When I was a kid I did not really know what a scientist was, but I knew I wanted to be one.
After growing up in Hatay in the south of Turkey, my parents sent me to Istanbul for high school so that I could get a better education. I was 14 years old when I heard about the International Physics Olympiad for the first time. I spent the next four years of my life training to represent my country in the competition. It was hard work, but I loved it and formed some of my strongest friendships along the way. It’s the reason that I’m now a graduate teacher in the Physics Department at Yale University.
Where I come from, physics is not a prestigious field. There’s not much funding for physics research, so job prospects are bleak. I made the responsible choice and studied electrical engineering in college. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wanted to be a physicist. So I took a big risk and transferred into the subject, completed my degree and applied to graduate programs in the United States.
I joined Yale’s graduate teacher union soon after coming here because I think it’s clear that we should have a say in our working conditions. As a graduate teacher, I shepherd my students through the kinds of discovery that made me fall in love with physics. I review my students’ work and grade their exams. I run labs where students learn to cool down superconducting materials with liquid nitrogen, replicate Millikan’s famous oil drop experiment to find the electron charge and use a small accelerator to learn about particle physics.
I feel incredibly lucky that I have been able to find a way to pursue the work that inspires me. Physics is a team effort: it progresses through the efforts of thousands of people working on huge and complicated problems. I’m thrilled to help teach a new generation of physicists to join in that work. But even here, at one of the best physics departments in the country, my work as a teacher is precarious.
Two years ago the administration cut pay for experienced physics teachers by about 20 percent. If I teach next year, I will be paid 20 percent less for doing the same work than I would have been paid just a few years ago. I’ve seen how that loss of income has affected my friends and colleagues. Physics is difficult and complicated — there is a lot to learn. I do not understand why Yale would cut resources for the people who teach it.
My experience in the union has been a lot like my experiences in physics — it is a team effort. Through the union, physics teachers talk to each other and share our opinions on the issues we face in our work. I want recognition for our union so that we can better advocate for our needs and make our department a better place to work. The union is a community of people who have my back, and I have theirs.
Last month, the National Labor Relations Board issued a decision that gave graduate employees like me the right to form unions — something graduate teachers at Yale have been advocating for a very long time. We jumped at the opportunity and filed petitions with the NLRB asking it to direct secret-ballot elections right away.
But instead of letting us decide for ourselves, Yale hired a team of lawyers to contest our petitions. They have spent the past month up in Hartford trying to prevent us from voting at all. Last week, the hearing on our petitions came to a close, and we now await a decision.
Our election day is coming, and I can’t wait for my chance to vote yes.
Naim Karacayli is a graduate student in the Physics Department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.