By Anne Whitesell
“How do you keep a work-life balance?”
The question was posed to me recently at a Q & A panel for incoming graduate students. I looked to my colleagues around me to see if any of them were prepared to answer the question. Instead, we just laughed. “I don’t,” one of us finally admitted, and the rest of us nodded our heads in agreement.
It turns out we’re not the only ones. In early August, the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE) at Penn State fielded a survey asking graduate employees about the compensation they receive and the amount of time they put into their assistantships. Most graduate assistants at Penn State, and the majority of the 199 survey respondents, have half-time assignments that require 20 hours of work per week. This work – which the administration recognizes as “vital to Penn State’s mission of teaching, research, and service” – ranges from assisting faculty in their research to serving as teaching assistants in large introductory seminars to teaching their own courses. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) with half-time assistantships reported working more than 20 hours per week on average.
Many graduate workers, unprompted, told us that the 20-hour standard was a farce. They were expected to work upwards of 40 or 50 hours a week on their assistantships and several reported that working any less would definitely lead to disciplinary action. Oftentimes this time commitment falls hardest on research assistants, whose hard work and dedication makes Penn State one of the top 20 research universities in the United States.
Of course, the half-time assignment includes only our “official” assistantship. It does not include all the time we spend mentoring undergraduates or other graduate students, ensuring that Penn State continues to attract the best and brightest. Nor does it include the hours we spend conducting our own research, which when published or presented at conferences builds Penn State’s reputation. And, of course, it does not include the time we spend in our own classes.
The cumulative effect of all these responsibilities takes a mental and physical toll on graduate employees. With stipends that barely meet a living wage, graduate employees are ill equipped to handle financial or personal emergencies. It also perpetuates an inconsistency between the lived experience of graduate workers and the image portrayed by the Penn State administration. According to the Graduate School, the average graduate employee on a half-time appointment receives an hourly rate of $27.75 an hour. Once the true amount of a graduate employee’s labor is taken into account, however, that hourly rate can easily be cut in half.
It’s time for Penn State to acknowledge that our commitment and dedication to the university is not driven solely by our academic pursuits, but also by our work as employees furthering Penn State’s mission.