Submission: To Advance Equity Goals, UC Must Recognize Student Researchers United

This piece was submitted by Marina McCowin, a fourth year doctorate student at UCSD.

I am a fourth-year doctorate student in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. I’m writing this op-ed to explain why I support forming a Student Researchers’ union. At first I was hesitant to share my story, because it lacks an eye-popping headline and a dramatic climax. But I then realized that’s precisely why my story is important to share: because the day-to-day reality of being a student researcher is full of small problems and inequities that on their own don’t sound bad, but add up to an environment in which workers don’t have enforceable rights, and have to fight for basic workplace protections. Some of us can get ahead by coming from more privileged backgrounds, and exercising the confidence that comes with that, but those of us who don’t have that privilege often struggle, and have no real recourse when things go wrong. By forming an SR union, student researchers can make changes in theUC system that will give rights to all student researchers and make careers in science more available to everyone. 

When I began graduate school, I worked as a graduate student researcher in my advisor’s lab. Here, erratic hours were to be expected. There would be weeks where things were normal, followed by weeks where I worked up to double the hours I was paid to work. When I started my doctorate, I expected to work long hours in service to my lifelong love of deep-sea biology. However, coming into lab when I was sick and should have stayed home eventually started to wear me down. I was not able to define my boundaries and limits. 

I never had the idea that things could or should be different until I worked as a TA. When I was a TA, I noticed that my supervisor paid a lot more attention to issues like hours and time off. I was also paid for all of the work I did, including prep-time. If I was too sick to work, I could stay home without the expectation that I would have to make up the missed hours later. The TA contract even stipulated benefits like long-term pregnancy and parental leave. While I haven’t used these benefits myself, I am reassured by the freedom they give my colleagues and me to avoid having to choose between our personal lives and our careers.

There is an irony behind this whole situation, which is that my supervisor as a GSR and as a teaching assistant was actually the same person. The difference is that when I was a TA, they were responding to the rules laid out in the union contract, whereas when I was a GSR, there were no such rules to follow. The reason that TAs have guaranteed access to leaves and other benefits than GSRs do is not because they have “good” supervisors and GSRs have “bad” ones; it is because their supervisors, whatever their natural dispositions, are responding to the rules laid out in a union contract.

Forming an SR union will ensure that our supervisors all play by the same rules. In my current GSR position, I take sick days when I need to, and I work the hours I need to advance my projects without jeopardizing my mental health. At this point in my doctorate career, I feel comfortable advocating for myself and demanding what I need. This is great for me, but many GSRs I know do not have this luxury. If their advisor decides they aren’t working enough, or aren’t getting results, even if they work every minute of every hour they’re paid to work, they could be terminated through no fault of their own. For those without familial fallback plans, or international students who could be on the hook for expensive non-resident tuition, taking that risk often isn’t an option. 

SIO is one of the whitest STEM departments at UC San Diego (53 percent of Scripps’ doctorate students are white, compared to 25.6 percent of all graduate students). I cannot help but think that there is a connection between the arbitrary way in which benefits are conferred to SRs and the difficulty my department has attracting students from diverse backgrounds. If I had trouble advocating for my rights and benefits, imagine how much more difficult it would be for other students who are less familiar with the academic environment. I have personally experienced discrimination because of my gender; I know my colleagues who are non-white, or non-citizens, endure more.

An SR union will level the playing field and ensure that nobody’s workplace rights are dependent on the goodwill of their PI. With a union contract, SRs can negotiate collectively for the benefits they want. Sick leave, personal time, and parental leave can be negotiated and enforceable, like they are for postdocs and TAs. 

I know I’m not the only person who supports this. In fact, over 10,000 of my colleagues agree that SRs need a union. On Monday, May 24th, SRs delivered over 10,000 signed union authorization cards to the state labor board in Oakland. This is a first step towards establishing a student researcher union. The state must now count and verify the cards, and then it is the UC system’s responsibility to agree to recognize the union and begin bargaining a contract.

I am fortunate I’m able to pursue my passion for deep-sea biology through my graduate studies. This work is not only interesting to me, but is also an important part of the effort to preserve biodiversity in the deep sea, where unique animals, chemical compounds, and more have the potential to advance science and medicine. As a scientist, it is my goal to make marine biology and oceanography accessible to everybody. This is actually a goal that the UC system and I share; the UC system’s own website proudly states a commitment to educate students “from all backgrounds, ethnicities, and incomes.” Forming an SR union, and opening up careers in scientific research to people who have traditionally been excluded from them, is a necessary step in that direction, and as such I hope the UC system quickly agrees to recognize SRU.

Photo by Vladimir Proskurovskiy on Unsplash.

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