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My university is an "at will" employer. Graduate students are not unionized. I'm a PhD student and I'm sensing a possibility for a TAship termination, so I want to explore possibilities.

(1) What should I expect to happen if my TAship is terminated? For example: am I likely to get severance pay/continued health insurance/change in student standing, etc? Should I seek legal help?

(2) Any suggestions on best practices? Aside from communicating with my advisor, what are some things I could do to minimize damage? I'm mostly worried about health care and student standing.

Some background: I study at a private US university. My current teaching assistantship is not aligned with my background/has an unreasonable workload. The teaching professor is somewhat not communicatible. I will not be surprised if my teaching assistantship will end up being terminated (maybe even slightly happy), so I want to be prepared.

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    We don't so much field legal questions here, though there's a Stack that does. There's not really any "university employment law" that would distinguish the legal questions from other employers. Sep 20 at 2:20
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    "severance pay" hahah Sep 20 at 2:38
  • Interesting question -- I suggested a few more edits to bring this more into line with the questions we accept (e.g., we don't take "poll questions" like "have you ever had this happen"), feel free to make further edits if needed.
    – cag51
    Sep 20 at 5:15
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    For health care see: healthcare.gov/young-adults/college-students. Hopefully any college large enough to have doctoral studies will have a plan.
    – Buffy
    Sep 20 at 15:18
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    Do you have a contract with your university for your TAship? Is this done semester by semester, year by year, or for some longer period of time? Even if there isn't a contract that you signed, does the university have a policy on supporting graduate students as TA's? Sep 20 at 15:24
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What should I expect to happen?

You will not have to teach and you will stop being paid. Though, replacing a TA mid-semester is pretty difficult, so I suspect this outcome is less likely than you think. More likely, the professor will request that you not be assigned to their classes in future (which is probably a win-win).

To your specific concerns:

  • Severance pay: it's possible that an arrangement will be made so that your funding is not interrupted. We wouldn't normally call this "severance pay" (which is not really a thing for grad students), but most departments recognize that cutting a student's funding is a big deal, so there is a good chance that they would reassign you or adjust your duties rather than completely firing you.
  • Student standing: usually, TAships are only important for funding, so this will have no impact on your enrollment/research. Though I am aware of a few schools where TAing successfully is one of the requirements for a degree -- so, you should find out ASAP whether this is the case for you.
  • Medical insurance: varies widely, this may be funded through the department or tied to your TAship. Even in the most extreme case, I would expect they would offer you the opportunity to pay the premiums yourself so you can keep your coverage (this is usually cheap as health insurance goes, though potentially a lot for a grad student with no funding).

Aside from communicating with my advisor, what are some things I could do to minimize damage?

My key concern would be remaining eligible to be a TA in future semesters (for a different professor). Though if you're ready to switch to full-time research, and you don't need additional TA experience to earn your degree, even this may not matter to you. If it does matter, I would defend yourself vigorously through whatever processes the school has; bringing in legal counsel is really a last resort (and I would not expect it to improve your situation, though I am no lawyer).

Another key concern is the status of your tuition. TAships normally come with tuition remission; without a TAship, you may find yourself responsible for the tuition (which can easily be thousands of dollars). So, you will need to understand what the arrangements with regard to tuition remission for the remainder of this semester. Again, departments (especially in STEM) realize that requiring a previously-funded student to start paying tuition is a big deal, so it's likely that some arrangement can be made to avoid this.

The other potential issue is your reputation in the department. Unfortunately, there is little you can do about this, except trying to be reasonable, respectful, and concise when resolving these issues with other department members.

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    Likely you now have to now pay tuition, which can be very burdensome at a private university. TAs normally come with tuition forgiveness.
    – Buffy
    Sep 20 at 14:58
  • Great point, forgot to mention that. Added a paragraph.
    – cag51
    Sep 20 at 15:46
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I will relay my own experience with a similar situation.

I was TA for a lab class one semester. In the past I was TA for the associated theory class. To make a long story short, at some point the TAs for the lab class were asked to grade exams for the theory class, which I objected to as not my responsibility. I recall it was stated that the theory class TA was overloaded and we needed to help out. (That actually was false. I did my own snooping and I'd say that the theory TA would have had an uncharacteristically easy semester even if they graded all the exams.) I said that I was going to check my with advisor before grading any exams for another class. Critically, I did not refuse to do the work and merely said that doesn't seem right to me and that I am going to look into whether that is my responsibility.

My advisor agreed that this situation was fishy, and he brought it up during a department meeting. Apparently, this sort of thing has happened before. My advisor's guess is that it involves department politics neither of us are aware of. There was a meeting of the department heads and they decided to ban TAs grading assignments for classes different than the class someone is a TA for. However, they also decided to continue the practice for the remainder of the semester. My advisor told me to grade the exams, which I did on time.

The department has a TA review system. From what I was told the review I received for that class was negative, saying that I refused to perform work I was asked to. I was almost unable to be a TA again. The next time I needed to TA, my advisor and I had to talk to the professor who was handling TA assignments and tell them that the review I received was inaccurate as I did in fact do everything that was asked of me. I voluntarily did not TA again after that semester even though my funding ran out. I didn't want to deal with being a TA in my department again, mostly because I believe the time required to do a quality job exceeds the time I'm paid for.

I don't know if the false review was retaliatory or not. I think it's possible that the professor writing the review interpreted my reluctance to grade the exams for another class as refusal, and was not made aware that I did in fact grade the exams (the latter was communicated through the professor of the other class who did not review me). I agree with cag51 that it's unlikely a TA will be fired mid-semester. I do think the incident unfairly harmed my reputation in the department, at least among the few who saw the false review.

Some other recommendations:

Keep detailed notes on every meeting and action you have related to the class. I did not do this, but it would have been quite useful at times to say (for example) "On 2021-09-20 I was asked by Prof. Smith to grade exams for the theory class. I stated that seems outside the scope of my job responsibilities and that I will check with my advisor before grading those exams. On 2021-09-21 I spoke with my advisor. On 2021-10-15 I met with Prof. Johnson and the other lab TAs to receive exams to grade. On 2021-10-18 I returned the graded exams to Prof. Johnson before the 2021-10-21 deadline." Etc.

Make your concerns known in writing so that there is a paper trail, and if something needs to be communicated (for example, in my case, that I did in fact grade the exams), don't assume that it will be communicated or communicated accurately. Be explicit to avoid misunderstandings.

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