It is common that PhD students have teaching duties as TA. In this case, the person ultimately for the course (the instructor of record) is a faculty member. I should note that I am talking only about enrolled PhD students at the same university as where the undergraduate course is taught.

In some places, it seems that PhD students can serve as the instructor of record, but at many other places they are not.

What are the reasons why PhD students are not permitted to be instructors of record at some universities in the USA and Europe?

  • 1
    In Italy a PhD student can't officially have the responsibility of a course, and there are also limitations (which depend on the university) on the number of teaching hours he or she can do as a TA.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Feb 23 '15 at 9:59
  • 2
    In the Netherlands, this is actually pretty common. One of the reasons is that here, PhD candidates are not considered students, but employees (that's changing right now, and a big issue).
    – damian
    Feb 23 '15 at 10:03
  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because answers to your question depends on the country and/or department in which a PhD student is studying.
    – enthu
    Feb 23 '15 at 11:17
  • 2
    It is different in different systems as is evident from the comments. In Sweden, a student could not be officially responsible but could of course still do most of the work. This comes from the fact that the university system is run by the government and examination is an official task which requires a certain position. Someone other than the student will have to stand officially responsible for the course in the end. Feb 23 '15 at 11:43
  • 3
    The most probable reason is that as a PhD student, you are not employed to have the responsibility of a course. It's also a way to protect PhD students from being held responsible for things that they are not supposed to handle.
    – Cape Code
    Feb 23 '15 at 21:03

My institution (which is a highly ranked R1 private university) tries to differentiate itself from other universities by advertising that all of our professors teach and that the undergraduates -- if they choose to come here -- will learn directly at the feet of the greatest scholars in the world (blah blah blah..).

My cynical quip aside, we try very hard at least nominally to ensure this. All professors in the arts and sciences teach their own classes (research staff at the medical school are of course exempt), although some teach less than others.

Very few graduate students are permitted to be instructors of record -- only just a handful of 6th and 7th years are given this right, and only in very focused seminars.

For us, it's a bit of a matter of pride -- what differentiates us from some of the other R1s. But like most things in the neoliberal academy, there has been talk of bringing in adjunct faculty and other changes that will certainly dilute the claim made in the opening paragraph above.

  • 12
    My graduate institution, another highly ranked R1 private university (we may both be selling our schools short here), also advertises the fact that no courses are taught by graduate students. Yet according to my CV, I was instructor of record for 6 courses while I was a Ph.D. student there. How can this be? Well, they made sure to give all the grad students a Master's before we started teaching, so they can argue that we were hired as Lecturers -- and if we happened to be in the Ph.D. program at the same time, what a coincidence!
    – Tom Church
    Feb 27 '15 at 4:35
  • 1
    The "masters" trick is also important for other things, like the percentage of classes taught by someone with a higher degree which some accreditation agencies care about. (Though I think it doesn't work for gaming US News, who counts only people with the highest degree in their field.) Jan 4 '18 at 18:19

This will obviously vary among countries, institutions and also departments.

At my department (a Norwegian University (magic fairyland where "PhD student" is a regular, well-paid job), CS dept.) I did my first lecturing as a PhD student (a Master-level, seminar-style course) and was also the official "instructor" (together with another PhD student). The year after, while still working on my PhD, I was employed to teach a major undergrad course, also as the official (and solely responsible) instructor; I had no supervision or follow-up: no one pre-approved my lession plan, checked on my lectures, looked at the exercises I made or even checked the exam and the grading. Fortunately, it went well, and I was given the course again the next years (as a post doc), and I'm still teaching it now (as associate professor).

On the other hand, at our neighbouring department, they don't even let PhD students and post docs be officially responsible for small stuff like supervising bachelor students.

In general, good teaching requires both skill, knowledge and motivation. If you're lucky, your personality and previous experiences will be enough to do good or even great teaching, even if you're an inexperienced PhD student (or perhaps not even that – I've had 2nd year Bachelor students deliver awesome lectures!). It's quite a gamble, though, and an inexperienced lecturer can just as easily be a disaster (then again, the same goes for an unmotivated experienced one).

So, it makes sense to provide fresh lecturers (whether they're PhD students or newly hired staff) with guidance and supervision until both they and the department are comfortable with them taking full responsibility. Educating and training people is part of a University's mission, and that also applies to training lecturers – a department shouldn't just pick random PhD students to lecture courses and hope they eventually hit on a rare, talented "great teacher".

So who should be the "instructor on record"? The person(s) who's actually responsible for the teaching, no matter the title. Having a rule that says "a PhD student can't be ultimately responsible for a course" is probably meant to avoid having courses taught by underqualified lecturers and sort of makes sense from a bureaucratic perspective (could even be that my own University has more-or-less this rule). Doesn't really help, though, if the department appoints a nominal "official instructor" and gives the actual job to a PhD student anyway.

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.