In the past month, the Graduate Student Council President Tiffany Miller has brought graduate student issues — such as mental health states, feeling unsupported, their workload and pay— to the forefront of administrators’ minds.
One of Miller’s biggest concerns is how much graduate students need to work to complete their duties as teaching assistants, graduate assistants or research assistants, compared to how many hours they are paid for.
“Teaching assistants, graduate assistants and teaching fellows are putting in well over the number of hours they’re being compensated for,” Miller said in a previous interview with the North Texas Daily. “There was somebody that came in yesterday saying they’re putting in close to 40 hours a week, but they only get paid for 20. But they’re putting in close to 40 because that’s the level of work that is being required of them.”
Amanda Reynolds is a Ph.D. biology student working in Dane Crossley’s lab studying the cardiovascular development of fish. She said she typically works a 40-hour week with her daily hours being at least from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“Some people work a little bit more and pull all-nighters, and it just really depends on if they’re doing research projects at the time or getting ready for a conference or something,” Reynolds said. “Generally when I get home after dinner I continue working into the night so generally what somewhere between 40 to 60 hours a week.”
Despite sometimes working up to 60 hours in a week, graduate students are only allowed to clock 25 hours. For Reynolds’s position, her monthly salary is $1,850.
Elizabeth With, vice president for Student Affairs, said there are three levels of pay for graduate students. The pay for each level is often determined by the various areas students report to and whether a graduate student is funded is determined by the Student Services Fee Committee.
“For the types of positions that are funded, like TAs and GAs, the committee makes the determination on whether they fund the graduate student or not,” With said. “But most of them report to the Division of Student Affairs or the Learning Center or other areas.”
In addition to not being paid for the number of hours required to do their job, Reynolds said summer positions, especially for TAs, are harder to come by. As a result, some graduate students rely on wages from the fall and spring semester to pay for summer living expenses.
“You only get paid as a TA for nine months out of the year and if you get [a summer position], you’re only going to get paid 10 and a half months out of the year,” Reynolds said. “We don’t get paid enough to be able to float ourselves for a year. So even if we were only getting paid nine months out of the year, if [the position paid] more than that $1,850 a month, we could be able to float ourselves during the summer. But we don’t have enough [money] to do that because of the cost of living.”
Reynolds also said some graduate students have contracts stating they are not allowed to seek funding or employment outside of the university. Without the ability to get a second job to work full-time, some graduate students are even more financially strained.
“I know a lot of people will kind of forego being an RA or TA just to get an outside job,” Reynolds said. “But then you have that outside job that limits the amount of work that you can get done in a research lab setting.”
Working graduate students also do not receive benefits, such as health insurance, paid maternity leave or faculty parking spots. Reynolds said a lack of benefits in addition to a lack of compensation has made her graduate student experience more difficult.
“A pay increase or enough [money] to cover for 12 months or just a bunch of little things would make it easier,” Reynolds said. “A lot of [graduate students] have to park off-campus and walk 20 or 30 minutes to get to the building to go and teach. Well, faculty get to park right outside of their building and they get this lovely paycheck, even though they’re working as many hours as we are.”
Reynolds also experienced difficulties when she gave birth to her daughter while working as a graduate student.
“During the summer it was really stressful because I had my first daughter and because I was a TA, I couldn’t work, and because I couldn’t work, I didn’t have health insurance,” Reynolds said. “Luckily, I was able to apply for health insurance through Medicare and I was able to get me and my daughter insured. I remember just being very stressed out about that and just the uncertainty.”
Even though she had recently given birth, Reynolds said she could not afford to take time off work to recover.
“If I didn’t start off [as a TA], I would have had to wait another six months before I could get a paycheck and health insurance,” Reynolds said. “It was a very stressful semester. I tell people my goal was just to survive. It was really hard trying to get work done while being a new parent and being so fatigued. I don’t think I felt normal or recovered until six months later.”
Miller has previously said graduate students need more support, both financially and mentally.
“Can you invest in every single student individually?” Miller said in a previous interview with the North Texas Daily. “Probably not. But you can invest in student populations. You can provide support systems that they can tap into. And you can market and communicate those resources, and those investments and make sure that people are aware of them. They’re wanting more out of students, but they’re not necessarily putting in the resources to facilitate that growth.”
When recommending how the university’s president should allocate the budget, the SSFC receives requests for funding from graduate students, professors looking to employ more graduate students and services for both undergraduate and graduate students.
With said if the committee were to accept every request, the university would go a few million dollars over debt.
In terms of how much the university can charge students per semester in tuition to pay for student services, the state-mandated maximum is $250. The charge is divided by hours, and students can only be charged for 15 hours. With said the university currently charges $12.41 per hour this semester for a total of $186.15 and plans to increase the charge for next semester by $1 for a total of $201.15 — $48.85 under the state maximum.
When asked why the university does not charge students the state maximum for student services, With said the university wants to keep the cost of tuition affordable for students.
“It’s all about making sure that the cost of education for our students isn’t more than it has to be,” With said. “We’re all about ensuring that students can get here and not have as high of a burden of debt. We don’t want folks to have loans to pay off when they leave here, so we’re very cautious about increasing costs.”
While the university could be charging more to supply student services, With said she believes the university is still able to provide for students.
“There’s been an effort by the [SSFC] to increase the specific services to graduate students,” With said. “I believe that we are working to support graduate students. I think there’s always more that can be done for all of our students and we will continue to do as much as we can.”
Miller said she’s planning on conducting a graduate student survey similar to one conducted three years ago by Joseph Oppong, the academic associate vice provost, to assess the experience of graduate students.
“[The administration is] going to follow up with Dr. Appong to see if we could replicate that survey,” Miller said. “So we can compare it and look at where we were three years ago and where we’re at now. If [student feedback is] the same, we’re not in a good spot. It needs to be getting better. If it’s worse, then we’re really not in a good spot.”
If you are a graduate student who would like to speak to the North Texas Daily about your experiences, please reach out to NorthTexasDaily@unt.edu or reporter Brooke Colombo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Image: Senator Garret Jennings of the College of Information sits in at the GSC meeting on March 3, 2020. Image by Oscar Lopez