Despite the name, Teaching Assistantships support the research mission

Oct 08 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

For a typical Biology Department, TAs are a critical resource. Teaching Assistants run most of the labs in the department, and in some cases run recitations or help grade exams in large classes. In most places I have been the TAs are limited in the number of hours they can work in a given week, usually in the range of 20h/wk. TA support comes with pay that covers the stipend, and importantly, the tuition and fringe of the student for the semesters they are teaching. In that sense, their major professor does not need to support them off grants while they TA, but their research time is limited by the contact hours, lab prep and grading.

Since many biology departments are largely geared towards NSF funding, TA support allows for more students to be involved in a project than can be supported directly from a single grant. In my college, for instance, the Dean's office will match a semester of TA support for every semester or RA support a PI has on a grant. This allow us to be a little flexible in our budgeting, since the actually dollar amount of federal grants has not climbed appreciably in quite some time, whereas inflation and institutional overhead rates (which IS counted into the budget of an NSF grant) have increased, unabated.

Therefore, we have graduate students performing an important role in the teaching mission of a department as a way to directly supplement the research mission of the department.

And this is where it can get tricky, folks. Because not every class runs the same way and not every professor understands the big picture. If you think of TAs as graduate students who are teaching to supplement their research time, you will have very different expectations than if you see a TA as a junior teacher there to relieve teaching burden from the professor. There will be different task and time expectations and the inequity of these across the curriculum can be significant. As graduate students, it's important to know what the expectations are when you agree to take on a new class.

But more importantly, departments need to ensure that there are cultural norms for these expectations. Is it expected that TAs should work their full time allotment every week? If not, what is a reasonable load? After all, the grad students are there to get their degree, not bear the burden of your teaching load.

EDIT: I forgot an important point that I was reminded of on Twitter: TA's are paid for at the university level by overhead dollars. Thus they are paid for by research to support the research mission.

13 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    This doesn't seem like a legal use of overhead from Federal grants.

  • GMP says:

    In my department, which does not teach large service courses, we have a very minimal allotment for TAs from the college but most TAs are supported from faculty buyout (i.e. from grants that allow academic year teaching buyout). So people simply support all RAs because the buyout rate is ridiculous. (Btw, we get nothing back from overhead, which has been a contentious point.)

    I advise two students from a department that usually teaches large undergrad service courses. At my uni, only such departments get substantial TAing budgets from the university, others don't. One of the students is TAing this semester in that department, and it's ridiculous. He is completely overcommitted and hasn't been able to do anything for research. It seems to me that he has over 20 contact hours per week (multiple discussion and lab sections) and has to sit in during the lecture; that's for the standard full RA (nominally 20 hrs/wk). In this case, it's not worth it to send a student to TA if they are coming to a full stop in research. I am guessing that the other department has their TA budget frozen, but enrollments in service courses are increasing, so they are squeezing the TAs as much as they can.

  • This doesn't seem like a legal use of overhead from Federal grants.

    Money's fungible. So institutions use the overhead for things that are allowable, thus freeing up funds to support shittio that isn't allowable.

  • drugmonkey says:

    The fungible part I get. The assertion of being directly paying TAships from grant indirects is not something I understand.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Obviously, DM, I don't know that the same dollar that comes in the door is turned around and goes into the student's stipend. However, our information is that the RA pool is funded via the university O/H. The exact mechanism is above my pay grade.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I agree that there needs to be a threshold whereby the students can continue their research while engaging in TAing. Otherwise, it looses the point entirely.

  • Using similar logic, then large undergraduate lecture courses taught by tenure-track faculty also support the research mission.

    For every student FTE, the state gives funds to the university as a part of its basic operating budget. The more students are packed into these lectures, the more time that faculty have to conduct research. So undergrad enrollment at public research institutions is a way of taking government dollars to support research even though it ostensibly supports education. This is a badly obvious fact, of course, and the way that provosts balance the books, though the public fraction of funds is shrinking in most states. But as the now-Provost of ASU School of Life Sciences once explained to a bunch of us faculty and grad students, even faculty members who bring in a ton of overhead in typical biology departments do not actually cover the costs associated with their activities. So you have to use public funds and endowment to cover costs, as well as tuition.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    "The assertion of being directly paying TAships from grant indirects is not something I understand."

    As far as I understand, there is no such thing as directly paying *anything* from indirects. The institution negotiates the indirect rate by accounting for allowable expenses, but when the indirects get paid, they just go into the general funds of the institution, and aren't separately accounted for. I could be wrong, though.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And if the Uni goes around bragging about paying things from indirects that are not part of the "accounting for allowable expenses"?

  • postdoc says:

    seems to me that if you are contracted as a TA to work 20 hours a week, it is partly on you to not go over that, and to communicate with the faculty member if you are. There needs to be a grad director or someone who handles that issue too. When I was a grad student TA, we were contracted at 15 hours a week- and we had a union. Faculty making a student go over was a big deal and treated as such.

    Honestly, I think a big problem- with both TAs and professors- is that teaching can expand to fill the time you give it. So, manage your time and figure out how to do a good enough job in the contracted time. It's fine to go a bit over in crunch time, but otherwise...stick to it. I know professors who are teaching the same course for years, with few changes...who still spend 30-60 minutes of prep before lecture. The lecture and powerpoints don't have to be perfect, which can be hard to let go of.

    Also, for crying out loud, once you've TAed a course once, you bring your laptop and do your own work when you are made to sit through lecture (I was made to sit through lectures for the same class 7 times, with 4 different professors...some of whom had less experience in the course than me). Sitting in lecture was amazing writing time, really made me produce- it was either that or listen to the same bloody lecture again. And office hours are often empty, so that only counts when you get a student (i.e., around exam time).

  • Philapodia says:

    From what I can gather from our faculty meetings our indirects are lumped into the general fund and then pushed to the various levels (uni/college/dept/pi). Since indirects should differ for each grant (based on admin support / infrastructure needs / etc) but the same percentage is charged for for every grant, I assume that there is either no reporting on what overhead is actually used on or reported allowable costs are left vague (unlikely). If there isn't any real or detailed reporting, indirects are basically fun-money for the administration hence their addiction to them. Perhaps there is some fancy laundering going on too.

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  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    Cost sharing like 1 TA for every 1 RA is expressly forbidden by the NSF. If your univ does it by 'wink, wink, nod, nod' then good for you but it's playing with fire. Mine does not.

    Clever accounting aside, the attitude behind this practice is what I call into question.

    TAships should be used for students that are taking classes and not quite ready to start research (who move onto RAs when done) and to bridge students that are uncovered because a grant wasn't renewed but they weren't done etc. There are less common uses like the student wants teaching experience, etc, too. The use of TAships to expressly expand research groups and departments via this 1-for-1 mentality is why we have "too many" PhDs. In my opinion it's irresponsible. Money is NOT as fungible as we would like and using funds this way takes away from, e.g., funds that could be used for a tenure-track, education-focused individual(s) that will be excellent educators and valued members of the department. Not to mention the "on TA for my PhD"= 20hrs or more gone each week is an awful life for 5-? years (hello...BIO PhDs take long enough as it is).

    The use of trainees to support research is also why it's now frowned upon to have full-time research scientists that are paid real wages for their Ph.D. and experience. (cue the 'amateur vs professional' science debate....I realize there are benefits to both approaches but a lot of things indicate we have swung too far towards producing new Ph.D.s, even in fields where there are lots of jobs like mine).

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