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Orientation Day - Human Resources

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

You've just got accepted into a prestigious graduate school program, and you are quick and eager to embark on a life-changing adventure. While this is certainly understandable, this rush of positive emotions can effectively cloud your judgment, leading you to make decisions that you will eventually come to haunt you. This is not to say that graduate school is a trap, and you shouldn't feel that way, either. You worked hard to get to this point, likely contributing countless hours to studying, volunteer work, and pursuing a difficult and/or highly competitive undergraduate degree. You were selected as one of the best and brightest among your peer group. Be proud of this. However, it is also important to be cautiously optimistic. Over the next couple of days, you will be inundated with several different kinds of paperwork, trainings, and contracts, that will effectively have you signing your life away to the institution for the next 4-7 years. I cannot emphasize enough that you should go into orientation, with a clear and open mind. Consider carefully the paperwork you are being presented --- does it seem reasonable? Is it fair? Perhaps you would like to discuss your contracts with a lawyer first, before agreeing to anything? These are all sensible things to consider as you begin your graduate studies.


As I've mentioned in my previous article, you will likely be treated either as an employee or a student, depending on what is convenient to the school within a given scenario. Therefore, we will start this article by discussing the typical type of paperwork that will be added to your human resources (HR) file on day 1 of your "employment". This will then be followed up with a typical student paperwork article, and concluded with program-specific paperwork. By the end of this article, you should begin to appreciate the complexity of an employee-student contract.


Starting off from the HR side of your contract, you will likely be presented with the following items, which we will most likely have to discuss more in-depth in later articles. Based on my experiences in my own program, these are fairly standard:

  1. Confidentiality Statement The main purpose of this contract is to protect the institution/organization from release of sensitive/private information. This can include many things, but ultimately is designed to legally protect the institution from "bad press". Within reason (we will discuss in more detail in later articles), it is your responsibility as an employee to present the organization in a positive light, or at the very least, not to participate in slander or libel against them.

  2. Direct Deposit Form Everyone wants to get paid, however, this form serves an additional, hidden purpose for the organization, which we will discuss more on the Nondisclosure Agreement (NDA) article. Basically, when used in conjunction with other forms, you waive most, if not all of your rights to intellectual property and copyrights.

  3. ID Card/Badge Receipt Fairly standard paperwork. Several places in your institution will have restricted access and require proper identification. This form confirms you've received a badge that determines which facilities you may access.

  4. Information Technology (IT) Policies Another fairly simple form. In exchange for using your institution's IT resources, you agree not to abuse these privileges and use them irresponsibly. This includes visiting insecure websites, falling for e-mail scams (phishing, whaling, etc.), or inappropriate websites, such as pornography or illegal file sharing.

  5. Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) This is the big one right here. In addition to promising to not reveal your organization's trade secrets, copyrights or other intellectual property, you agree to waive your own intellectual property rights in exchange for a salary/compensation, as discussed in (2). Be very careful about signing this form --- do you currently have any good ideas, pending IPs or copyrights? Now is the time to disclose this information to your employer/school/institution, and to make it clear that this IP is not "on the table". You may also want to discuss this contract with a lawyer before signing it. It is easier to negotiate your employment terms BEFORE they are finalized as this gives you more leverage. Negotiating your terms after the fact can quickly become unreliable and more complicated. Proceed with caution!

  6. Institutional Policy Agreement In addition to the rest of your HR, student and program paperwork, this is kind of a catch-all form that makes you subject to all other policies, which you are often asked to review on your own time. If it is not clear what these policies are, or how to ask them, make sure you contact someone from HR, and they should be able to point you in the right direction.

  7. Tobacco-Free Policy Don't smoke or use other tobacco products on campus. Simple enough.

  8. Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax As a student or an employee who is actively taking classes at an institution of higher learning, you are exempt from paying certain taxes under Section 3121(b)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code. This is important, because most other employees would be required to pay FICA as part of their income taxes. Keep track of this when filing your taxes, and make sure you are not paying more than necessary in income taxes.

  9. Hazardous Work Areas Especially if you are pursuing a degree in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM), it is perfectly reasonable to expect you will sometimes be working in places that are either biologically, radiologically or chemically hazardous. However, you may want to think about this, if you are pursuing a degree in a field where this isn't necessary, such as Philosophy or English. Again, this is a contract that is just blindly accepted as par for the course. Think before signing it.

  10. New Employee This form is mostly for record-keeping purposes, but also contains vital information that you may need later throughout your program, including your start date, your employee ID number, your student ID number, and your end date. This should go without saying, but ask for a copy of this, along with all your other HR paperwork.

  11. State Tax Form As an employee, you are required to pay state income taxes. This will vary from state to state, but this is standard.

  12. Federal Tax Form As an employee, you are also required to pay federal income taxes. Again, pretty standard practice.

Looking back at all of this now, I realize there are a lot of forms, contracts and agreements you just quickly burn through while getting through your school's orientation. I will have to discuss the student paperwork and program paperwork in later articles.


I cannot emphasize this enough --- do not sign anything you are not sure of or comfortable with. If necessary, ask for more time to review these forms with a lawyer. You can even ask for several of these forms in advance before you start orientation in most cases. Seriously consider doing this before putting your "John Hancock" on anything. Remember, you are smart, and highly capable! Don't fall for any traps at the very beginning of your graduate career. This could end up biting you in the ass later on. Exercise caution!


If I am missing anything from what was previously mentioned, you can feel free to contact me. Thank you, and good luck!


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