Things starting to change for MSU’s graduate TAs
We’re passionate about learning and love teaching, several
history graduate students were saying one afternoon at
Montana State University.
By GAIL SCHONTZLER Chronicle Staff Writer
But it’s hard to survive on the $629 a month that some earn
as graduate teaching assistants.
"GTAs unite!" one joked, echoing Karl Marx’s famous
slogan. "You have nothing to lose but your measly
MSU is having trouble competing for graduate students, and while money isn’t the only reason,
it is a factor. An institution of MSU’s size and doing $61 million a year in research should
probably have twice as many graduate students, said Bruce McLeod, MSU’s Graduate Studies
McLeod also is concerned because the number of Ph.D. students has actually declined by
about 20 percent in the past five years.
Now things may be starting to change. MSU is setting a goal of bringing in more graduate
students and is planning to pump more money into graduate teaching assistanceships.
Unless the state’s budget shortfall scuttles MSU’s plans, GTAs would be one of the big winners
in next year’s university budget. A public forum to seek comments on the $88 million spending
plan is scheduled Thursday.
Of the $2 million in new revenue MSU hopes to spend next year, nearly $500,000 has been
earmarked for boosting graduate teaching assistanceships. That would mean hiring more
GTAs, raising GTAs’ pay by nearly 10 percent, and covering almost half the $1,075 a year they
must pay for medical insurance.
"It definitely would make a difference," said Maxwell Yanof, 49, a history GTA. While a friend
who teaches freshman biology earns $1,100 a month, he makes less than $700.
"It’s a starvation wage," Yanof said.
Although as a teaching assistant he doesn’t pay tuition, he still must pay out-of-pocket about
$1,000 per semester in fees and medical insurance to MSU. Rather than add to his student
loan debt of nearly $30,000, he works a part-time construction job to make ends meet. He
figures he and his fellow history GTAs would all qualify for food stamps.
Graduate students are crucial to MSU’s success in both teaching and research.
They, not professors, are the ones who undergraduates usually work with in the lab or meet in
smaller discussion groups to figure out the meaning of famous novels or professors’ lectures.
Graduate students are often the ones who do the grading. They carry out professors’ research
experiments. And they are often the ones an undergraduate asks to write a recommendation,
because "the professor doesn’t know me." GTAs can be the ones who change an
undergraduate’s life by sparking excitement about a particular career or field of study.
Graduate students are also cheap help. The 232 grad students paid teaching stipends provide
"cost-effective means of instruction," as one MSU budget document put it.
MSU’s reliance on GTAs has increased, especially in teaching lab sciences, math and other
large courses, while the amount budgeted for them has remained stagnant.
MSU has a total of about 1,225 graduate students, who make up 10 percent of the entire
student body. At an institution doing as much research as MSU, graduate students should
probably be 20 to 25 percent of the student population, McLeod said.
"Graduate students should be the fuel that runs the research engine," McLeod said.
Yet MSU has been losing Ph.D. candidates. Last fall some 270 doctoral students were enrolled,
compared to 330 five years ago.
McLeod said he’s concerned about that because "the best research is probably done on any
campus by Ph.D. students. They’re the senior researchers in any lab."
Where MSU may offer a doctoral student $17,000, universities on the East and West coasts can
offer $25,000, McLeod said.
Graduate teaching assistants at MSU get stipends ranging from $6,000 to $13,200, while
graduate research assistants in the sciences may earn more.
Money isn’t the most important thing driving Ph.D. students’ decisions to go to a particular
campus, McLeod said. Their main concern is to work with the best professors they can in their
What MSU needs to do to attract graduate students, McLeod said, is go out and advertise the
areas where it has some of the best scientists and best labs in the world. He’s working on a plan
for increasing MSU’s graduate student numbers, without going so far as to incur major expenses
for hiring more professors or building more space.
John Hermanson, physics department head, said it would be helpful if MSU could start paying
half the grad students’ medical insurance. "The departments we’re competing with at other
universities can provide medical insurance," he said.
What would be even more helpful, Hermanson said, would be to get additional money to hire
more TAs. Physics has 20, but needs about 27. "We’re a little short-handed."
Physics graduate student Brian Larsen, 24, came to MSU from Oregon. For teaching half time
and doing research half time, he earns a stipend of around $14,000 a year.
What influenced his decision to pick MSU, in addition to the skiing nearby, was the chance to
work on building a satellite that will be launched in November to study the radiation belt
around the Earth.
"The opportunity is really neat," Larsen said.
Mike Obland, 24, a physics grad student from Colstrip, earns about $12,000 for teaching and
"It’s just fun to teach," he said. "It’s neat to see when that light bulb clicks on."
The worst part, Obland said, is grading 200 tests, which gets pretty tedious. It’s a hard life, with
a lot of work, and "you’re not going to get rich," he said. But he’d like to work for NASA, and
maybe be an astronaut, and for those goals he needs a Ph.D.
Around the nation, graduate students who feel they’re underpaid employees have been
forming unions. In the past decade, teaching assistant unions have tripled their membership to
almost 40,000, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Yanof said if he wasn’t nearly finished with his master’s degree, he’d be pushing to unionize at
MSU. "TAs are employees," he said, pointing out they’re taxed on their earnings.
Administrators argue that teaching assistants are not employees, but students.
"Frankly, if they’re doing things right, they’re scholars," McLeod said. "They’re getting the
training they need to transmit learning."
He agreed that students can’t live on $600 a month, but said if a student wants an education, it
isn’t the state’s responsibility to support them.
Despite the financial difficulties, the history grad students enjoy the work.
"It’s a deeply fulfilling experience," Yolonda Youngs, 30, said. "I love teaching."
Even though she is "drowning in student loans" totaling some $45,000, Danice Rolleri Monson,
25, is glad to be a grad student.
"It’s an incredible lot of work, it takes time and commitment," she said, "but if you have that
love and passion for it, it’s so worthwhile."
Gail Schontzler is at [email protected]
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