The Great TA Caper

So in the world of American graduate education, you can pay for your education in one of three ways (that I know of): receive a fellowship, work as a research assistant (RA), or becoming a teaching assistant (TA). In the sciences, like my program, the most common method is working in a lab, hopefully doing your own research, in exchange for tuition, fees and a living stipend. However, my program also strongly encourages us to spend at least one academic term as a teaching assistant for the experience.

My first year I took a required grad level class that really challenged me, but also began to change the way I thought about my field of study. I didn’t understand everything but I impressed the instructor, who’s a huge name in the field, with my willingness to debate every.single.topic. When I found out that the TA-ship for his course was open this year, I decided this would be a great opportunity to get that teaching experience in and revisit materials that can only help my own research. Unfortunately TA positions pay less than RA positions, but I could handle a little squeeze for a few weeks.

A few days before the winter break, we got together to go over the course materials and my duties. I’ll be running a discussion section, having offers, doing all the grading and giving a lecture or two. Then as he walked me to the human resources office to fill out the financial paperwork, he casually mentioned that this position would only be 50% funded this year.

Cue record scratching noise.

What? Only 50%? I mumbled “oh,” but inside I was FREAKING OUT. Fifty percent positions do pay all your tuition and fees, but only half the living stipend and there’s no way I can afford to live on $800 a month. I figured I had four options: find a part time job for my evenings and weekends (as if I don’t already work 50 hours a week), take out a student loan (more debt=bad), complain to the administration (and alienate a big wig? yeah right!) or find another 50% position on campus that won’t mind that I’m basically working 100% elsewhere (the unicorn of jobs). Fortunately my boss is almost always in his office so I ran right over. His immediate reaction was anger, which I had never seen before. He came up with the same list I did, in the same order and dismissed them all for the same reasons. Then he said he needed five minutes to make some phone calls.

Apparently unicorns do exist, y’all. He magically found money to cover the rest of my salary by shuffling some grants. AND he’s not going to expect any additional work hours out of me, since he doesn’t want the students or me to suffer. Yes, my boss is still furious with the professor for leaving me only 50% funded two weeks before the new term started, but the professor is a bigwig and neither of us can risk offending him.

Here’s hoping that this is the most dramatic part of being a TA.

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