Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation:
In 2019, there were 83,050 unionized graduate students in the US. Let’s assume these are mostly PhD students, since other graduate students are not usually university employees. I can’t find an estimate of the total number of PhD students in the US, but in 2019, 55,614 of them graduated. In 2020, the average US doctorate took 7.5 years to complete. That implies that 83,050/(55,614 x 7.5) = about one-fifth of PhD students in the US are part of a union.
That makes PhD student unions common, but not the majority. It means they’re not unheard of and strange, but a typical university still isn’t unionized. It’s the sweet spot for controversy. It leads to a lot of dumb tweets.
I saw one such dumb tweet recently, from a professor arguing that PhD students shouldn’t unionize. The argument was that if PhD students were paid more, then professors would prefer to hire postdocs, researchers who already have a doctoral degree.
(I won’t link to the tweet, in part because this person is probably being harassed enough already.)
I don’t know how things work in this professor’s field. But the implication, that professors primarily take on PhD students because they’re cheaper, not only doesn’t match my experience: it also just doesn’t make very much sense.
Imagine a neighborhood where the children form a union. They decide to demand a higher allowance, and to persuade any new children in the neighborhood to follow their lead.
Now imagine a couple in that neighborhood, deciding whether to have a child. Do you think that they might look at the fees the “children’s union” charges, and decide to hire an adult to do their chores instead?
Maybe there’s a price where they’d do that. If neighborhood children demanded thousands of dollars in allowance, maybe the young couple would decide that it’s too expensive to have a child. But a small shift is unlikely to change things very much: people have kids for many reasons, and those reasons don’t usually include cheap labor.
The reasons professors take on PhD students are similar to the reasons parents decide to have children. Some people have children because they want a legacy, something of theirs that survives to the next generation. For professors, PhD students are our legacy, our chance to raise someone on our ideas and see how they build on them. Some people have children because they love the act of child-raising: helping someone grow and learn about the world. The professors who take on students like taking on students: teaching is fun, after all.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be cases “on the margin”, where a professor finds they can’t afford a student they previously could. (And to be fair to the tweet I’m criticizing, they did even use the word “marginal”.) But they would have to be in a very tight funding situation, with very little flexibility.
And even for situations like that, long-term, I’m not sure anything would change.
I did my PhD in the US. I was part of a union, and in part because of that (though mostly because I was in a physics department), I was paid relatively decently for a PhD student. Relatively decently is still not that great, though. This was the US, where universities still maintain the fiction that PhD students only work 20 hours a week and pay proportionate to that, and where salaries in a university can change dramatically from student to postdoc to professor.
One thing I learned during my PhD is that despite our low-ish salaries, we cost our professors about as much as postdocs did. The reason why is tuition: PhD students don’t pay their own tuition, but that tuition still exists, and is paid by the professors who hire those students out of their grants. A PhD salary plus a PhD tuition ended up roughly equal to a postdoc salary.
Now, I’m working in a very different system. In a Danish university, wages are very flat. As a postdoc, a nice EU grant put me at almost the same salary as the professors. As a professor, my salary is pretty close to that of one of the better-paying schoolteacher jobs.
At the same time, tuition is much less relevant. Undergraduates don’t pay tuition at all, so PhD tuition isn’t based on theirs. Instead, it’s meant to cover costs of the PhD program as a whole.
I’ve filled out grants here in Denmark, so I know how much PhD students cost, and how much postdocs cost. And since the situation is so different, you might expect a difference here too.
There isn’t one. Hiring a PhD student, salary plus tuition, costs about as much as hiring a postdoc.
Two very different systems, with what seem to be very different rules, end up with the same equation. PhD students and postdocs cost about as much as each other, even if every assumption that you think would affect the outcome turns out completely different.
This is why I expect that, even if PhD students get paid substantially more, they still won’t end up that out of whack with postdocs. There appears to be an iron law of academic administration keeping these two numbers in line, one that holds across nations and cultures and systems. The proportion of unionized PhD students in the US will keep working its way upwards, and I don’t expect it to have any effect on whether professors take on PhDs.