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A student applied to a 5-year PhD program after graduating from an undergraduate program. The student was accepted to the graduate program and was promised a research assistantship and tuition waiver for the first three years.

The student accepted the offer, and enrolled in the university. It turns out that the department does not have enough teaching assistants, so the student and other students who are in analogous circumstances are being told they are now a TA as well.

This is being framed as a "must do," not as "please TA this course, we need help." Can they do this? The main attraction of a research assistantship is being able to focus on research and being saddled with a teaching job largely cancels this out. Seems underhanded.

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    After re-reading your question, I think we need slightly more information. Is the TA requirement in addition to the RA, or in place of (a portion of)?
    – CGCampbell
    Jan 4, 2023 at 14:19
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 4, 2023 at 16:31
  • @CGCampbell I do not know for certain but the original RA was 50% so either 25% of that was switched to TA (and likely lost as payed RA time because it's unlikely to be saved for later (or is that untrue?)) or the student is working 75% time which is also not ideal whether they are being payed for the additional time or not. Jan 4, 2023 at 17:17
  • The promise of an RA-ship, or any other such promises, are mentioned in your official offer letter signed presumably by the Director of Graduate Admission. In reality, I don't think it would be worth your time or effort to take this to court of some sort. Besides, I really don't buy the "not enough TA's" excuse. It's more likely that their RA funds are scarce. A research university can always find TA's by simply posting the job to other-related departments or even good undergrads.
    – dezdichado
    Jan 6, 2023 at 21:56

3 Answers 3

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The department needs to fulfill its promise to the student. If the student was promised an RA-ship, they are owed an RA-ship. And if the student didn’t agree to be a TA, they cannot be “told they are now a TA” without their explicit consent. Moreover, if the student refuses to be a TA, which they 100% have a right to do, that does not release the department from its earlier commitment to give the student an RA-ship.

That being said, organizations — even university departments — will sometimes behave in an unethical and even illegal manner. “Can” they do it, and get away with it? That depends on the situation, the level of resistance offered by the students subjected to this behavior, and the norms of the institution and country where this is taking place.

To be clear, the behavior is more than just “underhanded”. It is a clear attempt to renege on a formal promise made (in writing, I assume) to the student, about something material that would clearly heavily factor in to the student’s decision to attend this graduate program, and which could significantly affect their chances to do well in the program once there.

My suggestion to the student is to seek help from their local graduate student union, the university ombuds office, or other available resources. The department’s behavior is not acceptable. Hopefully with a modest intervention by responsible adults, the department’s administrators will be made to see the error of their ways and find more acceptable ways to solve their TA shortage.

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    I like that this answer focuses more on the ethical obligation rather than the legal one. The legal side is unlikely to be on the student's side in most places in the US, but that doesn't mean they have no recourse or should simply agree to it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 3, 2023 at 17:43
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    @BryanKrause certain behaviors are so obnoxious that whether they are legal or not is in some sense irrelevant. A department that does not honor its obligations to its graduate students in such a blatant way probably has more to fear from the loss to its reputation, and resulting loss of ability to recruit good grad students in the future, than from a lawsuit.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 3, 2023 at 18:37
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    (Also, legal opinions are off-topic here, so while it's understandable that you and others want to opine on what's likely or unlikely from a legal perspective, we should try to avoid this unless we have information we are very certain of, since we have no legal expertise, and the legal jurisdiction wasn't even specified in the question.)
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 3, 2023 at 18:39
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    This answer seems too judgmental to me. The degree to which the department's behavior is underhanded or unethical depends very carefully on exactly what they told or "promised" students, which we don't have access to. Jan 5, 2023 at 22:06
  • @aquirdturtle in the US, admissions offers for graduate program come in the form of a letter listing the terms of the offer. Whatever is written in that letter is my interpretation of what OP means when talking about what the student was “promised”. This is the canonical and most likely interpretation for this sort of thing. Obviously one can imagine a “promise” of a different sort, less formal and more tentative, where what I wrote wouldn’t be applicable.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 6, 2023 at 2:10
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Unless they have something like a contract or the legal equivalent of a contract, they can probably do it. And, it might actually be a career advantage to do a TA for a while, even with an RA, assuming the person wants an academic career.

I doubt, however, that the "time and effort" equivalent would increase, and would assume that the RA commitment would be reduced accordingly.

Note that faculty actually also get such "surprises" occasionally in their career and it is good to act in a "collegial" manner to help the institution function properly. Being seen as a "team player" can lead to other opportunities as time goes on.

But, everyone's needs and preferences differ. If the person feels strongly enough about it, they can decline the offer, though it still has advantages in terms of tuition waiver and the rest. And, in the following year, the "full" RA might be restored when they have a chance to rebalance their "offers".


Personal note: It was long (long) ago, but I once held a four year full-ride fellowship for doctoral study in the US. But even that required a year (IIRC) as a TA, since it was considered a good career move.

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    Ah yes, the good old "team player" fallacy/emotional manipulation technique...
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 3, 2023 at 20:23
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    I have no issue with teaching assistantships. I assume you knew going into the fellowship that you would be TA'ing. My issue is that students appear to be getting promises of full coverage via research assistantship then having additional duties sprung on them after they have made a commitment to the school and other trains have sailed. Jan 3, 2023 at 21:08
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    @DanRomik, note, please, that I was answering the question asked. "Should a school..." is a different question.
    – Buffy
    Jan 3, 2023 at 21:36
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    My concern is that the whole concept of being a "team player" is a way of subtly (or not so subtly) pressuring people into accepting various types of abuse by their employers and being made to do things that they should not be required to do. See the other discussion I linked to. So when you say 'Being seen as a "team player" can lead to other opportunities as time goes on', although I'm sure you mean well, you unfortunately reinforce that unhealthy notion.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 3, 2023 at 22:47
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    This sort of bait and switch is also common in industry when the newly hired employee is less experienced. They are less likely to be assertive. The emotional manipulation part is also common including the tropes "every company does it" and "being a team player/paying your dues". The way to fix it is to move on to another organization so that they suffer some pain for their actions. That also lets others in the same situation know that there IS a solution.
    – user158559
    Jan 4, 2023 at 17:00
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Of course, one is not literally sold to slavery upon starting their PhD.

But in your case, it is a question of recourse. You just have virtually no leverage at that stage. May you antagonize an entire department and still survive and defend successfully? Maybe. Is it wise to do? Probably not.

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