Taken advantage of

One of the big problems I notice with grad students, is how often we end up being taken advantage of. And I’m not talking about the on-going joke of grad students being “cheap labour” (not that I disagree). But instead, I’m talking about finding yourself in a situation where other professors/administrators start to lean on you more than others.

This goes hand in hand with learning how to say ‘no’ when asked to do something, but it’s not always so easy. Especially when lots of these opportunities often are disguised as things that would be good for you – good for your cv, good for your professional development, good for your networking, good for whatever.

I have a friend who has this problem as a TA. He’s an awesome TA. However, the instructors know that and they know that some of the other TAs in his group aren’t nearly as strong. So what happens? They end up piling more work on his shoulders. Some of it can be well disguised as a good learning opportunity. But, at the end of the day, he gets paid the same as the other TAs and is often doing 2 – 3 times as much work. I’m a little worried I might be heading down this same path in the course I’m TA-ing, so I’m trying to be careful.

I notice this sometimes with my supervisor. Often supervisors have a sort of “seniority” ranking of their grad students based on who has been there the longest. Which makes a lot more sense than what degree, because the longer you’ve been there, the more you know about the department and how things work. However, in my case, there are two of us who have been there equally long. And yet, I find my supervisor will usually ask me over the other student. As much as this can sometimes be a bigger burden, a lot of this work also fall under the “good for me” category, which makes it hard to turn down.

In the end, I find that I have to sort of weight each task based on how much time it will take against the personal benefit I will get from completing it against how I want to be viewed by the person asking. If it’s short, even if there’s little or no personal gain, I will probably do it so that the person asking will keep a favorable opinion of me. If it’s going to take a significant amount of time, then I will need to receive some sort of benefit – something that’s good to put on my CV, or a chance to develop a skill I rarely get to use (like teaching).

It’s important to be aware of what people are asking of you, and what sort of burden it carries. While it’s pretty much inevitable that you will be taken advantage of at some point, it doesn’t have to be a completely negative experience if you can make sure you’re gaining something from it.

I’m also inclined to believe, that if you’re never being taken advantage of you probably want to re-examine what you’re doing. You’re probably not a student that profs or administrators think they can rely on or want to represent them/the department/the university. And you’re probably missing out on good opportunities that will help you later in your career.

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