North Texas Daily

Graduate student assistants seek outside employment

Graduate student assistants seek outside employment

February 18
00:55 2016

Lisa Dreher | Staff Writer


Graduate students are demanding the option to get jobs outside of their given assistantships from departments that often require them to not have obligations other than being a TA.

Grad students need assistantships to build their portfolios and gain experience, but there are a limited number of them. Some department leaders want graduate students who are looking only for experience, not a paycheck. The problem, some graduate students said, is the 20-hour-a-week paycheck doesn’t cover living expenses.

“There are many students who have an assistantship and have their tuition paid,” said Joseph Oppong, the Toulouse Graduate School associate dean of research and development. “If we are going to give it to someone who is trying to make money when other students are deprived of it, it’s kind of not fair.”

The departments argue that graduate students should seek financial support elsewhere because assistantships are awarded and not required. The university now pays for a graduate student’s six semester credit hours for the fall and spring through the Tuition Benefit Program that started last semester. Those in this program are encouraged to pursue their studies and not bother with another job.

In response, the Graduate Student Council passed legislation earlier this month supporting the option to work an additional job.

“When the issue was brought to the floor, we realized it wasn’t just one department,” GSC president Jesus Valero said. “It was actually an issue that was affecting more than one area.”

GSC senator and geography teaching assistant Michael Sakinejad drafted the resolution last semester after hearing from fellow graduate students and GSC senators about the conflict. He said the geography department has helped him financially, but others are lacking.

“Support for graduate students, especially in terms of financial support from their departments, has dwindled over the years or is not constant,” Sakinejad said. “My fellow senators [think] there shouldn’t be a patchwork of regulations keeping graduate students seeking jobs.”

Teaching fellows, teaching assistants and research assistants would not respond when asked for comment, citing those with unapproved jobs to support themselves and their families could risk being fired.

Departments urge students to complete their graduate studies within five years without trying to balance jobs and other obligations. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, UNT’s 10-year graduation rate climbed from 49.8 percent in 2014 to 56.7 percent in 2015.

“The idea of giving students assistantships, or scholarships or fellowships is to shut out distractions so that they can focus on their research and get it done in a timely manner,” Oppong said.

Departments have their own salaries for teaching assistants, starting at a basic pay rate and varies depending on department. For example, TAs working for the biology department generally make more than those working for the dance or theater departments.

This variance causes some graduate students to feel there is an imbalance in how much they make annually.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people from the lower-paying parts of the school, and they had to get outside jobs to support themselves and their families,” Sakinejad said. “It’s pretty much standard at all universities that salaries for graduate students have been stagnant or dropping”

One of Oppong’s geography graduate assistants worked 10 hours a week at a workshop for graduate students. Because of this, the geography department would not allow her to take their teaching assistantship, he said.

“I said that’s extreme because it’s not like she’s pushing shopping carts,” Oppong said. “She was working at something that was related and relevant that ultimately got her to accomplish her goal. If I had my way, I would make every graduate student attend this workshop so it would benefit them.”

Geography chair Paul Hudak declined to comment.

To help solve this problem, the Toulouse Graduate School recently created the position of vice provost, which has yet to be filled. The position exists so the graduate school can report to someone who oversees curriculum and faculty rather than a dean, who communicates mainly with faculty and students.

The vice provost would be tasked with creating a possibly university-wide policy to resolve the issue. A search committee headed by the vice provost of academic affairs, Christy Crutsinger, will work with the GSC to find and appoint someone by the end of the semester.

“We want to come to some sort of resolution that addresses the academic, the administrative and the personal lives of graduate students,” Valero said.

Featured Image: Geography major Callie Spence asks TA Michael Sakinejad a question in her Introduction to Geographic Location lab on Wednesday morning. Sarah Bradbury | Staff Photographer

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