As a former student employee, I was fairly ignorant of labor laws in general. But now as I am applying to graduate programs, given the increased demands and duties of graduate students: teaching, research, etc. I wonder if US labor laws still apply to student labor in general.

Given anecdotal stories of overstressed graduate students working well beyond a ‘planned’ 40 work week on a stipend that when calculated on a per hour basis may equate to less than minimum wage; and the types of work that students do: laboratory research, fieldwork, custodial, food service, etc. Surely there are protections in place to prevent abuse and overworking students of all types.

  • If in the off chance that this is better for Law SE, let me know and I’ll flag a moderator to migrate the question. – Frank FYC Dec 27 '17 at 11:14
  • Are labor laws respected for all people? Will employers exploit workers? – Solar Mike Dec 27 '17 at 11:23
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    If a strict 9-5 job is what you want, being a student (of any kind) is not for you. – Jon Custer Dec 27 '17 at 13:57
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    Which laws? There are lots of labor laws. Some apply, some don’t. This question is too vague. – Noah Snyder Dec 27 '17 at 16:34
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    The short answer is no, which is why grad students form unions (and why universities fight that tooth and nail). – Elizabeth Henning Dec 27 '17 at 17:53

Graduate students fall into a gray area with respect to American labor law, because they are a bit of a hybrid between students and employees. At least for the first year or two, they are usually mostly taking classes, and doing some research, but the balance shifts more toward research in later years.

As for the number of hours worked:

Research ideas don't wait until you punch in in the morning.

The expected workload completely depends on the culture of the lab. I knew of groups in my old department where there really were no "expected schedules," and other groups where the expectation was about 80 hours per week!

That said, graduate students in my department worked a wide variety of different schedules. Some were night owls, who showed up around 10 or 11 at night, and stayed until 8 in the morning. Others were punctually showing up around 9 am and sticking around to 5 or 5:30 in the evening—and everything else imaginable.

Personally, there were days when I worked from 8:00 to 6:00 or so; other days around deadlines I might work until midnight; still other days I'd take a half-day or so.

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  • Did you ever have to pursue alternative income streams? Non academic work to pay expenses, and if so, did you need permission from your school? – Frank FYC Dec 28 '17 at 6:25
  • No, I didn’t have to have alternative income sources. If I did, I probably would have had to clear it with the department if it were a regular job. I did have a few irregular, revenue earning “gigs” in grad school, but since they were weekend events (test proctoring, etc.), I didn’t feel it needed to be cleared, since it wasn’t affecting my research. – aeismail Dec 28 '17 at 12:01

In the way you are describing, i.e. salary per hour, I do not think labor laws apply. Standard workweek for grad students doing research is 50-60 hours presence in the lab.For most (engineering) stipends I'm aware of this would be slightly above minimum wage. If one were working more hours or had less stipend and fell below that quota, I doubt nothing would ever be done about it in a reasonable amount of time. It is even difficult for grad students to form a union to address these issues.

I would also add a lot of what grad students do when they are present is also not work, if I had an experiment running and went to the gym for 2 h, I was present on campus for those two hours but not really working. Same goes for facebook, watching netflix, joining clubs, taking language courses for fun, etc, lots of things grad students do to pass the long hours.

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  • All things a person can do in a traditional company. A pharmaceutical company employee may ‘goof off’ for an hour and still get paid, now whether hourly or salaries the distinction may or may not have weight. – Frank FYC Dec 27 '17 at 11:56
  • I would also take a guess that a pharma salary is higher than student stipend. – DBB Dec 27 '17 at 12:04
  • But the key point here is that the pharm work may be equivalent to the work done by graduate students. – Frank FYC Dec 27 '17 at 12:10
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    Standard workweek for grad students doing research is 50-60 hours presence in the lab. — This really depends on the field. Not all disciplines hve “labs”. – JeffE Dec 27 '17 at 15:22
  • Graduate students are viewed as trainees who are compensated partially in "experience" "training" "earning credentials" "freedom to independently choose and solve problems" etc. For a professional job you either are producing at the expected level and get to keep earning a comparatively higher salary until the day they lay you off. There are pros and cons to both but yeah if you already qualify for a high paying pharma job, are weighing that against a PhD position, and want to count in terms of "$/h" there really is no decision. Take it... – DBB Dec 27 '17 at 17:47

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