To me, one of the most important factors that differentiates a good PhD program in the US and a bad one is the teaching expectations placed on the student. In some departments, PhD students are expected to be instructors of record without any TAs assisting them for 2 sections every semester throughout their entire program, whereas others have literally no instructor requirements. This makes a huge difference in how much time a student has to work on getting publications and conference presentations and finishing their degree in a timely manner, which then makes a huge difference in their prospects for landing research posts in academia.

However, I know of large programs and very small programs that manage to have very little if any instructor requirements for their PhD students. The size of the program doesn't appear to be a good predictor. My assumption is that it more comes down to how much money a department pulls in through external research grants relative to the number of students they have so that if faculty are not getting grants and hiring students as RAs, the burden is 100% put on limited internal funding, which means they need students to shoulder more work than they otherwise would have to.

Is this generally the case or is there some other major factor that creates this situation? My only other thought is that the way the university is organized or the dedication the state has to the university could make a big difference.

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    The specific subject matters as well, in terms of what courses they teach for whom. Math teaches to many STEM majors. Latin not so much.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 16 at 16:17
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    Another factor to consider is that being an instructor with a reasonable teaching load is an important part of the training in certain field. It is just not possible to have every single graduates end up in purely research jobs.
    – Timmy
    Commented Apr 17 at 2:24

3 Answers 3


There are two different issues here which need to be kept separate and unfortunately sometimes get conflated:

  1. How much non-teaching funding is available, so that graduate students have semesters (or quarters or whatever academic term) where their funding does NOT come from a TA position.

  2. How much work is expected during a semester from a student who has a TA position.

The answer to question (1) is definitely correlated with the amount of grants the department has, since most of the non-teaching funding will come from grants.

The answer to question (2) varies quite a bit, and is not as easy to correlate with anything else. Mostly, a department takes the amount of teaching work it "needs" graduate students to do, and divides that by the amount of funding it has for TAs. The amount of teaching work it needs basically depends on how many students it has and how many classes it has to offer. The amount of funding it has for TAs depends on how successful it is at asking the central administration for money (since money for teaching doesn't come from grants, but rather from student tuition, return from endowments, and (for public universities) government funding for that purpose).

As a rough guide, the per student instructional funding of the university gives some idea of what the teaching workload of the graduate students (and also the faculty) will be. A school like Dartmouth, with a huge endowment and high tuition (even after accounting for the fact that it fully covers tuition for students whose families cannot afford it and admits students without considering what they can afford) will have relatively light workloads for TAs, even though it isn't a top research university. A public university in a state that funds its universities poorly will have high workloads for TAs, even if the university has a very strong research reputation and gets lots of grants.

A union for TAs usually prevents the most egregious abuses where TAs work far more than reasonable, but it does not prevent merely bad rather than completely abusive situations.


I don't think there is any one factor, though I'm surprised by the impression I'm getting from your post of extreme variation in your field; I'm mostly familiar with extreme variation in teaching expectations between fields plus variation on a student-to-student basis, based on funding available to them individually.

Some programs value teaching experience. They may see failing to provide teaching experience for PhD students as failing to produce well-rounded PhD graduates. Training faculty with research money may even find this irritating if they want their students to work on their grants and have the funding to support them yet the graduate program requires students to teach anyways.

Other programs may support their students almost entirely by teaching, and recruit exactly as many students into their program as are needed to fill those teaching slots. Unless the program is certain a student with funding can support themselves for the entirety of their stay so that they can open up a new slot and take on a new student who will fulfill those teaching responsibilities, they need everyone to teach.

Otherwise, I think it's mostly up to the funding available to each individual student. That may mean that the type of funding depends far less on the graduate program and far more on the student's specific research interests or mentor. Some mentors may be well-funded and able to support their students more directly; perhaps they have a rare source of funding in a field that doesn't normally have a lot of extramural money. Perhaps they have a more applied area of research that attracts industry or other types of money. Perhaps the student has applied for and received funding through a fellowship that funds the student directly; these opportunities are relatively rare and a student that receives one may have an entirely different experience than anyone else in their program.

Students looking at graduate programs should expect the programs to provide information on funding: what sorts of arrangements are likely, what is possible, how are current students funded on average, etc. - I do not think there is any quick way to get around needing to collect this information for a program that you're anticipating spending several important years at.


There is in fact one factor: how much the department wants to attract quality graduate students.

To summarize how academia works: a professor running a lab (or team or group or whatever) is more like a development director, using his time to promote his research, size out the funding agencies, and write and get grants. The actual research is mostly done by graduate students. University administrators want the big-grant-getting professors for the overhead benefits of the grant. To attract those professors they offer big salaries, secretaries, start-up packages, and access to pools of good grad students. As you are yourself figuring out, good grad students want, among other things, an institution that will confer them prestige, a good advisor, and a stable salary with low teaching load.

Thus, universities and departments actively investing in developing a research money pipeline will offer prospective graduate students things like:

  1. No (or minimal) teaching requirements.
  2. Guaranteed no-teaching funding for 3 years.
  3. A promise of no teaching load as long as the PI pays your salary.

Many universities do not require you to teach beyond the minimum if you do not need the money, that is, if you bring your own money from outside sources. You teach if you need a salary (like most of us did.)

The most greedy of universities will require you to teach every semester, and treat grad students like lower than they treat adjuncts, which is a pretty low bar to start with.

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    "To summarize how academia works..." Well, maybe this describe certain field. I don't know, but this is not universally applicable.
    – Timmy
    Commented Apr 17 at 2:27
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    "good grad students want, among other things, an institution that will confer them prestige, a good advisor, and a stable salary with low teaching load." replace good with smart: the low teaching load is a pre-requisite because future positions may require "teaching experience" and smart students want to have done 1 hour of teaching load over 4 years so they can say "I have it!" without lying ...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Apr 17 at 7:48
  • "University administrators want the big-grant-getting professors for the overhead benefits of the grant." - this is kinda backwards. The big PIs cost a lot of money to attract, so you front-load the investment, and then you are hoping that you will get a payoff, by maybe breaking even with indirect cost payments from grants. Large PIs often subsidize for the lack of payoff from less productive PIs. At some point, the bills have to get paid for all of this--tuition is already high and it's not enough. Facilities cost a fortune, and it's expensive to pay for necessary administration. Commented Apr 18 at 2:36

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