Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Allocating TAships

Prof-Like Substance has a good post (here) on how his department allocates teaching assistantships to PhD students.  His department is similar to mine: using TAships as buffer/bridge funding when grant-funded research assistantships temporarily dry up for an existing PhD student.  We rarely give them to first-year PhD students, and instead only take new PhD students if a faculty is willing and able to “promise” funding for the expected 5-year dissertation timeline.  We are still in that happy naive state, however, of not enough PhD students needing TAships compared to the available slots.  So some of the TAships  usually go to the Master’s students, who almost never get funding otherwise.

PLS has emerged from this state and his department is now struggling with how to allocate TAships when there are more PhD students needing such slots than the openings available. In particular, PLS raises the question of what to do when a faculty member with little or no research funding/projects asks for a TA slot. These are actually 2 separate (but related) issues.

For me, I see two clear priorities for TA positions.  The first and foremost is this:  existing students whose professor has been unlucky renewing the grant that’s funding the student.  Most grants are 2-4 years long, yet the PhD timeline (in my field) averages 5 years.  We expect the faculty member to fund the student for all of the years of the student’s PhD, but the faculty makes this promise without actually having the out-year funding in hand.  So, it is very easy to see the need for bridging funds in such a situation.  These cases, in my opinion, should get first priority.

The second use of TAships should be to help untenured faculty build their group.  It’s hard to get grants, especially without a proven track record of productivity with grant funding.  Much is asked of new Assistant Professors, and making them sweat about not graduating enough PhD students before tenure review is not helpful.  If, after the first priority students are taken care of, there are still open slots, then the junior faculty should be asked if they would like to take on a new student or even have an existing student TA for a term (to stretch out their start-up or grant funding).  This is tricky, though, because the junior faculty also wants scientific productivity out of their PhD students, and TAing often slows this down.  But, that’s a choice the Assistant Professor should make (in consultation with a senior faculty mentor) to balance their resources.

After this the prioritization gets fuzzy for me, but here are two other criteria that might come into play.

Existing PhD students who simply want the experience of teaching.  Some grad students (like me, way back when) were continually on RAships and never had to teach as a grad student.  I didn’t really know it was an option, and I doubt I would have taken it anyway.  I wanted to get through quickly.  Others, though, want that experience, and should be allowed to do it, if their advisor doesn’t veto it.  In fact, I am not even sure that I would want the research advisor able to veto such a request.

New PhD students for highly productive faculty.  This seems backwards, but I believe in the saying that “to those who have much, more will be given.”  That is, I think that such faculty have proven themselves able to handle multiple grad students and lead them through to successful dissertations, usually with ample funding throughout for all of their students.  However, sometimes such a faculty wants a new student to start a new project or to continue an existing project for which the current student is about to finish.  The promise of funding is there and real, but just not in place that first semester or year (while proposals are written and/or senior students finish up).  This is a low-risk situation, and the department is usually well served by such a TAship.

As for the deadwood faculty asking for a TAship, the chair or grad director needs to speak frankly with them.  I would not rank this faculty high on my priority list for getting a TA slot.  Not only would it be a new PhD student position but also there is no recent track record of successfully advising (let along funding) a student through completion.  Such a position would be high risk for the department and the student.  I would have serious reservations about making such an assignment.  That said, I am not totally against such a faculty getting a TA slot, for a term or two, with the expectation of copious proposal writing and the threat of losing the student to another faculty if funding does not materialize.  I would also ask the grad director to regularly check with the student to make sure that things are going well, and intervene if they are not.

 In summary, vague rules need to be drafted and adopted and a TAship czar needs to be appointed, one who will make the unfair decision regarding which students get this slots.  This decision cannot be done by committee.


  1. We use the TAships to recruit new students and to add students to labs where all the RAships are used up. Let's face it, personnel is a huge portion of a grant budget and there is almost always room for another student or two on a project that is funded but does not have more money for additional personnel. I think this is the ideal situation, but when people start using them as free labor, there is trouble.

    Our problem is that the labs have bee fairly antonymous in the past and we had plenty of TAships. That meant that no one was willing to meddle in another lab's business over a lagging student. The grad committee is stepping up and taking a more active role and hopefully we'll resolve this quickly and without too much bloodshed.

  2. PLS, you removed your post. I guess it was a little too revealing. My link doesn't work now. Oh well.