Teaching assistants receive credit, pay for work

Experience, pay, desire to aid others cited as motivations for graduate, undergraduates in TA positions

Hiring teaching assistants is a way for the University to save money, give academic opportunities to graduate and undergraduate students wishing to obtain teaching experience and provide students individualized help in their classes. For many graduate students, funding and financial aid is contingent on being a teaching assistant as they work towards their degree.

Stephanie Doktor, a lecturer in the Media Studies and Music Departments and a former teaching assistant, said teaching and research opportunities motivated her to apply to the University for graduate school.

“When I was applying to U.Va. and the [music] program, they pitched it as ‘we have more teaching opportunities,’” Doktor said. “But, it was like ‘we're going to pay you for teaching and not just pay you for your research.’ It is clear that one way to disperse the labor and save cost is by having graduate students [help teach].”

Doktor graduated with her Ph.D. from the Music Department in the spring of last year. For the seven years she was writing and researching her dissertation, she was also a teaching assistant. During this time, Doktor estimates about half of the courses she taught were her own, with no professor leading them.

“Half of my work in the music department was actually teaching my own classes and, although I wasn't the instructor of record because of the way the university works,” Doktor said. “It was my class and I was running it. I was in charge of everything from building the syllabus to giving final grades.”

While graduate students are typically teaching assistants, undergraduates can earn course credits for becoming a teaching assistant. Nathalia Dunlap, a second-year in the College, is an undergraduate TA for Computer Science 1110. Dunlap earns one credit for this and works as a teaching assistant for three hours each week. For her, being a teaching assistant is about helping others.

“My TA helped me out a lot,” Dunlap said. “I wanted to be able to do that for someone. Coming into computer science, a lot of people think that they're not capable of doing it — that it's beyond them and I was one of those people.”

Being a teaching assistant is a time-consuming task. According to Ida Hoequist, a graduate student in the anthropology department, it takes about 20 hours a week.

“I figured out a system that works for me,” Hoequist said. “If I stick to the system, 20 hours is pretty responsible. If I try an experiment with new stuff, more than that can happen easily.”

However, Hoequist said she believes that teaching assistants benefit a lot from teaching the course. On top of experience, they gain newfound knowledge of the material.

“We learn a lot from teaching, so I think everyone should have the teaching experience but I don’t know that it’s fair to undergrads always cause some people are much better at it than others,” Hoequist said.

In the anthropology department, Hoequist and her teaching assistant colleagues have their tuition waived for five years of graduate school and receive a stipend every semester based on how much they work. Hoequist she believed her pay was proportionally fair.

“In the scheme of how University pay works, sure [it’s adequate compensation],” Hoequist said. “Does University pay actually compensate anyone adequately? I don’t think so. I have a living wage and I think that’s pretty great for an academic job. But, I also think academic jobs are worth a lot more than that.”

After graduate school, teaching assistants often hope to work in academia. By design, the programs are set up to prepare students for professorship by giving them mentorship and teaching experience.

“I think it would be really delightful if grad school trained you to be flexible in your career and not just specialize. But the way that academia is set up, it would be death,” Hoequist said. “Like if you graduated with your Ph.D. without having an idea and being tracked away from professorship, there’s no support of being tracked into anything else. It would be awful and cruel.”

However, the job market for Ph.D. recipients is oversaturated, with a 2014 study finding 40 percent of graduates of Ph.D. programs that year did not have a job . Students sacrifice more than half a decade of earnings for more learning and often graduate with debt.

“I was on the job market last year and there were a couple of the jobs I applied to in which I ended up being one of the top three candidates and had an on-campus interview,” Doktor said. “But I was competing against 300 other people for one job. It's abysmal and it's getting to the point where I know a lot of colleagues are starting to wonder why we're getting Ph.D. students anymore because it's starting to feel unethical.”

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