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My mathematics department apparently gets pressured by the university to have more people take courses during the summer. We are also encouraged to take on TA responsibilities to make extra cash during the summer which is great.... except that they have this rule that if we want to teach/grade (or do any paid work during the summer) we have to enroll in courses. The options are slim and so is the stipend; I'm a grad student currently trying to prepare for my final prelim exam and do some research during the summer; I'd like to make a little extra cash.... but I crunched the numbers and it looks like I'll net about $600 for an entire summer, not exactly a living wage.

I should also add that our department (mathematics) brings more funds (in course work and its associated tuition) than any other department (I'm sure biology/chemistry pulls more in research grants), .... so it seems very tawdry of them to "get money back" by forcing us to enroll in classes.

So my question is: Is this normal? I've spoken with some of my professors and they said it is not; but just curious what this community has to say and if this is ethical or are there any statistics on this sort of thing.

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    Short answer: If you don't think the teaching offer is a good deal, and you don't want to do it, then don't do it. I don't know of other schools that require you to pay to take a class in order to be paid to teach, but I do know many departments where summer support is scarce. Also, it isn't safe to assume the mathematics department is responsible for these policies - policies are often set at the dean or provost level, with the departments required to follow them. – Oswald Veblen Jun 6 '14 at 17:57
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    If the result of this policy is that summer teaching carries a very low net wage, I expect the department will quickly find itself without enough students to teach its summer courses. As a result, they'd either have to stop offering those courses, or have higher-paid faculty teach them; either way would be a financial hit. So I agree with Oswald's advice that you should just do whatever is right for you; the policy may quickly sort itself out as everyone else does the same. – Nate Eldredge Jun 6 '14 at 18:14
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    Can you take a "research" or thesis course that has low cost and no formal responsibilities? Many (in the US?) universities require students to be enrolled in order to work as a TA or Graduate Research Assistant since those roles are reserved for official students. This includes summers. – Bill Barth Jun 6 '14 at 18:36
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    The policy is not so bad if the net effect is that grad students do not teach during the summer and instead concentrate on their thesis/research work. One department at my University few years ago was put under intervention. One of the problems is that grad students were doing lots of teaching (from their point of view, the money was good) and not completing their PhDs in a timely manner. – Dr Pangloss Jun 7 '14 at 2:01
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    I wonder whether this is somehow related to the university trying to preserve a legal argument that its graduate students are not employees, which could be relevant if the university is concerned about unionization. – Oswald Veblen Jun 8 '14 at 17:49
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Having observed several places in several different decades: summer funding is always weird and maybe non-existent or not-a-good-deal.

During the 9-month academic year, in the U.S., yes, indeed, people working as TAs/RAs have to be registered as students (because as other people said, these are student jobs), and this entails fees. Most often, tuition is included in the "benefits", but not invariably.

At every university I've been, grad students registered in the 9-month academic year did not have to explicitly register, nor pay tuition, in the summer, in order to work as summer TAs/RAs. This part is quite anomalous, and looks like a way for some layer of the institution to suck money out of people.

My experience indicates that there's never enough summer support to go around, which effectively creates a labor surplus, which, predictably, leads to certain abuses. For that matter, the usual double-time rate of summer classes is pretty nasty, and not fun to see. A bit taxing to teach, but almost uniformly near-disastrous for the students, who cannot simply "decide" to assimilate things twice as fast.

In some cases, the funding and flow of money for summer teaching/classes is different from the 9-month year, so it is not necessarily deliberately abusive, though possibly irresponsible or negligent, of your dept to not tell you your net pay. If it's really just 600 dollars, it's a ridiculous situation, yes.

But the net pay should be substantial, not next-to-nothing. That aspect strikes me as odd.

In summary, the situation you describe is unusual in that the net pay is so low. Having to sign up for courses and pay summer fees (or, worse, tuition) is unusual. The vagueness is less atypical, since sometimes control of summer classes is not in the hands of the department.

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The policy of requiring you to take classes in order to work for the university is not normal, and I have not seen it anywhere else.

That said, the summer is a good opportunity for students to get outside jobs and/or internships. As you no doubt know, there are very few jobs in pure math, and the jobs that do exist are extremely competitive. In my opinion, It is best for a student like you to establish connections with possible post-graduate employers during the summer, rather than TAing a math course, unless the course you are TAing will directly help with your immediate educational needs (e.g. it is preparatory for your prelim or can help your eventual thesis).

Regarding the ethics of the university's behavior, there is very little you can do. Graduate students are in a very bad position of leverage vis-a-vis the university, and this is especially true in disciplines like mathematics where many departments bring in many more students than can ever graduate (much less get a job), in part because of undergraduate teaching needs.

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This is completely normal: every place I have been (albeit 3 departments) require Graduate Student Assistant (Research Assistants, Teaching Assistants, and general Graduate Assistants) to be both students and registered at the level of full time graduate students while working on those assignments. The reason being: Those jobs are student jobs.

My masters institution requires me to be registered for 8 credits a semester while I TA/RA/GA, which I pay student fees of about 2k a year on.

My PhD institution requires me to be registered for 12 credits a quarter while I TA/RA/GA, which I will pay ~750 a year on student fees.

That doesn't mean you have to take traditional classes: About 40% of my classes have been thesis hours and independent studies. For summer classes, I usually work out some sort of independent study that is very tangential from my thesis, meaning I can use it in both my thesis defense and perhaps even publish it.

So yeah, it's normal.

I also think its wrong to charge graduate students who are also employees student fees, but it is the way the books are drawn. Your student fees, I doubt, are so large that you cannot find a way to live off the summer stipend. My master's institution has the highest student fees that doesn't include healthcare I have ever seen in the USA.

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