April 15

Why UC student researchers need a union

Right now, a group of graduate student researchers across the University of California are working to form a union.  What does this mean? 

How is science made? 

The process of becoming a full-time (“tenure-track”) neuroscientist or biologist at a university or other research institution involves a long training process.  Students must obtain an undergraduate degree (4 years) and acquire research experience (can take an additional 1-2 years) before applying for and completing their Ph.D.  The median time to degree in the biological sciences for US PhD students is about 6 years (even when there’s not a global pandemic) [7].  If students intend on applying for professorships, they almost always work as a postdoctoral researcher after graduating, for about 5 years on average for biologists [8], with the potential for working additional subsequent postdoctoral positions.  And after all of this, successfully obtaining a tenure-track academic job (and then achieving tenure) is not at all guaranteed [1,6].

“Training periods”  — i.e. grad school and post doc positions– are a large part of how science “gets made”: researchers collect and analyze data in the lab in order to write papers that summarize and communicate their results.  In the labs of prominent research faculty, groundbreaking work is almost always done by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers – not the professors themselves.  In contrast with students in other professional programs like law school or medical school, PhD students are university employees.  Graduate student researchers (GSRs) often receive an annual stipend in addition to tuition remission from the university they attend. Students in the life sciences rarely take classes beyond the first year or two of their program; instead, they work solely in their chosen research lab (usually for 40-60 hours per week) [15]. 

Something is Wrong

Despite being de facto full-time workers, non-unionized GSRs at institutions like the University of California lack many basic rights and protections.  At UC, GSRs have no guaranteed medical leave, parental leave, or vacation time over the course of their 5-7 years.  Graduate students are “at will” employees, meaning they can be dismissed at any time for any reason without legal recourse, and UC is not obligated to uphold its offers of employment. Although students are offered a compensation package for their labor, graduate stipends often do not scale with cost-of-living increases, and universities can make arbitrary adjustments to on-campus rent [9,10]. Administrative errors can result in students not getting paid on time or in incorrect amounts; at UCLA, students were recently compensated with Amazon gift cards instead of money owed to them by the university [11]. PhD students also have little protection from harassment and discriminination.  All harassment and discrimination reports must be filed through the university Title IX office, which offers no effective timelines (the resolution process can take years) or required interim measures.  In general, UC administrators are the final decision-makers when it comes to all aspects of graduate student wages, benefits, and working conditions.  

Completing a PhD is a long and difficult process, and students often suffer as a result.  A 2018 working paper from researchers at Harvard University found that about 18% of Economics PhD students showed signs of moderate to severe anxiety or depression – a rate more than 3x higher than the population average [2,3].  They also report that 11% of students (in their study, 56 people) reported having suicidal thoughts on at least several days within the past 2 weeks.  Even with these poor initial conditions, the COVID-19 pandemic has eroded graduate student health and well-being even further.  A survey of 4000 students from May-July 2020 found that 32% of graduate and professional students screened positive for major depressive disorder, and 39% screened positive for generalized anxiety disorder [4,5].   These rates were more pronounced for students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, LGBTQ+ students, and students who are care-givers.  Despite these abysmal statistics suggesting vast systemic problems, students lack power or a collective voice to make changes in their working conditions.  

Equity and Accountability 

By forming a union, GSRs can bargain collectively with UC in order to write a fair contract for their labor.  The terms of a union-negotiated contract are determined democratically by student researchers themselves.  In order to form a union, a majority of student researchers across UC must sign authorization cards indicating that they support the formation of the union. Once a majority of GSRs have signed, the count is verified by the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), an impartial government agency.  Then, a bargaining team made up of elected GSRs will negotiate a contract with UC.  

The goal of any contract achieved through the GSR union would be to protect vulnerable and marginalized students by establishing equitable working conditions.  Contracts for unionized GSRs at other major universities have secured things like guaranteed childcare, dependent health care coverage, and guaranteed bereavement, family, sick, and immigration leaves. Academic student employees (TA’s, tutors, and readers) and postdoctoral researchers are already unionized at UC and have won pay increases, healthcare benefits, and workload protections among various other benefits. Importantly, union contract gains are legally enforceable!  GSRs can file grievances and receive legal representation when their contract terms are not met. 

Science in Society 

A major priority of GSR unionization involves protecting the rights of international student researchers. Within the past 5 years, international GSRs have been subjected to numerous discriminatory federal policies, like the Muslim ban [12] or the requirement that international students take in-person classes [13] to remain in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Student visa status is precarious and subject to often arbitrary and xenophobic foreign policy [14].  GSR unionization could provide a stronger political voice and legal protections to safeguard this group of especially vulnerable workers. 

Finally, science is political! In the United States, academic science is funded almost exclusively by government agencies (i.e. the NIH and the NSF).  At a macroscopic level, prioritizing what science gets done, and by whom, is a political enterprise.  The Biden administration recently released a plan to restructure the funding of major federal agencies like the NSF, reflecting the administration’s agenda on foreign policy, the environment, and domestic infrastructure. In the future, the collective power of GSR unions across the country would give student researchers a voice in determining funding priorities.  

If you are a student researcher at UC, you can learn more about the campaign here and consider signing a card here.


  1. So Many Research Scientists, So Few Openings as Professors – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/upshot/so-many-research-scientists-so-few-openings-as-professors.html
  2. The Emotional Toll of Graduate School – Scientific American Blog Network. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-emotional-toll-of-graduate-school/
  3. Barreira, P., Basilico, M., & Bolotnyy, V. (1004). Graduate Student Mental Health: Lessons from American Economics Departments.
  4. Langin, K. (2020). As the pandemic erodes grad student mental health, academics sound the alarm. Science. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.caredit.abe6554
  5. Chirikov, I., Soria, K. M., Horgos, B., & Org, E. (2020). UC Berkeley SERU Consortium Reports Title Undergraduate and Graduate Students’ Mental Health During the COVID-19 Pandemic Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw Publication Date. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/80k5d5hw
  6. Larson, R. C., Ghaffarzadegan, N., & Xue, Y. (2014). Too many PhD graduates or too few academic job openings: The basic reproductive number R0 in academia. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 31(6), 745–750. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2210
  7. Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities: 2019 | NSF – National Science Foundation. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf21308/data-tables
  8. Kahn, S., & Ginther, D. K. (2017). The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine. Nature Biotechnology, 35(1), 90–94. https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.3766
  9. UCSD graduate students say rent increases are just too much for students already struggling | cbs8.com. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.cbs8.com/article/news/local/ucsd-grad-students-rent-housing/509-75cb963c-b7ed-4dc6-b61c-9eca22a98e00
  10. Senate Council Response to Graduate Student Housing Rate Increases. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://senate.ucsd.edu/current-affairs/news-announcements/senate-council-response-to-graduate-student-housing-rate-increases/
  11. UCLA Paid Student Workers With Amazon Gift Cards. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5bvex/ucla-paid-student-workers-with-amazon-gift-cards
  12. Timeline of the Muslim Ban | ACLU of Washington. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.aclu-wa.org/pages/timeline-muslim-ban
  13. SEVP modifies temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online courses during fall 2020 semester | ICE. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2021, from https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/sevp-modifies-temporary-exemptions-nonimmigrant-students-taking-online-courses-during
  14. Subbaraman, N. (2020). US investigations of Chinese scientists expand focus to military ties. In Nature (Vol. 585, Issue 7824, pp. 170–171). NLM (Medline). https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-02515-x
  15. Woolston, C. (2019). PhDs: the tortuous truth. Nature, 575(7782), 403–406. https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03459-7