six once they pass a qualifying exam.

“Some people get really stressed out,” Dagdelen said. “I’m lucky enough that I have alternative sources of income too, so I can ease through that a bit.”

Additionally, some workers are eligible for fee remissions, which pays for a portion of their school fees, on top of their salaries.

While GSRs recently unionized, their prior status without a union meant they did not have the same protections as GSIs. Kathuria alleged she used to see GSR job postings at 24% appointment, which is just below the 25% threshold required for fee remission eligibility.

University of California Office of the President spokesperson Erika Cervantes noted the university is currently negotiating with UAW to create the first contract for GSRs that covers fair pay, quality health and family benefits, and a supportive and respectful work environment.

“That’s an intentional choice,” Kathuria said. “Without good labor protections, people are experiencing those kinds of issues.”

However, the provided salary numbers can be misleading at first glance — first, they are pre-tax numbers; and second, they reflect full-time employment, meaning that most graduate student workers only receive a fraction of the amount since they do not work full time, according to Haas’s Compensation and Benefits for Academic Student Employees.

For instance, a step one GSI working a 50% appointment would receive a pre-tax monthly pay of $2,324.65, which is half of step one’s base rate of $4,649.30.

This means the pay for being a graduate student worker can be a struggle for many — especially graduate student workers at lower step levels who work lower percentage appointments.

“I don’t feel like my pay as a GSI covers all of my living expenses,” Kathuria said.

For students relying on their campus salary as their sole income, Dagdelen said it would be “tough” to live comfortably.

According to a 2017 UC Berkeley Housing Survey, graduate students reported an average monthly expense — covering housing, food and utility — of $1,601 for those without partners or children, and $2,478 for those with.

“I was pretty paycheck to paycheck,” Dagdelen said. “I would basically spend what I made throughout my whole PhD.”

Since Dagdelen hopes to avoid debt, he actively maintains alternative sources of income such as consulting work on top of his research work.

“A huge challenge”: Living and working amid a growing housing crisis 

Salaries are similar across UC campuses despite differences in costs of living at each location. For instance, all of the UCs follow the same pay scale and step system for GSRs — a step-one GSR at 50% appointment would make a pre-tax amount of $1,833.79 regardless of if they were at UC Berkeley or UC Santa Cruz, according to their Academic Salary Scales documents.

However, according to BestPlaces, a living costs comparison tool, it is 21.6% more expensive to live in Berkeley compared to Santa Cruz, with housing also being 31.7% more expensive in Berkeley.

“The numbers are almost exactly the same (from) the offers I got from multiple schools, but Berkeley had the highest cost of living out of all of them,” Dagdelen said.

Kathuria reported making about $2,000 each month after taxes. More than half of their pay then goes toward rent, according to Kathuria.

According to Cal Rentals, the average monthly rent of a studio, 1-bedroom and 2-bedroom apartment around Berkeley in 2021 was roughly $1,925, $2,166 and $2,921, respectively. Even if  a student lived with one roommate, that means rent alone can cost a student between $1,000 to $1,500 per month on average.

“Living and working in the Bay area is just a huge challenge,” Kathuria said. “I moved here for school just a little over a year ago from Chicago and my rent almost doubled coming to the Bay.”

Kathuria pointed out that affordable housing is one of the main challenges that many graduate student workers face, alongside pay concerns.And Berkeley’s housing crisis is not new — a 2017 UC Berkeley Housing Survey found that of the 26% of graduate students who responded to their survey, about 15% reported experiencing being houseless while at campus, with 54% being houseless for between a week and a month.

In the five years since the 2017 survey, cost of living numbers have only increased, according to Dagdelen, but graduate student worker salaries can sometimes struggle to keep up. UC’s 2021 accountability report acknowledged that, although significant progress has been made, there remains “a considerable gap” between UC’s average net pay versus California’s growing living costs.

“The pay is hard to make work in the Bay Area,” Dagdelen said. “It was doable five years ago. In the last year, everything has gotten 20 to 30% more expensive, but we haven’t gotten a (similar) pay raise.”

“Know what our rights are”: Current efforts to improve work conditions 

The current contract between UAW and the UC offers graduate student workers financial support with benefits including tuition reimbursements, fee remissions, a child care subsidy of up to $4400 a year and a 3% annual wage increase over four years, according to Graduate Division spokesperson Jennifer Santos Denton.

Cervantes also noted the UC campuses offer graduate students paid fellowships and grants to help students pay for living expenses such as housing.

“GSIs at Berkeley provide undergraduates with important instructional support,” Denton said in an email. “A robust set of policies and support are set to aid them in their work.”

UAW and the UC are currently negotiating a new contract to replace the current one, which ends June 30, 2022, Denton added.

UAW 2865 has already secured a 30% base wage increase for unionized academic UC workers, compared to non-unionized workers since their inception in 2000, according to their website.

Currently, UAW 2865 is pushing for six main points for better wages and benefits — higher wages, five-year housing guarantees, free transit passes, expanded healthcare benefits, retirement plan support and full tuition and fee remission — in their website’s 2022 Bargaining Proposals.

To address rent burden, UAW has advocated for an immediate wage increase of at least 3.33 times the highest median rent near campus for the base 20 hour/week worker so no more than 30% of a worker’s income would go toward rent. Then, UAW asks for yearly wage increases for either 10% or the biggest median rent increase rate near campus, depending on which is higher.

“One of the big challenges is just how rent burdened we all are,” Kathuria said.

Beyond advocating for better pay and benefits in their 2022 Bargaining Proposals, UAW 2865 is also pushing for more equity at work, union rights and job security, according to their website.

Regarding work equity, UAW 2865 calls for expanded mental health services and training against harassment, discrimination and bullying, especially against underrepresented groups on campus.

Additionally, UAW 2865 points out the need for better accommodation access needs, expanded paid leave periods, more childcare support and coverage for worker visa and English proficiency exam fees as basic student worker rights.

For stronger union rights, UAW 2865 pushes for an improved process to report grievances and a requirement for changes to working conditions to be agreed upon by both parties. Further, UAW 2865 seeks for better job security with funding guarantees and class size caps.

“For any student working on campus, I’d just want them to know what their rights are,” Kathuria said. “We do have a lot of great labor protections, but being written in a contract isn’t enough…we really have to know what our rights are and enforce them.”

Cindy Liu is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @_CindyLiu_.