If you supervise a graduate student, or a student doing an honours thesis, the offer to do some research assistance for you can be an attractive proposition. If your student is lucky, he or she may actually get to do research in this research assistant job, for which he or she will get almost vanishingly small credit but through which, at least, he or she may actually learn things that are valuable to their development as an intellectual. True, in many cases research assistance work turns out to be little more than footnote checking, but even here the work allows the student to read a text he or she has some subject matter interest in. While the work might sometimes end up having little to no relation to his or her actual academic interests, even in these marginal cases there may be some peripheral learning about the nitty-gritty ins-and-outs of the academic grind. Booking hotels, ordering letterhead and answering emails about asking whether a conference participant can get partial reimbursement for a flight upgrade to business class (no, they can’t) may all be taxing, but there are certain inescapable, technical dimensions to academic life. While having a handle on the mess that goes into planning a conference (or getting a book published, etc.) may not always be what a student signed up for when he or she took on a “research assistant” position, being able to handle these technical details–and technical glitches–is still educational.
Now: even when such jobs get advertised across the department and include some vague description of the work to be performed and even in the ideal case when there is an opportunity to discuss the details of the job with you before you start working together, the students who end up taking on the work are still inevitably entering a Faustian bargain. Working in most cases for substandard wages justified by the perfect storm of universities budget cuts, neoliberal managerialism that valorizes almost any labour-side cost-cutting, and wage floors for research assistants negotiated under university-wide collective bargaining that end up being treated as ceilings, these students justify the choice to themselves by hoping that the professors they work with will be able to write them a reference letter, or a faith that work inside the university is somehow more intrinsically beneficial than work outside it, and a belief, as per above, that they may learn something more in an experience working alongside an academic whose work they admire (at least by osmosis), than in working part time outside research proper.
How true is this narrative on the part of the student? The only fair answer is “it depends.” Sometimes a positive experience with a student will leave the two of you happy, life-long collaborators; perhaps, your experience will if nothing else provide you with sufficient interpersonal knowledge to write a sincere, supportive reference letter; if you are generous, the student may actually learn something from you that would have been impossible to get out of a classroom experience alone. On the other hand, some of your interactions with research assistants will inevitably be limited to a single meeting, a few documents emailed back and forth, and a few hours of their time that they will never get back but that, if you are lucky, will still have made a contribution to your academic projects. Tant pis.
Or more strongly: caveat emptor. For, despite all of the downsides of the Faustian bargain laid out above, we can at least say that it is a bargain, viz. a bilateral agreement. Nothing in this hypothetical forces the student to answer the job posting for a research assistant, nothing requires them to take the job once they have heard what it actually involves—or even to keep it once the contents turn out not to match what was on the label—and nothing stops them from finding some other, quite possibly more lucrative, part time job if they actually need financial support to complete their studies.
This story has a few small problems, and one big one. On the one hand, it is relatively easy to find holes to poke in this simple version. Some international students can only take on-campus jobs. Quitting any job is awkward, let alone a job under a professional whose field you want to continue working in after you quit. Students, unfortunately, don’t always know better, even if we can say they should. Furthermore, students shouldn’t be made to bear all the responsibility for professors who are simply terrible at delegating, and worse at managing.
But if the student taking the job is actually your student, the story fails much more catastrophically. The situation that plays when you act both in an academic-supervisory relationship to the student and as their boss, rehearses all the arguments about the nature of real power in employment relationships which labour lawyers have long offered to economists who believe that the existence of labour markets somehow implicitly discipline employer behavior. Namely, it is a situation in which it is very difficult for your student to say no. Your students quite rightly believe that you are a central component in the apparatus they use to push along their academic career. They rely on you for reference letters, not only for subsequent degrees and future job applications, but also for funding applications internal, national or international, occasionally conferences and symposia. There may be a collection of departmental administrative tasks you are required to fulfill on his or her behalf. You are expected, in every case, to help usher your student’s research project toward completion, which involves at minimum signing off once it has reached a stage where it can be read by others academics but might also include, if the student is fortunate, reading drafts, discussing roadblocks, and suggesting paths for further research. Often, bless them, these students will look up to you, or admire you or at the very least admire your work. But even if you have ended up together by chance, from the perspective of the student you essentially act as a monopolistic supplier of a large number of very important services.
It would be easy at this point to lapse into an overdetermined analogy of the economics of service provision between you and your students: overpricing of services under inadequate levels of competition, what could be accounted for as an underpricing of their services in the resulting barter relationship or, equivalently, as a mispricing of the services that they would provide to you. Luckily, there is a much easier way to explain the resulting conflict of interest. The dynamic the two of you face is this: your students depends on you to say ‘yes’ to a number of requests that they might make of you over the space of a year or longer, and every ‘no’ that greets a request you make of them will inevitably cast the shadow of some potential ‘no’ from you, no matter how remote. The relationship between you and your students is not reciprocal, cannot be. Yet the logic of reciprocation–I scratch your back, you scratch mine–is hard to shake, and harder to deny. You may want to believe that a student’s refusal to do some task for you, or their decision to quit a task halfway through, might have no effect on your treatment of them as a supervisor. But if so, you should ask yourself of your past and current students, of those who have done work for you and those who haven’t, which you know more about, have spent more time with, or feel generosity for.
In part, the worst aspects of this dynamic can be avoided by the steps identified above: opening the job to all the students in the department, including details about the nature of the work, and discussing it with candidates before hiring someone. If the work involves substantive research, then it is likely that your own charges are likely to not only be most qualified, but also most interested. Yet work that involves substantive research is also least likely to be a bad deal, and therefore minimizes the chance that the student will feel stuck doing work they don’t want to do by their inability to say ‘no’ to you.
Okay. Now let us remind ourselves that we live in a world where women attend university at much higher rates than men, but are still underrepresented in the highest levels of politics, industry and academia. Let us take as an example that women, now nearly half of law school entrants in the United States, remain a tiny sliver of partners at high-profile law firms. But note specifically that though women are overrepresented at universities, they remain less than half of the population of doctoral candidates. That successfully tenured women at universities is a smaller portion still of all tenured academics. That when academic job applications are submitted under female names, they are systematically rated as less competent, even when the content of the applications are otherwise the same. It’s probably worth thinking for a moment about how the perpetuation of these inequalities are linked simultaneously both to women’s persistently outsized contribution to childcare responsibilities (and indeed, to all care responsibilities) and to the perpetuation of stereotypes about women’s natural role reflected in the idea that any given women is likely to take significant time off of work to engage in child-rearing. Perhaps too we can think about how people’s perceptions of their capacities, and especially women’s perceptions of their capacities, are strongly influenced by both stereotypes and how others characterize their capacities.
Is it really necessary for me to spell out the rest? Does the sense now swim into view of why asking your female students, and your female students alone, to perform childcare responsibilities for you, might contribute to the perpetuation of academic inequality between men and women? When certain of your students are asked to spend some portion of their time, not doing substantive research with you, not editing or footnoting your work, not even phoning an airline to ask for a free upgrade to business class for a conference keynote (“I am sorry, ma’am, but that’s just not possible”), but instead performing a task that is stereotypically in the bailiwick of women, is it clear why this could only be understood as a material disadvantage to them, given that the opportunity cost is precisely time that could be spent on their own intellectual and academic development, including by answering belligerent conference emails for some other professor? Is it clear how, when you ask not just some students, but your students to do this work, that this material disadvantage is very hard to attribute in any way to them, given the tribulations involved in saying no to one’s supervisor? Might asking your female students to do this work, when you would not ask your male students to come over and do your gardening, risk giving them a sense that you somehow view them in a less full light, academically, than you view their male colleagues? Might this not-so-subtle implication not only hurt their feelings, but detract from their desire or willingness or confidence in their own work, in ways that materially detract from their success? If they did avoid such hurt feelings, could they do so other than by taking your request as anything other than an affront, which would, even if it didn’t impact on their confidence, nonetheless sour your relationship with them? Might a soured relationship with you harm their academic careers as well?
Don’t do it. Just don’t. Childrearing is hard! Sometimes you need a babysitter. If you have no shame, go ahead and post the job through the departmental email list, and see if you get any bites. But there are professionals, trustworthy professionals, who can be hired to do this work for you. Finding them, it’s true, often takes research. Luckily, you are a research professional, and if you don’t feel like finding a babysitter is a good use of your time, you can always pay one of your students to find one for you. Experience with balancing childcare responsibilities with an academic career, after all, is a lesson we can all learn.