||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.
||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:
Here are some recent figures on TAs and AIs:
- Policies and procedures;
- Financial considerations and benefits;
- The TA/AI in the instructional process;
- Useful resources.
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:
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.
|| they are not paid in line with the value
of the services provided;
||their low stipends force them to work
elsewhere or accumulate debt; and,
|| their low stipends do not take into
account the rising cost of living in Austin.
||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
Background: Number of GRAs at 20 hours or more by college, fall
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.
|Library and Information Science
Average number of semesters the respondent had held a GRA appointment:
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
||Conducting literature reviews
||Preparing lab equipment
||Conducting and monitoring lab experiments
||Monitoring grant funds
||Traveling for research purposes
||Traveling to meetings to make presentations
||Developing new theory
||Conducting numerical experiments
||Performing data analyses
||Performing administrative assistant functions
||Assisting in the faculty member's teaching
Other GRA duties:
- Development of professional training guides
- Responding to crisis calls through telephone
- Supervising undergraduates or master's-level
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
||Significantly decreased time to degree
||Somewhat decreased time to degree
Not influenced time
||Somewhat increased time to degree
||Significantly increased time to degree
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?
Is your GRA stipend your only current source
of funding for your graduate education? If no, please select
all sources that apply:
Do you find your GRA stipend adequate to meet
your needs as a graduate student?
||Other employment on campus
||Employment off campus
| 53 (13%)
||Personal or Family Savings
| 23 (6%)
||Other (These included spouse working,
internships, gifts, TAship)
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.