Thursday, August 28, 2008


Ask the Administrator: A Grad's Gotta Eat!

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student (of the Master's variety) at a private university in {Very Big City on the East Coast}. The field in which I'm interested in pursuing is a concentration in the field of English, one that is not widely offered, so when I had begun looking at graduate programs, my options were limited. I'm in my early 30s and had come to college later than many (I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 2007) and had to consider various factors, both personal and financial. I ultimately decided on the university that was closest to home; this would allow me to commute and not have move to another part of the country (thereby not having to leave a long-term partner), as well as be able to commute from home. I felt this was a decent decision, since I would not have to worry about the expenses of moving and finding a new place to live, neither of which I could afford, but because I was a newly certified secondary English teacher, I would theoretically be able to teach while I studied for my Master's degree. (The other university that had accepted me is out of state.) School A, which had accepted me and which is out of state, had a better program and was stronger overall, but School B, where I am currently studying, suited me well enough, and also offered its graduate students teaching fellowships, research fellowships, and teaching assistantships. I was accepted fairly late but still managed to be offered a teaching assistantship; in fact, I've since been offered three, as well as a research fellowship, which has helped finance my education, and which is especially helpful as I continue to struggle to find a teaching job. 

At the end of last spring, I was offered a teaching fellowship, which permits me to teach a freshman writing class; it offers a small stipend and tuition remission. A few weeks ago I had thought there was a possibility of a  teaching gig, which I desperately need: I need the income much more than I need a teaching fellowship. Although the deal fell through, and it was late in the summer, during the time in which I thought there might be a conflict, I immediately contacted both my mentor (who would be guiding me through teaching the freshman writing class) and the graduate student advisor. My mentor seemed to be willing to make some small concession (an afternoon class), but of course that was for naught. However, my graduate student advisor seemed outright put out (if you will). She expressed disappointment that I, as she put it, put this teaching opportunity as something that isn't a solid commitment, and went on to say that when a time is agreed upon, that to her was a set deal.  I felt this was a bit harsh, and in reply, I tried to express my desire to teach both at the university which I attend and which had offered me said teaching opportunity (which I really am eager to do), but that I also had to consider a salary and benefits. I am no kid anymore and sorely feel the need to maintain those fun adult responsibilities like paying bills. I emphasized that this has come to nothing, of course, and that I would still be teaching the originally agreed-upon section, and that I hoped she could appreciate the situation in which I am placed.

Was there another (and/or better) way I could have handled this? Obviously, in a perfect world, I would have a full-time teaching gig (I would like to be teaching at a middle school or high school, and utilize my training, after all) and not have to shirk any other teaching opportunities. But I feel that my needs as an adult are not quite being recognized by some parts of my department, either. Your feedback would be very much appreciated.

I'm not a fan of people who punish the desire to make an adult living. They're out there, and in dispiriting numbers, but that doesn't make them right. That said, though, your advisor's reaction isn't necessarily out of line.

In many graduate programs, as I understand them – and I don't work in a graduate program, obviously, so comments from folks who do are especially welcome – TA lines are relatively scarce and prized. Their value isn't so much in their cash wages, which, as you correctly say, don't correspond to adult responsibilities. It's in the combination of tuition remission and health insurance. Although you don't feel either of those as cash in pocket, they're both real costs to the institution, so they aren't given out lightly.

The idea behind such (relatively) costly compensation for graduate students is that TA lines are supposed to allow for some actual mentoring of your teaching, and some time for your research. I won't deny for a minute that there's often a gap between theory and practice here, but that's what distinguishes TA's from adjuncts. TA's are far more expensive to the institution than are adjuncts; what the institution gets back for its (relatively) greater investment is supposed to be successful graduates of its program.

By trying to couple a TA line with a regular job, you're defeating both institutional incentives for providing TA lines. You won't be around much for mentoring, and the extra time for the regular job is likely to slow down – if not halt – your progress in your program. You're asking for TA compensation for adjunct work, and the institution has little reason to agree to that. Put differently, your advisor would have a hard time defending that when other advisors go to bat for their advisees.

Your question about handling it is hard to answer on its face, since personalities differ and seemingly minute changes in circumstance can matter a great deal. But the seemingly-irrational response of your advisor actually makes some institutional sense even if, as you correctly point out, it offers you a choice between poverty and stasis.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

As a former starving grad-ass a couple of observations are in order.

1. Assistantships are designed for late 20-somethings who have very few if any family commitments. Consequently, the pay is lousy, but what you're really getting (besides free tuition and health care) is TIME. Time to work on your own research and TIME to work closely with a mentor. These really aren't a traditional job, or glorified "work-study." Ideally, they are INTENSIVE and INTENSE apprenticeships. You're being socialized to become a scholar.

My experience with TA-s and RA's (and I was both during my doc program) was that they gave me a lot of time with my faculty meentors. I got a lot of coaching on my classroom teaching, which was simply terrific--something, btw, I never "got" as a baby prof.

2. While these assistantships might come with "hour restrictions" regarding how many hours per week you're supposed to work, these are more symbolic than reality.

3. If you take a TA-ship, the faculty is going to expect to see you around, A LOT. I did some consulting on top of the TA-ship, but was very careful that it NEVER took precedence over the Ta-ship.

4 Final point: Faculty can make these seem far more important than how students view them. Be sure you keep this in mind when negotiating with faculty. Even the most crappy of TA-job can be viewed as a glittering diamond by some faculty.
In large part I agree with both Dean Dad and calugg. A teaching assistantship is much more than adjunct pay, at least from the graduate program's perspective; it's an investment in a student (as opposed to pay for services rendered). It does provide the time a faculty deems necessary to complete a graduate degree. My graduate program is facing a similar situation: two of our TAs are teaching as adjuncts at another institution. And I am worried about them - though I know they need the money, I am also convinced that this external commitment is going to impede their progress through the program. If they don't finish on time, (a) their chances are finishing later decline precipitously (as I have seen again and again; it's really hard to complete one's graduate work when one is working full-time); (b) they make our program's graduation statistics look pathetic, therefore hurting our chances for retaining or augmenting our resources; (c) they take up future grad faculty time, which should be allotted to future graduate students. Finally, though I don't view a TAship as a glittering diamond, it is a competitive award, and I can see why an adviser might seem a bit snippy if a graduate student treated it as just a badly paid job!

One more thing - it seems as if this discussion took place in late summer. As an administrator I know how difficult it is to rearrange matters when someone comes to me shortly before the semester starts and tells me that he/she may not in fact show up for work in a week or two. I also know that at that point it can be very difficult to find another student to take the teaching assistantship (at least in my under-populated state). So perhaps your adviser was snippy because your indecision promised to make considerable trouble for her or for her chair/DGS.
Not my field, obviously, but a few words caught my eye. Those words were "helped finance my education" and "struggle to find a teaching job".

In physics, the expectation is that a TA or RA position will fully finance your education, like a full-ride scholarship only better. Mine covered all tuition, health care, and living expenses, including a car payment. I had a savings account, not loans. But, as calugg said, those positions were an invaluable part of my education.

In my region of the country, there are jobs going begging at the El-Ed level (which includes middle school where your cert would be a bonus). If School A is in the right region but tighter with funds because of its status, why not get a regular teaching job there, gain residency, and then pursue the MA degree as an in-state student?

I understand that there might be other reasons against moving, but the market is bigger than Big City.
I went to a highly-ranked "research one" school (whatever that is) for my grad education, and I have to say, my experience was completely different than calugg's. As you can imagine, no one cared about your teaching, no one ever helped you be a better teacher; supervisors rarely, if ever, even watched you teach there. It was an extremely time-intensive job, but no one expected me to be in the department more, and it certainly didn't give me time - it easily took just as much time as a job that I would've gotten outside the department. Further, you rarely actually TA'ed for your own adviser, so the mentoring, when it ever happened, was less useful than it could have been. It's looked upon just as funding, basically.

Obviously, there are institutional reasons for this, and I don't mean to say this is in some sort of "I go to a research school so nyah" kind of thing (because many people wouldn't touch my institution with a pole) - all I'm saying is, it's different at different institutions.
My experience is similar to Anon 7:04, but we were explicitly told we could NOT have other jobs while having an assistantship. how dare we think that we could do all of our course work, out TA duties and work another job (even a part time one)? REality was, many of us could and did, because we had to pay the bills and be able to eat. We just didn't tell anyone about it. The department saw it as an insult because your course work should be so hard that you shouldn't have time for anything else.
I totally understand this correspondent's desire to make ends meet, especially since at my institution TAs in the humanities fields are paid significantly less than science TAs and RAs. I mean, to the tune of 5-10 thousand less. I wish I was in your shoes, ccphysicist, because I can barely pay my rent and food with my stipend, much less my car insurance, electric bill, etc. And I live a very economical lifestyle and rarely go out to eat.

Back to the correspondent. I think your set up is similar to that at my institution. My friend in chemistry doesn't need an outside job, but most of us humanities people (I am at an R1 and am ABD) do have part-time outside jobs.

That said, though, none of us who have teaching assistantships have full-time jobs. I worked all day on Fridays at a museum, and I have friends who adjunct at the college about 30 minutes away. The faculty know this, and they are okay with these part-time jobs as long as they stay just that: part time.

Like some of the other commenters have said, assistantships are few and far between, so the department doesn't even consider giving assistantships to people who a) aren't making degree progress, or b) already have an outside job or are living on a hefty military stipend. And, if I read the post correctly, you have given your advisor very short notice and it is difficult to find a replacement so quickly. I know, because they made me that replacement about a month ago and I barely had time to order textbooks, write the syllabus, etc. (I am a lecturer, not a TA, although I am still a student). I really didn't want to take on another class on such short notice, so if nothing else, giving late notice places a burden on your grad student peers.
I just wanted to thank everyone for their insight for assistantships. I currently attended a offshoot of a "big 10" campus on the east coast. I tried really hard to get an assistantship for the very reasons calugg pointed out, the socializations of becoming a scholar, since my main intent is to teach at the college level. I unfortunately was denied an assistantship for last year and this year, and even with some gentle prodding from faculty, have not been given a decent answer as to why I wasnt the best candidate. It's not that I wanted to press the issue, I just wanted to correct the mistakes as I go on for a Phd.

I understand where the original poster is coming from, in needing money to live. I don't really have much advice, being that I am just in school myself. But as many of you pointed out, this is a very special opportunity, and I hope this person takes full advantage of it!

Thank you everyone again for always posting such interesting information about real academia. It's certainly given me a lot to think about
Speaking as a graduate program coordinator, there are 2 issues that I see that are important here. TAs are few and far between, and faculty (graduate coordinators) see them as a privilege. So, to have someone say "let's try and work it around my other job" is to fail to recognize how fortunate one is to get a TAship. I also think that, as was pointed out earlier, trying to change in late summer--when all the students have already registered for courses--puts a real kink into the schedule and its a PITA for a graduate coordinator to try to shuffle things around.

I agree with what others have said--the TA doesn't pay the same as another kind of job. But, its not designed to replace a full-time job.
Like Anonymous @ 6:47 p.m., I am a graduate program director. In my department, assistantships are half-time positions (20 hours per week; nominally a semester lasts 19 weeks) that pay $18.25/hour (about to go up by 3.9% because of the new contract our graduate student union negotiated). Our TAs get about $7000 per semester for assisting in one course. But more importantly, they get a tuition and fee waiver (including basic health care) that is worth over $14,000 a year.

Our expectation is that students with an assistantship will use the rest of their time to do their graduate coursework, prepare for exams, do research, and attend lectures and seminars, go to conferences, and do the other informal (i.e., non-graded) activities that socialize one into the profession.

I understand that occasionally students do a few extra small jobs here and there. But another major job? If it slowed down a student's progress, it might cause them to lose their assistantship. Our policies specify that a condition for keeping the assistantship is making satisfactory progress toward meeting degree requirements. That's why we pay so much compared with the cost of hiring adjuncts. It would be much cheaper here in the northeast to hire underemployed Ph.Ds.--but it would be unethical. Funding graduate students is contributing to the future. Our students who do pay tuition for part or all of their studies understand the value of an assistantship.

Where to start?

Let's establish rule #1: reality does not care about your desires.

Rule #2: The rest of the world generally doesn't care about whatever turns you on.

Rule #3: You have to do something that "society at large" values in order to get paid.

Rule #4: Getting paid is important.

Rule #5: Getting paid to serve your own wishes and desires is not the responsibility of society at large.

O.K., where does that leave us?

I get the impression that you did not really look into education as a way to improve your value to society in order to get paid (apologies to English majors worldwide). So you would like to study english as a hobby.

Fair enough.

Now you need to figure out how to do something productive for society in order to feed your habit/hobby.

Personal note: I continually interact with college students nearing graduation who are "shocked" that anyone would even imply that they should have actually thought about serving their fellow man before choosing a major . . . who the heck is advising these kids to even go to college in the first place?
History Enthusiast: You need to share a house with some chemistry grad students! On the upside, you won't need to buy beer or internet and can bum a ride to campus. (They might even have their own distillery.) On the downside, you might find odd substances around the kitchen.

If I understand Brian (8:21 pm) correctly, it is unethical to hire underemployed PhDs, but ethical to produce more of them. IMHO, that choice makes sense only if your students all have good jobs within a year of graduation and the underemployed PhDs in your area come from a different graduate program.
Hmmm... I did a program where there were about 40 English TA's and no mentoring. We did it for the money and the resume fodder. I wouldn't say it left us all that much time for research (it was considered a 20/hour a week job). I'm glad I had it, but I wouldn't go around saying the institution invested much in me besides money.
at Stanford, "half-time" TA/RAs (essentially full-time with studies) cost the profs around 60k a year (I believe it's actually higher). So to them it's real money.

60k roughly equals 30k tuition + 28k salary + 2k miscellaneous.

I somehow don't understand. Are all these people, smart people all of them, really telling me that the University is making an investment in TAs and RAs? Come on, so many research universities have endowments whose interest could eat up all the tuition, yet these "non profit" institutions continue to milk their undergrads and many grad students for every penny they have got. The University actually charges $90 to take MY dissertation and hold it for itself! And I am actually supposed to believe that the University is making a generous investment in a poor TA?

You know, I may be young but I know one little thing about the world. IF PEOPLE CAN EXPLOIT YOU, THEY WILL. And 20-somethings trying to get PhDs and somehow survive in a tight job market are the perfect people to be exploited. It's somewhat impossible that the penny pinching corporate university will open its heart and wallet to someone who is poor, helpless and powerless.

The TA and RA jobs are basically about cheap labour. And yes, in academia, slaves are as much a commodity as anything else. TAs and RAs are slaves and the university loves to own slaves. In fact, the love of slaves is so compelling that the University will even pay more to own people...because crushing spirits is what a university enjoys most...even more than money. That is how university is different from industry. Bank of America wants your money but does not want to own you...the University would rather own you as a slave than have your money.
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