I recently signed a graduate student contract. I had outside funding for some time but recently became a normal research assistant (RA) again, so must have missed a contradictory clause when I signed a similar contract a few years ago.

I am a US citizen at a US university.

In the contract it explicitly states that graduate students "shall not work more than 20 hours per week on duties given by the advisor."

I have found similar language in other graduate student contracts at other universities, an example is here (scroll down to Duties and Time Commitments). This example, however, states that RAs "shall not work on duties unrelated to research for more than 20 hours per week." My contract seems to imply the opposite.

This certainly applies in the first 2-3 years of a Ph.D., since class loads typically require enough effort that RA's will not have enough time to work more than 20 hours per week on research.

But, after a graduate student has completed all class requirements, why is this clause still included?

It is clearly contradictory, as I'm expected to work 40-50 hours per week on my research, especially when I have no more classes to take. I have signed a legal document explicitly promising that I will not work the hours needed to finish my dissertation in a timely fashion.

  • 10
    I'd presume that "duties given by the advisor" refers to the extra duties given by the advisor but not directly related to your own work on your dissertation. – Peteris Aug 19 '14 at 18:05
  • @Peteris, good point. But that is even worse for us, part of the social contract here is that I'm trading money for mentorship and learning and research, but legally I can be asked to do any task? Also, what happens when the work and the research coincide? – daaxix Aug 19 '14 at 18:09
  • 3
    Is this for a position in the United States as a foreign student? Because if so, it's a a constraint imposed by the F-1 visa – ff524 Aug 19 '14 at 22:19
  • 2
    @Peteris in some fields/programs (at least mine), there is no such distinction - duties given by the advisor are often identical to those required to produce the dissertation. – David Z Aug 20 '14 at 5:19
  • @daaxix welcome to the inadequate system of US Phd programs :-) and how a 3-4 year degree turns into a 5-8 year program. – Herman Toothrot Jun 16 '15 at 3:22

If you are working at a US University, they often do this in order to ensure that you are ineligible for benefits under the family and medical leave act (fmla). If you work over 1250 hours they have to provide you with additional benefits, which cost more than they are willing to pay for your labor.


  • I'm accepting this answer for now, but I think it is really a combination of this answer, @BrianDHall's answer and Kenny LJ's answer. – daaxix Aug 27 '14 at 16:43

I think this is just an issue of definition of "what you must do to succeed in your academic program" vs "job duties". A research assistant is a job, and as such it does not always pay you to be doing what you'd be doing anyway. Sometimes you have to do work or help your adviser in a way that does not directly relate to your own program or research whatsoever - and that's what you are being hired to do.

When you get paid to be a research assistant and you end up working on your program and own actual research? This is awesome, and it's totally a bonus - but it's not what the agreement is designed to address.

In the USA a research assistant is paid (often by hour or in a flat stipend), tuition remittance/assistance is sometimes provided, insurance might be paid for the student-worker, perks and opportunities can abound or be completely absent (sometimes you get paid to go to conferences or do your own home work, and sometimes it's basically your field's equivalent of cleaning out monkey cages), etc. In short, there is a compensation package that makes it worth your acceptance, and losing it would be unpleasant.

However, on the other extreme if you work too much time on your RA/TA job you will not have enough time in the day to spend on classes or your own personal research. When you have no classes, then that means more time for your research work - not more time to work for the University.

So, in conclusion your agreement does not limit your collaboration with your adviser or on your research - it limits your legally employed position's hourly requirements. Talk with your adviser, take his advice, work on research with them until the cows come home (though I suggest you get home before the cows because life's too short) - but if you are doing more than 20 hours of work a week to fulfill your RA/TA duties, something is wrong it needs to be addressed right away.

  • 1
    I understand your answer with respect to TA duties. TAs have specific duties. My advisor is good about my work, however this could be abused. I don't believe most graduate students entered a program for "a job" (caveat : not relevant to dissertation or career development for academia, part of the program is supposed to be training for academia, and sometimes that includes tasks irrelevant to specific research). Your answer is likely correct, but I would like to point out that this is not how RAs were sold to us during the admissions and recruiting process... – daaxix Aug 19 '14 at 19:52
  • 1
    Cows actually often have a pretty short commute by modern standards, and don't get home all that late ;-) – Steve Jessop Aug 20 '14 at 14:53

The basic answer is that as an RA or TA, you are still supposed to be a full-time student. Thus, the work contract for either specifically limits you to part-time work.

What seems to be confusing you about your RAship is that your RAship is actually just a funding method in the case of your department. An RAship can include assisting a professor with her research in which case, such responsibility is capped at 20 hours a week so that you have the remainder of the week to work on your own research.

The same applies with a TAship whether that includes sole teaching responsibility or not. The point is that the TAship is secondary from the university's perspective to you working on your own research and coursework and finishing the program.

They care about completion rates and in most programs, you are no longer a fraction of a percentage point on that front but rather a single student failing to complete because of TAship or RAship will lower the numbers non-marginally.

  • I'm not really confused about the intent or the expectations of the RA. My point is that I just signed a contract, stating that I promise to not work more than 20 hours per week. I ensure you, that since my funding is actually for research which I am undertaking, that I will be working far more than 20 hours per week on this specific work, which is at odds with what I just legally agreed to. – daaxix Aug 20 '14 at 15:53
  • @daaxix in that case, your contract is bizarre. You're saying that you signed on to be your own research assistant. I've never heard of that. What's more likely is that you are technically your advisor's RA, but he doesn't care what you do during the time and just sees it as a way of enabling your graduate school. – virmaior Aug 20 '14 at 16:12
  • no the work I'm doing cannot be separated from the work benefiting the funding agency. It is the same work, but my advisor obtained the funding...not me. I.e., funding agency wants a specific area of publishable research, I do that research (have been for awhile), it is publishable, will be published, will be in my dissertation, and I'm definitely working more than 20 hours per week on it...I agree with you to some degree, my advisor wants me to finish and wants this work done for his grant agency, he doesn't care about the contract... – daaxix Aug 20 '14 at 16:26
  • @daaxix in that case, I would suggest that while it seems legally bizarre, what it means is that the "work" covered by the contract is limited to the 20 hours / week -- probably for legal reasons, but your research for your own reasons is unlimited. – virmaior Aug 20 '14 at 16:29

For the US, another possible contributing factor is that international students (who compose a large share of PhDs in many programs) are legally allowed to work at most 20 hours a week while enrolled as a full-time student (typically on a F-1 visa). Note that one is legally considered a full-time student even when one is a candidate who isn't taking any classes! (An exception is during the summer, when international students are then allowed to work up to 40 hours a week.)

Certainly this problem could be circumvented by having separate contracts for US citizens and non-US citizens. But then there'd be other problems (e.g. making things more complicated for the administrators, perceptions of inequality/discrimination). So perhaps it's just simpler for them to have one uniform contract, university-wide, for all the grad students.

  • The reasoning seems good, but what's the purpose of that restriction in the visa rules? – 299792458 Aug 20 '14 at 10:28
  • 3
    To prevent dirty foreigners from stealing too many of the jobs of hard-working American citizens. – Kenny LJ Aug 20 '14 at 10:48
  • 4
    @New_new_newbie To make sure that people calling themselves students are actually in the US to study, rather than to work. – David Richerby Aug 20 '14 at 12:33
  • 1
    @KennyLJ Is there any actual semantic difference between "to make sure people calling themselves students are actually in the US to study, rather than to work" and "to prevent foreigners from stealing too many American jobs", except that your phrasing is rather more racially loaded than mine? Note that most countries require foreigners to have a visa to work there. – David Richerby Aug 21 '14 at 7:37
  • 4
    I meant "dirty foreigners" ironically. Sorry if that didn't come across. My view is that this 20 hour rule is unjust and exists merely to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment. If you agree with me, then good. It's just that your wording seemed to be placing the onus on "people calling themselves students" to not be dishonest and break their sacred promise "to study, rather than to work", when in fact it is unjust that they were coerced into making such a promise and it is their right to break it. (Note: This is merely to answer your question about the semantic difference. Not trying to argue.) – Kenny LJ Aug 21 '14 at 13:30

In principle, an RA appointment is a job, in which you could be required to do what the phrase "research assistant" literally indicates --- assist a professor with his or her research. In the experimental sciences, that could include, for instance, maintenance work needed to keep the lab running properly. In pure mathematics (my field), what it means in practice is that you do your own research. So, officially, my Ph.D. students with RA appointments are assisting my research for up to 20 hours per week, even though in practice, what they're doing may have very little to do with my research and will mostly coincide with their thesis research.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.