Graduate assistants at Boston University on 12-month stipends will get two weeks’ paid vacation time starting in September. Students on shorter stipends will get prorated paid time off. This is on top of already scheduled holidays and intersession days.
Among others aims, the university hopes to encourage students’ self-care.
“Not only is graduate school inherently stressful and isolating, but changes in the academic job market have increased feelings of uncertainty,” said Emily Barman, associate dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a professor of sociology. Two weeks’ vacation alone “isn’t sufficient,” she said. But it’s a start — and one of a number of changes Boston is making to help graduate students.
Other changes include funding to pay for childcare when graduate students — many of whom are parents — attend professional conferences. Discounted dental health care is also now available through the university’s Dental Health Center.
The vacation policy is perhaps the most significant change, however, as it’s uncommon in academe. Most graduate students aren’t guaranteed paid vacation time apart from scheduled days off.
The policy also challenges the all-consuming “ideal worker” ethos of many if not most labs and graduate programs.
Case in point: Diane Lebo, a Ph.D. candidate in biology at Boston and president of its Graduate Student Organization student government, said that during her first year on campus she told a professor about her plans to go home for Thanksgiving. The university would be closed. But the professor’s response was that “I’m no longer an undergraduate and that I should stay here and work,” Lebo recalled.
Lebo still went home, as her plans were already set. But “that message has stuck with me throughout my time here.”
She’s not alone. Lebo said there may be less pressure to work on “off” days. But “many, if not most, of us do not take intersession off, and work through the holidays.”
That said, Lebo thinks the new vacation policy is a great thing, since “it guarantees that we all get time to decompress every once in a while.”
It just “needs to be enforced,” she added. “We graduate students need to remember to take that time off, and our mentors have to not just allow, but encourage, us to take it.”
Barman said the new policy originated in Lebo’s department (Lebo said she was not heavily involved in those discussions). Some in biology wanted to formalize vacation time for graduate students in the interest of transparency and equity. But they wanted to make sure that an equivalent policy didn’t already exist, and that their idea didn’t violate university rules, Barman explained.
“A university is always improved when clear policies are in place and when processes of accountability are transparent,” she added. And at a time when Ph.D. students “feel ever more pressure to publish,” it’s important that the university “communicates its commitment to their well-being.”
Jeanna Kinnebrew, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Boston and mother to a 3-year-old, said she was “very pleased” to learn of the new policy. Enrolling in graduate school following a job in industry, she realized that being a teaching fellow means “there really is no off time.” That became more apparent — and difficult — after she had a child and had to juggle teaching, research travel and dissertation writing on top of day-care schedules, child sick days and school closings.
“This policy is a good step forward in recognizing the realities of graduate student life,” she said.
Like Lebo’s, Kinnebrew’s praise came with some qualifications. Kinnebrew said she’d like more clarity on how the policy translates to graduate students in the humanities. As written, the policy says that vacation time for those supported by teaching fellowships can’t conflict with teaching obligations, including class time and planning meetings.
That about covers the entire semester, she said. And since many humanities stipends run from September to April, it’s immediately unclear “exactly when we are expected to take our vacation time.”
“This is an excellent policy,” Kinnebrew said, “but one which will prove ultimately frustrating for the majority of graduate students if the expectations and restrictions around teaching fellows’ time are not clarified.”
Some graduate students also have expressed concern that not all faculty members — their effective managers — are not yet aware of the new policy.
Daniel Kleinman, associate provost for graduate affairs, said the university expects to have a “multifaceted communication strategy” about paid vacation. Students will learn about the policy during orientation and through student organizations. The university will ask directors of graduate studies in individual programs to discuss it with them, as well.
As for Kinnebrew’s concern about humanities students with shorter appointments, Kleinman said the university recognizes that the vacation policy “is of greater benefit to our students with 12-month appointments, especially those who work in laboratories.” (About 58 percent of arts and sciences Ph.D. students have 12-month appointments, and the share is larger in some other divisions.)
He added via email, “We view our new vacation policy as one among many policies and programs that seek to enhance the educational experience of our Ph.D. students. Among other recent programs for Ph.D. students in the humanities and social sciences are initiatives that provide stipends to Ph.D. students who serve as interns over the summer in nonprofit, cultural and governmental organizations in the Boston area.”
Jon Bomar, director of employment concerns for the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, said in a statement that his organization supports “fair compensation and time off for graduate student workers.” While paid vacation, in addition to breaks in the academic calendar, “is a positive step,” he continued, “it draws attention to a central problem with the culture surrounding graduate employment — graduate students are expected to work countless hours, often including holidays and breaks in the academic calendar, in exchange for low wages.”
So the “very fact that a proposal for paid vacation time for graduate student workers at B.U. has made the news reflects the disregard many institutions and faculty advisors have for the wellbeing and personal lives of graduate student workers,” Bomar said. “Nevertheless, the [association] supports progressive efforts, such as paid time off, to promote fair graduate student employment.”
Giving graduate students paid vacation time is arguably an acknowledgment that they are workers. And the employee-versus-student question is at the heart of the ongoing graduate student union debate on private campuses. There’s a graduate union organizing drive at BU affiliated with the United Auto Workers. Supporters, like their pro-union peers elsewhere, maintain that they are employees entitled to collective bargaining rights.
Kleinman said that the university takes the position “that our Ph.D. students are students, and students can and should have vacation time.”
Vacations “are crucial for the mental health of our students,” Kleinman added, touching on the growing awareness of mental health concerns among graduate students.
Guaranteeing vacation time also helps Boston ensure its competitiveness in recruiting “the best Ph.D. students,” he said.
The new policy applies to all graduate students receiving stipends who are in good standing. That is $35,010 for those with 12-month stipends on the Charles River campus.
Vacation time does not accrue or roll over in the next academic year. B.U. holidays and intersession days do not include spring or summer recess periods.
To those students who haven’t taken any time off since they began their programs, Lebo advised, “Go take a vacation — you deserve it!”