Download more information and to see what graduate workers are saying about the survey.

Widespread problems with pay, healthcare, job security and discrimination are cited as some of the top issues for graduate assistants across the country, according to a new survey. The survey by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), provides deeper insight into why a majority of graduate assistants see a role for a unified voice to improve working conditions and are forming unions in growing numbers after the August National Labor Relations Board decision that restored their rights. Graduate student assistants at Duke University and Loyola University Chicago have already filed for a union election, and American University, University of Southern California, Boston University, Tufts University and others are actively organizing with SEIU.

“At Duke, I’ve heard from my colleagues all across the university about how they’ve been affected by unilateral changes made to their working conditions by the university. They’ve also been disheartened by some of the ways Duke has interacted with its graduate student employees, including mishandling of cases of sexual harassment,” said Joseph Longarino, a teaching assistant in Religious Studies at Duke University. “These issues are incredibly important not just for workers, but also for the universities that employ us. Our union will provide a clear and reliable way to address our workplace conditions so we can give our best to teaching our undergraduate students and perform top-notch research that fuels continued research funding. When we work together, we all win.”

Graduate student employees are an integral part of the core mission of higher education. Both public and private universities depend increasingly on adjunct instructors, graduate assistants and other non-tenure workers for instruction and research. Yet, they face numerous issues on the job and lack a voice on campus to address them.

Survey Reveals Top Issues Among Graduate Assistants 

According to the survey of graduate student teaching and research assistants at American University, Boston University, Brandeis University, DePaul University, Duke University, Loyola University Chicago, Northwestern University, St. Louis University, Tufts University, University of Rochester, University of Southern California, Vanderbilt University, and Washington University in St. Louis, 78 percent of graduate assistants combined view a role for a unified voice at their institutions to advocate for improved working conditions positively.

Here are the top issues that are important to more than two-thirds of all graduate assistants surveyed:

  • Pay/ stipends- 94%
  • Health insurance- 89%
  • Professional development- 87%
  • Workload- 87%
  • Respect- 86%
  • Research funding- 85%
  • Academic freedom- 82%
  • Job security- 81%
  • Summer gap in pay- 79%
  • Discrimination- 78%
  • Dental insurance- 78%
  • Administrative transparency – 78%
  • Sexual harassment- 76%
  • Voice – 75%
  • Funding reduced after set years- 72%
  • Affordable housing – 72%
  • Vision insurance – 69%
  • Tuition remission- 68%
  • Unpaid work- 67%


In just the past two years, tenured professors, contingent faculty and graduate student employees at campuses across the country, including the University of Chicago, Duke University, University of Minnesota and Georgetown, have won or launched campaigns with SEIU to win improved working conditions, better pay and a union to correct racial and gender inequities in higher education. For example:

  • In their first SEIU contracts, Boston University part-time faculty received pay raises between 29 percent and 68 percent over the three-year life of their first contract.
  • Washington University in St. Louis adjunct faculty negotiated to receive up to a 26 percent raise over the next four academic years.
  • Full-time lecturers at Tufts have won more meaningful faculty promotions, including longer, more secure appointments.
  • The California Faculty Association (CFA) contract establishes that the California State University System will provide a pool of $1.3 million to provide assigned time to faculty employees for several reasons, including student mentoring, advising and outreach, especially as these activities support underserved, first-generation, and/or underrepresented students.

“Institutions of higher education should be a beacon for learning and progress, said Yelyzaveta DiStefano a Psychology PhD Candidate and Graduate Assistant at Loyola University in Chicago. “Those who come to work here should be confident they will be given a living wage, have access to quality health and dental care and will be provided with a clear and unbiased process in instances of discrimination and sexual harassment. We are coming together for our union at Loyola because we care about our university and its integrity.”

Across the country, more than 130,000 higher education employees have formed their unions with SEIU with more than 2,000 faculty members added in November 2016 alone. A recent union vote at Columbia College marked SEIU’s 55thelection victory since 2013.