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 C-12 Committee on Responsibilities, Rights, and Welfare of Teaching Assistants and Assistant Instructors

Special note: The committee expresses its warm thanks to Charlotte Sullivan, Logan Wilson intern, for her excellent work throughout the year on both of the projects described below. Charlotte has been largely responsible for the construction of the new Web site for TAs and AIs, and for the administration and analysis of the GRA survey.

I. Web Site for TAs AND AIs

The committee began its work by examining a survey of teaching assistants and assistant instructors that was conducted in the spring of 2001.

One of the results of this survey indicated that TAs and AIs needed better access to basic information (work expectations, financial benefits, grievance procedures, etc.). Therefore, the committee worked during the year to develop a Web site for TAs and AIs that would serve as a virtual handbook and provide information regarding their rights and responsibilities; the Web site may be downloaded as a PDF document. The information is organized in four general categories:
  • Policies and procedures;
  • Financial considerations and benefits;
  • The TA/AI in the instructional process;
  • Useful resources.
Here are some recent figures on TAs and AIs:
Number of TAs at 20 hours or more, fall 2001: 1864
Number of AIs at 20 hours or more, fall 2001: 503

The committee's plan is that at the beginning of each semester the site will be publicized in an introductory email sent to all TAs and AIs. A link from the Office of Graduate Studies will also lead students to the site. Efforts will be made to link the TA and AI resource Web pages of individual departments to the site as well. Departments without Web resources for their TAs and AIs will be able to study the site for assistance in the development of their own Web resources.

Another issue revealed by the TA/AI survey concerned financial considerations. Many graduate students that work for the University in this capacity felt that:
a) they are not paid in line with the value of the services provided;
b) their low stipends force them to work elsewhere or accumulate debt; and,
c) their low stipends do not take into account the rising cost of living in Austin.

The committee examined these concerns and, while recognizing the substantial progress that has been made in recent years in TA/AI compensation, believes that the Council should continue to work to improve this compensation.

II. Survey of GRAs

During the committee's discussions throughout the year, questions were raised about the status of graduate research assistants, how their situation compared to that of TAs and AIs, etc. Eventually, the decision was made to go beyond the charge of the committee and conduct a survey of GRAs, to learn more about their general welfare. This survey is one of the few concerted efforts to obtain more information about this group of students; its findings proved most interesting, as can be seen below.

Notes from the GRA Survey
Spring 2002

Background: Number of GRAs at 20 hours or more by college, fall 2001.

Architecture 9
Business 14
Communication 14
Education 72
Engineering 678
Fine Arts 5
Intercollegial Programs 16
Joint Degree 9
Liberal Arts 71
Library and Information Science 3
Natural Sciences 507
Nursing 2
Pharmacy 34
Public Affairs 16
Social Work 15
Total 1465

A survey of experiences and perceptions of graduate research assistants at The University of Texas at Austin was conducted in the spring 2002 semester. An email invitation to participate in the online survey was sent to 1,743 GRAs. (No distinction was made in the survey between master's and doctoral students serving as GRAs. Also, the survey was not restricted to GRAs with appointments at 20 hours or more.) Approximately 61 (3.5%) of these emails were returned undeliverable. Overall, 417 responses (24%) were received. Below is a brief summary of the survey findings.


Average number of semesters the respondent had held a GRA appointment: 4.08
Average number of hours per week of current appointment: 19.43
Below are some of the questions asked on the survey, with qualitative summaries of the replies.

Do you feel the faculty of your department select GRAs in a fair and consistent manner?

Most (369 participants or 88.5%) felt the selection process was fair and consistent. Those indicating that the process was not fair and consistent made this judgment based their observation that the process for appointing GRAs was unclear or too subjective. Below are two comments that exemplify these statements.

One of my appointments was certainly in a fair manner - the professors advertised the opportunity to all students on a listserv. And in the School of Architecture, there is a very open process. For the other appointment, the professor simply asked me directly. I have to say I don't have enough experience to say whether it's fair or not. I have heard some students complain that they don't know how to go about getting a RAship, so I think there is at least the perception that some of these get handed out in secretive ways.

Selection is arbitrary based on each principal investigator's (p.i.) perception of a student. In my case there is no training made available to most American students, therefore the more experienced foreign students (who arrive master's degree in hand) curry favor with the p.i. more easily. This system is arbitrary and unfortunate for those who enter graduate school from smaller universities that lack graduate level training facilities. Once I finish school, I will seek, with others, to limit the access of our graduate schools to foreign students due to this disparity. If there is a lack of qualified Americans to fill these positions, what does that say about the state of the nation at large?

Do you feel your workload is comparable to that of the students in your department?

Most (340 participants or 81.5%) felt their workload was comparable to that of other students in their departments. Some participants responded with uncertainty since they were appointed as GRAs in a different department or there were few GRAs appointed in their home department. A few individuals indicated that they spent a large amount of time in their appointed positions.

The workload of each individual is dependent on who their adviser is and what project they're on. For my project, I am in the lab working an average of 84 hours per week (I work six 14-hour days each week). Of the 84 hours, I can spend about 20 hours each week doing homework while I run experiments. There are also people in this department who have the luxury of working on projects for about 20 hours a week for the same appointment. It's really just luck of the draw.

Depending upon the nature of the research, some students will work 60-70 hours per week, while others will work only 20-30. Additionally, labs that are better funded have more support from techs and administrative assistants, while poorly funded labs require graduate students to maintain the lab. This affects the GRA's output.

I think that the adviser sponsoring a GRA determines the workload. Some advisers require a substantial amount of work while others do not. It seems that is the nature and the way of things in graduate school—to have your curriculum and work shaped by your adviser. This is a wonderful aspect of graduate school if you are happy with your adviser selection. However, I've noticed some students struggle with this aspect of graduate school because they had no prior knowledge or critique of their adviser before committing to a GRA. Whence the tales of long difficult hours spent working on a project.

Do you feel your workload is comparable to that of the students in your college?

A majority (303 participants or 72.7%) felt their workload was comparable to that of students in their college. A number of respondents answered "no" and explained that they did not know what was required of other students. Other students explained their negative replies.

I work in a different department and put in 20 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. If I need time off, I need to make up the time. The students in my department normally get Christmas, Spring Break, etc. off, but I don't. Plus, hardly any students in my college have GRA appointments, only TA appointments.

Again, this depends upon the nature of the program. Some lines of research have a natural 5-6 year incubation time while others may insert themselves into an assembly line of research maintained by post-docs. This affords the student to expedite their degree, which is looked favorably upon by the administration, but breeds a crop of students unprepared for original and pioneering work.

Being a GRA is far more taxing than being a TA, which is what the majority of students do in my department. On the flip side, I think that my research experience is more valuable (especially since I've also had the opportunity to be a TA).

Have you received a formal statement describing your expected duties as a GRA?
If no, have you discussed job expectations and duties with a supervising faculty/staff member?

This question received quite a bit of explanation. Only 77 participants (18.5%) stated that they received any formal statement describing their expected duties. The vast majority of those responding "no" explained that though there were no formal documents, they had clear expectations that were outlined to them at the time of their appointment or through continuing interaction during the semester. A few expressed concern that their supervising faculty member was not available to oversee their activities or that they were expected to work beyond their appointed hours.

There are no fixed rules or expectations, but I meet regularly with my research adviser to discuss the progress and direction of my experiments.

The position is new and expectations and duties are being developed as the semester progresses. These are topics that are discussed regularly. I take on more responsibilities than I'm expected to because I choose to. But it's been made clear to me that if the workload becomes to heavy and interferes with my classes, I just need to say so. New duties that arise are dependent on my skills and past experiences. I expect that at the end of the semester a formal statement will be drawn up.

After a couple of years, my group finally wrangled our research adviser into sitting down and outlining his expectations of us. Previously, we policed ourselves with little oversight.

When I accepted the job I wrote my own job description and discussed it with my supervisor.

There is a vague understanding of the number of hours and performance which is passed from grad student to grad student. The expectations are so far from the official 20 hours, I feel my adviser is uncomfortable stating them directly. Work as many hours as you can, but at least 40 is the unwritten rule.

Primary GRA duties:
# of respondents % of respondents Activity
225 54 Conducting literature reviews
52 12 Surveying
48 11 Conducting interviews
135 32 Preparing lab equipment
178 43 Conducting and monitoring lab experiments
51 12 Writing grants
15 4 Monitoring grant funds
111 27 Traveling for research purposes
149 36 Traveling to meetings to make presentations
129 31 Developing new theory
134 32 Conducting numerical experiments
163 39 Writing manuscripts
112 27 Editing texts
13 3 Translating texts
276 66 Performing data analyses
83 20 Performing administrative assistant functions
58 14 Assisting in the faculty member's teaching activities
68 16 Other

Other GRA duties:

  • Development of professional training guides
  • Responding to crisis calls through telephone counseling
  • Supervising undergraduates or master's-level clinicians
  • Training other students to do research in the lab
  • Web development
  • Development of computer model
  • Incorporation of media to digital archive
  • Software development
  • Public relations
  • Student fitness assessments
  • Helping organize nationwide conferences
  • Acting as contact person for information inquiries in research
  • Developing collaborations with third parties for data collection
  • Managing editor of journal
  • Prospective student recruitment

Do you feel you have a satisfactory working relationship with your supervising faculty member?

Overwhelmingly, 378 (90%) of the participants felt they had a satisfactory working relationship with their supervising faculty member. Those responding negatively felt their supervisor was unavailable, too removed from the project, unpleasant or demeaning.

Basically a "hands-off" type of relationship. My adviser recognizes that I can determine what needs to be done and can figure out how to do it, and therefore respects my ability to be "self-guiding". He checks in on a regular basis to discuss results and future courses of action.

My adviser is mostly concerned with his students' development as scientists. He pushes us to understand what we are doing, and less what we are attempting to show. This is a superb aspect of our relationship, because it means he is always open to dialog, and willing to take the time to explain things to us. On the other hand, he talks way too much sometimes!

For the most part, my supervisor is not very active in the project. He is enthusiastic when I go to him for questions and suggestions, but most of the driving force behind the project seems to be my partners and myself. This is good because I have learned to take a project I knew very little about and progress the research. However it is also not so good because it is more difficult in terms of effort that needs to be put forth. For the most part, however, my adviser is willing to help whenever he can, and willing to provide guidance when it is asked for.

I am not sure that he has my best interest in mind. Several opportunities occurred that would have advanced me more in my area of interest, but I was not allowed to pursue them because there was a chance for conflict with the research project.

The lines are never clear about whether I am doing this work because I am being paid or because it is an important part of my graduate school training. The relationship can be a bit estranged because of this blurry line. Because I am being paid, I often do not feel I have as many rights, e.g., regarding authorship, having more time for my own academic pursuits. What makes the relationship and the job duties all the more bizarre is that I am expected to do these same things whether I am a GRA, an AI, or a TA. Again, are these duties a part of my graduate training or am I a paid employee of my adviser??????

Do you feel you are treated with respect in your department?
Most respondents (372 or 89%) stated that they were treated with respect in their departments. Those stating that they were not treated with respect believed this was due to some prejudice in the department or felt they as graduate students were treated like undergraduate students.

I felt treated with discrimination being a non-white international student sometimes.

Even GRA, we don't have mail box for us. Although I have an office in the building, I can't receive mail to my office.

Lots of politics among professors ensure that certain persons vote against fellowship nominations, etc., merely because disagreements with the student's adviser are not based on the student's performance.

Do you feel your research efforts are appreciated by your supervising faculty member?

Most (383 or 92%) believed their research efforts were appreciated. As with the question above, some felt they could not judge whether they were appreciated or not because of a lack of communication with their supervising faculty member.

You are asking yes/no forced responses in areas that are complex and grey. The GRA/faculty relationship is historically one of serf/lord, where the student produces research that furthers the faculty member's career in exchange for the all-coveted degree.

The reason I answered no to this question is because I don't receive feedback from my supervising professor, so I have no way of knowing if she acknowledges and appreciates my work.

Do you feel comfortable making suggestions about the research to a supervising faculty/staff member?

Most (352 or 84%) felt comfortable making suggestions to their supervising faculty/staff member. Some felt their expertise was not respected by faculty members.

For a given experimental study, I design the experiments and analyze the data. My adviser conveys the goal of the research (per the research funding contract), and we build the general research strategy together. My input is always thoroughly considered.

The faculty usually don't have enough time to listen to our input.

Most of the time, we are treated like cheap labor, and in consequence stupid people without intuition. We have absolutely no authority when it comes to publishing or submitting a paper. It is his decision, and cannot be discussed like any other decision.

Do you feel your input is given due consideration?

Most (349 or 84%) felt their input was given some consideration. Reasons given for answering the question negatively are similar to the responses when asked if the participant felt comfortable making suggestions to the faculty/staff member.

Do you feel your GRA experience is valuable to your academic career?

Most (378 or 91%) felt the GRA experience was valuable to their academic career. Again, negative responses reflected a poor relationship with the participant's supervising faculty/staff member or the participant did not feel that they wanted to be a researcher upon finishing their degree.

It allows me to put into use everything I have learned so far. I also receive excellent supervision on my work. Through it, I am able to have a more valuable understanding of my academic work.

My duties are primarily administrative. While the project I am working on is interesting, my part is not what I want to be doing when I graduate.

My GRA appointment hurts my academic career. To my adviser, my sole job here is to do research; if I get an education in the meantime it's just an added bonus.

Do you feel your GRA experience is valuable to your professional career?

As with the question above, most (372 or 89%) stated that the GRA experience was valuable to their professional career. Negative responses were given for the same reasons as above.

Do you intend to continue doing research after you graduate?

A large number (333 or 80%) expressed an interest in either working in industry or in academia as a researcher. Some individuals responded negatively to this question assuming that continuing research meant working for a university.

I prefer the cut-throat environment of industry to the chaotic, mismanaged academic world.

I need a break, as I am a bit burned out. But that doesn't mean that sometime down the road I won't reconsider doing research. Right now I just want to do something different.

Do you feel that your GRA appointment has appropriately influenced the amount of time it has taken for you to complete your degree?

35 (8%) Significantly decreased time to degree
78 (19%) Somewhat decreased time to degree 
169 (41%)
Not influenced time to degree
81 (19%)   Somewhat increased time to degree
27 (6%) Significantly increased time to degree

Responses to this question were positive for the most part, stating that the duties associated with their GRA appointment assisted them in writing their thesis or dissertation. A few students were in the early stages of course work and felt that the appointment took away time from classes. All respondents who compared their GRA appointment to a TA appointment agreed that the GRA appointment either had no influence or decreased the time to degree, while the TA appointment would have increased the time to degree since its focus was on teaching as opposed to research.

My GRA and degree research are one in the same, so I was able to focus my time on my research and get more done. Because of the GRA, I didn't have to take a part-time job in something completely unrelated, so I consider the GRA to have decreased the time it will take me to get my degree.

As a GRA over many summers I was required to take six hours (changed recently to only three). Taking six credits while working full time over the summer really wiped me out. Instead of taking the time to mull over what I had learned during the regular school year, cleaning up class papers to make them submittable manuscripts, and preparing mentally for the coming semester, I just crammed more information in without time to process it. Once I got to candidacy, I wasn't immediately productive. The GRA is very distracting throughout the year. It's easier (more concrete) to work on her project than on mine.

There was a semester when I had so much work that I had to postpone my work several times. I ended up having incomplete classes.

If I weren't on a GRA, I'd have to do this research in between teaching classes as a TA. Even then, interrupted or sporadic time blocks are not as conducive to research as full, devoted days. So, time in small chunks is not the equivalent of time in large chunks. As a TA, there is less time devoted to experiments, and the time we DO get is not of equal quality.

Does your GRA appointment pay for your tuition and fees?

75 (18%) none
79 (19%) none
254 (61%) all

Is your GRA stipend your only current source of funding for your graduate education? If no, please select all sources that apply:

70 (17%) Student Loan
93 (22%) Fellowship/Grant
25 (6%) Other employment on campus
16 (4%) Employment off campus
 53 (13%) Personal or Family Savings
 23 (6%) Other (These included spouse working, internships, gifts, TAship)

Do you find your GRA stipend adequate to meet your needs as a graduate student?

194 (47%) yes
212 (51%) no

  John Dollard, chair

This document was posted on the Faculty Council Web site, www.utexas.edu/faculty/council/ on July 29, 2002. Paper copies are available on request from the Office of the General Faculty, FAC 22, F9500.

  Last updated:July 29, 2002
  Comments Welcome.
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