I'm almost done with my undergraduate degree (B.S. in a physical science) and, looking back, a good portion of my upper division major classes have been taught by grad students. Is this normal?

I hope the grad students are getting some sort of additional stipend for full-on teaching these courses in addition to their research since the department seems to lack professors.

Possibly pertinent info: This is a public research university in the United States.

  • 1
    what’s “a good portion”? – ZeroTheHero Nov 21 '20 at 0:29
  • One-third of my upper division major courses that are prerequisites for further study, and one-half of my upper division major courses that followed completion of those prerequisites. – catcookies Nov 21 '20 at 23:23

US News and World Report has data from 697 ranked colleges. Of these:

  • 544 schools (78%) reported that no graduate students were the primary instructor of any course. These include all except two "National Liberal Arts Colleges."
  • The 10 schools with the most graduate students as primary instructor were all large public research universities. These 10 schools reported that 18-26% of their TA appointments were as the "primary instructor."

Purdue University is listed as the school with the highest fraction of graduate students as instructors of record. Their policy allows the department to assign courses to graduate students; it makes no reference to upper division or lower division.

As another case study, the University of California reports that "as students progress through their academic careers and enroll in upper-division and graduate classes, they receive more consistent exposure to full-time permanent faculty and smaller classes." More specifically, the policy at Berkeley allows graduate students to teach lower-division classes, but they do so under the supervision of a faculty member, who remains instructor of record. However, Berkeley does allow graduate students to be the instructor of record for an upper-division course, though usually in exceptional circumstances only.

Summary: about 80% of universities do not allow graduate students to be the instructor at all. Of the other 20%, most are large public research universities. There is less data about the courses to which these graduate instructors are assigned, but Berkeley is an example of one school that will "formally" assigns graduate students to upper-division courses but not lower-division courses.

  • 2
    I'll add that even within these schools, it will vary a lot between departments. For example, Cornell University [an unusual case where it is both a big private & public research uni] mostly doesn't have grad students as instructors of record. However, the math department thought calculus classes of 30 students taught by a grad student might increase learning outcomes over a 200 student class taught by a professor. They were experienced TAs, and had master's degrees. These grad instructors were all supervised by a "Tzar" who had a PhD & taught two of the 30 person sections of the same course. – WetlabStudent Nov 21 '20 at 4:41
  • I think there's probably a substantial gap between the official and practical rates. It is simple to have an official "instructor of record" that has little to no involvement in the course. That said, in all the cases I know of where I was either a student or colleague of a graduate instructor, those people were far better teachers than a randomly selected professor. Unlike TAs which are handed out as funding sources these were all people who were seriously interested in education. – Bryan Krause Nov 21 '20 at 13:37
  • To your first point -- hard to say. The Berkeley example I gave seems to support this; their policy allows grad students to teach lower-division courses, but not to be listed as the instructor of record. But, it's possible the survey methodology accounted for this. – cag51 Nov 21 '20 at 15:18

It is pretty common at the undergrad level. A doctoral student who has been a TA for several years might be assigned an undergraduate course to teach. It is probably less common for that to be an upper division course, but it could happen if they have the requisite knowledge and some teaching skills.

They may or may not (probably not) get an extra stipend for it. The experience alone is worth something and works its way into their CV.

I think that in Europe it might be very common. At least according to some of the people I've met there. But a doctoral student is probably considered a regular employee there.

  • Standard disclaimer: Europe is a continent not a country, and teaching practices vary enormously from country to country. – astronat Nov 21 '20 at 21:40
  • @astronat, of course, but I know people in several European countries from UK to Hungary and Sweden to Italy. And you are correct to say that it isn't universal. – Buffy Nov 21 '20 at 21:47

It's more common to have a Ph.D student being involved in teaching advanced upper division courses than undergraduate courses. Teaching, say, student seminars on advanced topics like string theory is a task that a PhD student in that same topic should be able to handle without much problems. But you don't want to let a PhD student handle a first year classical mechanics course. Didactic skills matter a lot more when dealing with a large class of students fresh from high school.

  • 4
    I agree with your reasoning but I have never heard of a university that actually does it this way. – Anonymous Physicist Nov 21 '20 at 3:55

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