University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023.
University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Last year’s historic University of California strike ushered in a new contract for academic workers with higher wages. But the dispute is not over. 

Graduate student researchers in San Diego attended a town hall on April 3 at Scripps Institution of Oceanography to argue that their employer was backpedaling on the eve of the new contract going into effect. The workers claim they’re getting less than what was promised. And their claims highlight the messy nature of the UC wage system.

The convoluted dispute: Much of the complex debate stems from the UC putting graduate student researchers into different pay categories known as “steps,” depending on how long they’ve been employed there. 

Generally, researchers only get paid for the grant-funded lab work they do and not for thesis work. So if a graduate student researcher divides their full-time schedule evenly between lab work and thesis work, they get paid for half of the total hours they’ve worked. 

University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023.
University of California San Diego in La Jolla on Feb. 14, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The percentage of paid versus unpaid work is what’s in contention. 

Adu Vengal, the recording secretary of the UAW Union executive board, said UC administrators and the union agreed at the bargaining table to pay all academic workers for 50 percent of their time, but in practice are only paying for 40 percent. 

That amounts to around $6,000 of lost income per worker per year. 

The 50 percent pay guarantee was not included in the final contract, but Vengal and others say the verbal agreement should still be legally binding. 

The dispute gets convoluted-er: In an announcement last month, Scripps said incoming graduate students would be paid for 50 percent of work and continuing students would remain at their current arrangement, either 40 or 43 percent pay for work. 

The academic workers quickly sprang into action, issuing a letter of their own and organizing a town hall to express feelings of betrayal. Scripps responded that the new wage system was designed to create parity between incoming and continuing students. UCSD maintains that the changes are being carried out per the new contract. 

“We want to achieve parity for incoming and continuing [Scripps] students, so that there are no major discrepancies,” said Sarah Gille, the department chair, at the town hall. “So what that means is that for our continuing students, who have been compensated already at a very high step, our plan is to slightly increase their work.” 

The students’ take: They don’t find that explanation reassuring. The problem, in their eyes, is that Scripps is simply tweaking the work hours and appointment times but the pay isn’t changing very much. 

According to the department, researchers who’ve been around longer will only see their earnings increase to around $40,500 by the end of this year, up from $35,000. A Scripps Graduate Student Council survey shows that 39 percent of the department’s workers rely on outside assistance to make ends meet and two-thirds were considered rent burdened, meaning they spend more than a third of their income on rent.

The students also argue that the lines between lab work and thesis work are blurred. For most, it’s hard to draw a clean-cut line. But even if they do take on more lab work than thesis work, they don’t necessarily get paid for it, and students say it eats into the time that’s supposed to be reserved for thesis work. 

Taylor Hernandez, a third-year doctoral student, said she used to cycle through three different labs and ended up spending all her work hours on projects unrelated to her thesis. 

“My actual thesis work never came up while I was working in that lab,” she said, “and so all of the work that I did in that lab was not for my thesis. It was just arbitrary, random crap thrown at me.”

During the town hall, Scripps responded to the student workers’ frustration by invoking budget constraints. Though the department’s overall revenue in 2021-22 was $307 million, only around 23 percent, or $71 million, falls under operating costs like worker pay. 

But Jessica Ng, a Ph.D. student at Scripps, doesn’t believe the budget constraint justifies the underpayment of students. “What was clear to me was that they do have some discretion as to how money gets spent, such as for faculty hires, an extravagant prospective student open house, etc., and they have not prioritized graduate pay,” Ng said.

Similar complaints have also been leveled in UCSD’s biology, chemistry, and biomedical science departments. The UAW, which represents the students, recently filed a grievance over the implementation of the contract. It’s expected to go to arbitration. 

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Correction: This story has been updated to correct that advanced continuing students begin the year making $35,000 and will end the year at $40,500.

Tianrui Huang

Tianrui Huang is an intern at Voice of San Diego.

Jakob McWhinney

Jakob McWhinney is Voice of San Diego's education reporter. He can be reached by email at and followed...

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1 Comment

  1. Well, then go get a job in the real world and we will all find out what you are worth.

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