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Recently, I was talking to some fellow grad students and the issue of money came up. I was shocked to find out my two friends who are TA's in the philosophy and physics departments at the same university make $600 less than I do per month. They make about $1100/month while I make almost $1700/month as a TA in the math department. I know $600 doesn't seem like much, but I make roughly 1.5 times as much as them! All three of us get the same tuition waiver and pay roughly the same in fees. Also, my previous roommate who was a TA in the music department got paid about $1100/month, but this was over two years ago while I was still an undergrad. Is this consistent with all other large universities, especially at this magnitude? If it is, why do you think so?

My explanation is that the math department has more "power" and can fight for better paid TA positions. What I mean by "power" is that despite the relatively small size of the math department, math is more central to other majors. For example, everyone in STEM and many people in economics, business, finance, etc. take a multitude of math classes and give the math department more leverage when it comes to funding. Also, you don't need expensive equipment to do math research so essentially all funding goes towards salaries.

I could also be completely mistaken so if someone would kindly explain how universities generally fund their departments that could also help enlighten me.

Thanks

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    Well, all of you seem to be paid low - I got more than that some 20 years ago, but it was a different country...
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 6:41
  • This is definitely country-dependent.
    – user111388
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 7:35
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    At the university where I did my Ph.D., there was a strong and activist labor union, but this situation was still common. In theory there was a fixed pay rate, but math TAs got "50% appointments" whereas people in some other departments got "33% appointments": two thirds as much pay, and (in principle) two thirds as much work. It wasn't so much about "power" or "leverage"; but rather that there was lots of work for math TAs to do.
    – academic
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 12:13
  • Some departments manage their own budgets, of course.
    – Buffy
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 14:37
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    There's not a lot of money in philosophy...
    – user91988
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 18:45

2 Answers 2

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It's complicated and depends on a lot of power dynamics between and within departments. A few things that influence the system:

  • there is a correlation between research pay and TA pay for grad students. They are likely to be closer in departments where many grad students both teach and do research (no one wants their paycheck to vary wildly as they go back and forth)
  • having more grant money increases the options for how much to pay graduate students to do research.
  • paying grad students more money for research (and TAships if required) translates to being able to recruit better talent in some circumstances where grad students actually shop around for this (and aren't being wooed entirely on prestige).
  • competing with industry can influence the pay in a similar way, probably more in industry-adjacent fields. I wonder if in purple-collar fields like music it works against grad students, as people expect not to make money in the non-academic world.
  • TAs are cheaper than adjuncts who aren't enrolled, so departments that have a heavy teaching load like math have an incentive to recruit more TAs, and may raise their pay to do it.
  • professors in departments that bring in a lot of money either for research or for being a critical teaching hub have the power to push back against admin and fight for higher pay for TAs, if they choose to do so.
  • the administration of large universities have a huge incentive to keep TA pay low to save money, so that pushes in the opposite direction as above reasoning to increase pay.
  • unionizing (in my experience at the UCs) made the pay uniform across departments for teaching (though there were ways around it still) and it happened to be that the research assistant pay matched the TA pay and stayed pretty uniform.
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I think the key to realize here is that you guys aren't doing the same jobs.

Your titles may all be "TA", but they're not any more interchangeable than three people with the title "professor" are. And I assure you that professors get paid different amounts across different departments.

All the usual economic forces may be at play. Another answer went over many options, but one very likely answer may be that math grad students don't like to sign up to be TAs, relative to TAs in other departments, so they need to pay more in order to get enough of them. This would be a similar effect if math departments needed more actual TAs per TA-caliber student in the department.

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  • I don't know of any departments that change TA pay just to get people to sign up: if research money exists it's just better. More likely they would have some minimum required teaching for the program, or they would hire out from other departments if possible. Or offer double TAs to people, or increase class size, cancel sections, etc.
    – Well...
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:02
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    Loads of departments do this, mine included. And in every department I've been in, research budgets are not used to pay TAs.
    – Jeff
    Commented Sep 14, 2020 at 15:09

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