While Eric Hall is on his way to becoming a professor, a teaching assistant position is a natural part of the process.
“This is what I want to do,” Hall said. “Teaching and getting the experience to teach before you have to do it for your first time as a professor is pretty nice.”
Although he is improving his skills, there is one thing he would change about his UI experience – his teaching assistant pay. Hall said he would like to see an increase in his TA pay and Jerry McMurtry, dean of the College of Graduate Studies, agrees.
Currently, Hall works as one of UI”s hundreds of graduate teaching assistants.
McMurtry said the university”s TAs should be paid more. According to data he presented at a November Faculty Senate meeting, the average annual TA salary at UI is less than $10,000.
“We”re not doing well,” McMurtry said. “We”re trying to do better. We look at our peers and we”re below our peers.”
Patrick Hrdlicka, professor of chemistry, said TAs are paid too little considering how much work they put in each week. TAs put in between 20-40 hours a week on average at UI, according to McMurtry”s data.
Hrdlicka worked as a TA while he was a graduate student in Denmark, and said UI”s TAs work harder than he did and yet are paid more than three times less than he did as a TA about 10 years ago.
Although, McMurtry said that number varies by department.
At a Faculty Senate meeting earlier in the semester, Hrdlicka called the low TA pay grotesque. He said the situation is worse considering that most in-state graduate TAs must pay a portion of their own tuition, while many other institutions waive those fees.
McMurtry said there is a budget for in-state tuition waivers and mentioned that university policy dictates that out-of-state graduate students have their tuition waived.
Yet, Hrdlicka said the in-state tuition waivers are distributed throughout UI”s departments. His department usually spreads their portion out among its in-state TAs, so it often doesn”t amount to much on an individual basis.
McMurtry said the university”s current budget for in-state tuition waivers doesn”t meet the needs of graduate students. He said he plans on meeting with Brian Foisy, vice president of Finance, and other administrators to work on how UI can better support its TAs financially.
“In-state, we have a budget – it doesn”t meet the needs,” McMurtry said.
TA salaries also pose a recruitment issue, McMurtry said. Financial support is a big factor when prospective graduate students consider their potential schools and UI is losing students to other institutions that offer better salaries, McMurtry said.
“We”re bringing in high-quality students, no question,” McMurtry said. “But we”re missing out on some.”
Hrdlicka said he has observed fewer incoming TAs at UI are adequately prepared for the job and have a worse work ethic. More often than ever before, he said he has also seen TAs drop out of the chemistry program.
While this contributes to the university”s enrollment issues, Hrdlicka said low TA pay also adds to the problem of a low faculty and staff morale. He said faculty members rely on TAs for much of the work and research they cannot do themselves. So when they have to work with TAs who attend UI as their last resort, it has an affect on their morale.
“They are the engine,” Hrdlicka said. “They are the ones that make whatever vision that the professors have – they are the ones that are realizing the vision.”
There are exceptions to this trend, however.
Hrdlicka said there are some positive cases where he has personally seen the TAs evolve into successful doctoral students.
“We are looking for diamonds in the rough,” Hrdlicka said.
While his experience as a TA has been intense, Hall said he has developed his leadership and communication skills, something he hopes to utilize in his future teaching career, he said.
“As far as the students are concerned, you”re basically a teacher,” Hall said. “So it”s a pretty humbling position to be in if you think about it.”
Despite the low pay, Hall also said he lives off his TA salary fairly easily and appreciates getting paid for his work in the first place. While he, like everyone, would like to be paid more, he said salary is enough to keep him eating and pay the bills.
Erin Bamer can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer