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I notice departments often hire graduate students as teaching assistants.

I'm curious why departments do this instead of hire a lecturer to do the teaching. I'm sure this is helpful for the GTAs, since they're 1) getting paid and 2) getting teaching experience, but if the department is hiring GTAs to give the students teaching experience, then why not require students to teach as part of their programme? If one is concerned about "free labor" being exploitative, then one can also just add the extra money that would've gone to the GTA's salary to the student's stipend.

The only other reason I can think of is cost, and full-time lecturers are more expensive than part-time GTAs. Is this the case?

Edit: In the arrangement I'm familiar with, the students (which can be undergraduate, Masters level, or PhD) are funded separately. They could, e.g., be funded by a department scholarship or by their professor's grant. They are then offered TA positions in the department, which they are free to accept or decline. If they accept, they are paid a salary, effectively making them employees of the university.

This question applies to any country in which this is practiced.

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    (sigh) is this is a USA question? – Yemon Choi Jul 19 at 1:05
  • Is this about teaching quality, hiring or exploitation? – Solar Mike Jul 19 at 1:30
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    In many cases the student's GTA salary is their stipend. So "we hire you to teach" is functionally equivalent to "we pay you a stipend and require you to teach as part of your education". But it sounds a lot better politically to say "students work in exchange for their education and a modest salary" than "we give students an education for free and pay them besides". – Nate Eldredge Jul 19 at 1:35
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    I don't understand your math. Consider 20 students working for you teaching, and 20 students on stipends with 10 additional lecturers. Even if lecturers cost the same as students, the second case would be nearly 1.5 times as expensive as the first. – Peter Shor Jul 19 at 14:59
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    I don't think this is true for "every country," but in the US adjunct instructors and even career NTT faculty are usually cheaper per course than grad students. The reason schools don't dispense with grad students altogether is that it's otherwise advantageous to have a grad program, especially a PhD program. – Elizabeth Henning Jul 19 at 16:32
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Yes, full time lecturers cost more than graduate teaching assistants. In addition, if they are hired with permanent contracts, then it is a long term financial commitment, which is more risky financially than a short term contract.

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    Do they though? GSRs in STEM in the US typically get 20-30K per year and only TA for two courses per year (in a semester system) -- and that's setting aside "funny money" like tuition reimbursement. Full-time lecturers might make more than this, but they also teach many more courses -- and adjunct faculty generally get paid per course (no contract) and make way less than 10-15K per course. – cag51 Jul 19 at 3:55
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    Not all schools give lecturers permanent contracts. I have a 12 month contract -- I can qualify for a 3 year contract after teaching a certain number of units per semester (I think 9? Something more than I want to teach) for 6 years. – Kathy Jul 19 at 14:04
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....one can also just add the extra money that would've gone to the GTA's salary to the student's stipend.

I think there is a miscommunication about where the stipend comes from. In most cases, the student earns the stipend for either teaching or doing research. Particularly in the first year or two, research positions will not yet be generally available, and so students much teach to earn their stipend. If a student chooses not to teach, or is fired from teaching, there is no "stipend" to "add to".

I'm curious why departments do this instead of hire a lecturer to do the teaching.

Still, I think there is an interesting question here -- the university could hire professional lecturers to do the teaching and not pay its grad students until they start doing research. Whether this is more cost-effective or would lead to higher-quality teaching is debatable. However, it would create a huge problem in that the university would find it much more difficult to attract qualified grad students. This would affect the professors' research output, which would lead to wide-ranging consequences.

Edit: In the arrangement I'm familiar with, ... students ... could, ... be funded by a department scholarship or by their professor's grant. They are then offered TA positions in the department, which they are free to accept or decline.

In my experience, it is unusual for students to be allowed to have a fellowship/RAship and also a TAship, since having the latter generally makes the former less productive. Regardless, yes, they could simply require students with fellowships or RAships to teach, but I suspect the cost savings would be outweighed by the adverse affects.

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Unless you have been living under a rock, then you will have noticed that this is far from being a problem exclusive to academia... Welcome to the 21st century! Under the guise of "flexibility" and "efficient" (some even dare use the word "rationalization"), managers everywhere are reluctant to hire permanent personnel and instead want to hire temporary workers. This makes it much easier to fire people, because you don't even have to; you can simply wait them out. Never mind the personal toll it takes on the people hired, or the loss of productivity because workers have to spend time looking for and applying to jobs, adapting to a new working environment every time they change, etc.

If you have been paying close attention to the news, you will also have remarked that a new trend is emerging. It's only a matter of time before TAs are required to setup their own personal LLC and are pompously rebranded as "Teaching Consultants", who are hired on a lecture-to-lecture basis and paid as contractors, getting a star rating from students after every session, and "losing their job" with no explanation (because their star rating is too low, or they've offended someone high up, or whatever) – concretely, they just stop received teaching contract offers through the app for no apparent reason.


You are also not seeing the obvious: there is nowhere else but a university to learn how to become a university teacher. If universities as a whole stopped hiring TAs and only hired permanent lecturers (presumably more experienced), then in five years the supply of university teachers would just dry up, and they would need to train fresh PhD's at a higher cost. It makes no sense. Not to mention that when one teaches, one also learns, and teaching is an integral part of a graduate student's curriculum.

why not require students to teach as part of their programme

That's already often the case.

If one is concerned about "free labor" being exploitative, then one can also just add the extra money that would've gone to the GTA's salary to the student's stipend.

What free labor? The graduate students teach as part of their contract and they are paid for their duties.

  • That should have read "cheap labor", not "free labor". Grad students get paid. Just not very much. And certainly much less than a university would have to pay a full-time employee, or even a part-time employee. – Faheem Mitha Jul 19 at 10:15
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They do different kinds of work

Even ignore inappropriate composition of hires: A course's teaching assistant's work is typically different from the course teacher's.

The teacher decides what actually gets taught by reviewing the research literature, text books on the subject, their own knowledge, experience of teachers elsewhere and in previous semester etc. The teacher lays out how a course is structured. The teacher does most of the core frontal teaching work. The teacher is responsible for the homework, exams and such to be sufficiently but not overly challenging.

A teacher's assistnant (and note I'm not using the position title here) mostly assists the teacher: Grades homework, sets up and maintains a website, prepares physical objects for classes, handles communications with students (except on certain matters), teaches tutorial/recitation sessions, or perhaps supervised, limited, teaching in place of the teacher.

Permanent faculty are expensive

Often, especially over the past few decades, universities try to cut down on costs by hiring more people as official "teaching assistants" rather than fill permanent faculty positions since they're much cheaper, and the university doesn't have to pay that much for their - both per hour of teaching-related work and for non-teaching work like research. Also, teaching assistants are politically weaker, individually and as a group, so their employment conditions tend to be worn down more quickly and easily than that of senior faculty.

Teaching is actually part of the full-time position of a junior member of faculty

Decades ago (in some countries) it was much more commonplace to just hire both junior and senior faculty. A junior member of faculty would be a Ph.D. candidate (or less commonly an M.Sc. candidate) who would typically be hired as a full-time employee, with some of his time dedicated to research, some to attending a few courses and some to teaching - just like it is for senior faculty members (except that the latter also have official managerial/administrative work too).

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I'm not certain that my experience is still completely valid as it was very long ago that I entered graduate school in math. I'm now retired and have been for several years. But I'm pretty certain that I wouldn't have earned a doctorate under a different system.

I entered an R1 program in the mid 1960's with a full fellowship. It had the requirement that I spend one year as a TA, to get some teaching experience. This fellowship program was part of the push by the US to beat the Soviet Union to the moon. It no longer exists.

I made relatively little progress, other than coursework, during four years and left with a masters for another R1 where I completed the PhD. Before I discuss the latter program, let me give a few reasons why a fellowship without teaching duties doesn't make it quicker or easer to get a degree. I was limited by a few things. The low income from the fellowship wasn't one of them, and I was one of the few to hold one. I had an advisor who wasn't sufficiently helpful as he was, at the time, up for tenure and worried more about his future than mine. I also didn't yet have the required insight into the deep nature of mathematics, though I was pretty good at solving problems and passing courses (high GPA). It turns out that in most research (I think) but especially in mathematics, more time in the office doesn't equal more insight or more progress. Getting that insight requires "seasoning" and it can't be scheduled. I had few duties, other than making progress toward the degree, but made little progress. No more than my peers who were TA's. I think it might have been different if I'd had the courage to switch to another advisor, but my basic introversion (worse then than now) made that impossible for me to do.

Eventually, after getting a bit burned out, I switched to another university and had a TA position and completed the degree in three years. I had a better advisor and conquered the burnout, but made better progress even though I had teaching duties. I also gained better insight into a small area of math and became, in the words of my advisor, "the most knowledgeable person in the world in ..." (paraphrase).

But, also, let me say some things about that second university. It was, like the first, a large US State university. As such it was partly supported by tax revenues, as well as grant funding from various places. The student tuition, at the time, was fairly low, and it was not paid by TAs. The stipend we got was very low - about the same as the fellowship I'd had earlier, but there were few expenses and I was able to graduate with a family, supporting them from the TA income.

The math department at the second place had about 60 full time regular faculty and about 180 full time grad students, almost all of which were TAs. The TAs normally helped a professor in a course for a year or so and "graduated" to teaching our own courses, say in calculus. But the system as a whole wouldn't have worked any other way. If those grad students were replaced with regular faculty (doubling the size of the regular faculty), if you extrapolate that to the whole university (about 40,000 students), there wouldn't be room for everyone, either in office space or in housing in the local area. Moreover, the students would need some sort of funding. If they had to rely on outside funding it would have been impossible to support even a small fraction of them in the local economy. Funding them with grants or stipends without work would have been infeasible as the governments had no interest in expanding to such an extent, nor could the grant funding agencies taken up the slack to such an extent. And the commitment of state governments to supply funding has only gotten worse in recent years in many places. This has been supplanted by increases in tuition fees, mostly paid by undergraduates and funded through a loan system that has many issues of its own.

So, working as a TA did many things. It gave me a small, but adequate, stipend, without which I'd have no place in academia. It gave me a bit of teaching experience, which also helped me learn how people learn (and don't). But it also gave me time. If it stretched out my education by a bit, that extra time allowed me to get the seasoning and insight that I probably wouldn't have achieved if I'd been on a more intensive "research only" regimen. As I said earlier, insight can't be scheduled. It takes time and reflection. It takes time away from the desk. So the time spent teaching and grading was just a break in the intense research that let ideas settle and integrate themselves into my thinking.

So, IMO, graduate schools don't use TAs because it is the expedient thing to do, but because it is a good thing to do. Give students a broad view of academia, even from the R1 standpoint, and the time in which to gain a bit of sophistication in their field. The low pay isn't such a terrible tradeoff unless money is your main driver. It isn't for most academics, I suspect.

  • This--it's a kind of workfare for graduate students, which allows the university to have students. Otherwise you would be limited to the ones who can support themselves independently, i.e. rich, or students would have to get outside jobs which might distract them from being students. – user3067860 Jul 19 at 14:11

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