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I am a PhD student and a new TA for a class. I receive no extra money for TA'ing. Instead, my TA'ing offsets my advisors need to fund me. The professor I'm TA'ing for knows that I have advanced software engineering skills from professional experience.

The class I'm TA'ing for is very different than lecture style classes. It is more of an incubator/studio/software project class. In addition to office hours and lectures, the professor has asked me to continue development on future iterations of custom software made specifically for the class. The professor has previously paid other students to do this development. While I am able to do this development, is this a valid use of a TA?

I can't help but feel taken advantage of, because my software work usually pays quite well.

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    So ask how much it actually costs to fund you. Can you make more money than that, in the same amount of time, by going to work with your software skills? If so, then maybe you should consider quitting your TA position and becoming a self-funded student. – Nate Eldredge Sep 21 '15 at 23:14
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    @NateEldredge And also, are you actually serious? There's such a thing as self-funded students in STEM? – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 0:09
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    @NateEldredge And yes, at 20 hours a week, most entry-level software development salaries could fund me with quite a bit left over. Outside part-time work is frowned upon though. – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 0:16
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    Clarification: The software being developed - is it for teaching/instruction purposes, or just "Some of these projects are really neat..."? – Fomite Sep 22 '15 at 1:25
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    @Fomite The end user of the software would be researchers, which could be students, faculty, or professionals. – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 1:47
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It sounds to me like you have unusually advanced skills for a TA, and the professor is quite rationally trying to allocate the resource he has control over (your time as a TA) to its maximally productive use. That sounds pretty reasonable from the professor's point of view. Whether he has a right to assign you this particular sort of work would depend on your institution and department. At my department, TAs sign a contract at the beginning of the quarter which includes a list of the types of work they will be expected to do. If the professor wants to add something that isn't on the standard list, that needs to be discussed prior to that stage. The contract also specifies the number of weekly hours the TA will be working, and obviously the professor needs to respect that limitation as well.

Now let's think of how things look from your point of view. I'm not exactly sure why you feel taken advantage of for being asked to work on the software project, except for details that sound irrelevant to me, such as:

  • that the professor has previously paid someone for a similar service (maybe he did not have access to a TA with such qualifications as you);

  • that you would have gotten a higher salary for doing similar work in industry (but you willingly chose to go into a graduate program and subsist on a grad student stipend for a few years);

  • that you are not paid directly for being a TA but through some kind of indirect funding arrangement (but you are still committed to doing work as a TA for X hours per week, so I don't see why that should matter).

If I make the reasonable assumption that the high-value software development work is more intellectually stimulating than other duties the professor can be assigning you as a TA (grading papers or other boring gruntwork), are you not yourself better off working on the software project? In that case, could it be that the feeling of being exploited is simply regret for choosing this particular academic path when you could have stayed in industry?

To summarize, my feeling is that unless the work the professor is assigning you is completely outside the scope of work that a TA in your department could be reasonably expected to help with (which may be the case if you are, say, in a humanities program), you are probably not being taken advantage of. But perhaps I misunderstood the situation or your reasoning for being concerned; if you care to clarify any of the details I will reconsider my position.

Edit: I'm sorry if the OP finds my answer a bit tone deaf. I'm generally quite sensitive to and concerned by the phenomenon of exploitation of graduate students in academia, as can be seen by perusing my SE history. I think it makes sense to revise my verdict slightly: Jack, you are not being taken advantage of any more than TAs are typically taken advantage of. That is, I don't find anything unusually exploitative about the software development being discussed here, but the whole system of employing graduate students in academia as cheap labor (whether it's calling them TA's, RA's or something else) does carry with it an unpleasant whiff of exploitation. This is well known and recognized by many people (and has provided fodder for many a web comic). So you are right to be at least a little concerned about that -- how much exactly depends on your school. But I think that is off-topic given your specific question. Bottom line is, be aware of your rights, and if your contract says you should only work X hours per week, insist on following that to the letter.

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    This is a well constructed answer. Logically it rings true, but I can't help but notice the tone-deaf academic nature of it. (1) We are required to TA for teaching experience, not free software dev. (2) Software dev never works out "X hours per week", more like X^X. (3) Grading papers is much less mental stress than software dev work. (4) Signing a TA contract, it's easy to tell if a TA doesn't grade papers or give a lecture. What happens if they don't complete software development? – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 0:06
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    To be completely honest, yes, it does feel like salt rubbed in a wound. I left industry to follow my dreams and learn how to become a good researcher. When I finally got in and started researching, they required me to be a TA. Becoming a TA, they learned I could build software well and fast. Now they want me to spend 20 hrs a week doing what I was doing in industry, but for free. Meanwhile I'm barely making it by for my wife and kids. Yes, I feel regret now for going this path. Nowhere at all was this documented before I started. – y3sh Sep 22 '15 at 0:27
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    @JackWade: You really need PhD Comics to set you straight about academia :) – Stuart Golodetz Sep 22 '15 at 0:41
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    @JackWade: Regarding your third point ("Grading papers is much less mental stress than software dev work"), you might want to find a tactful way to mention this to the professor. For me, grading is really painful, while software development is much more interesting and satisfying. If your professor feels similarly, he/she may think this is doing you a favor by giving you a less onerous task. – Anonymous Mathematician Sep 22 '15 at 5:09
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The expectations and responsibilities of TAs vary from department to department, but work on software supporting a class is not unusual in my experience. This is quite typical in lab classes, for example, where the software is effectively part of the "lab equipment" that the TA may be expected to help maintain.

Comparing the "hourly wage" for TA work to the amount of money you could earn in industry is not a useful comparison, because that applies to pretty much anything you do in academia.

To me, the real question is how much work is being asked of you. Typically, TA responsibilities are formulated in terms of a number of hours of expected work per week (often 20 hours/week, but some TAships are different). If your professor is expecting you to work more than that amount, then it is a problem. If the work on software is being offset by, for example, not having much grading work, such that you are able to do the software work for the class in the expected amount of time, then that's entirely reasonable.

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It appears that your course organizer has forgotten his responsibilities to a graduate student doing a mandatory teaching practicum -- namely to help you get teaching experience that will prepare you to become a full professor in the future.

Clearly someone in your department feels that teaching experience is valuable, or else the practicum wouldn't be required, and you feel that way as well. It should be sufficient for you to let your organizer know that you want to use this opportunity to better prepare yourself for future teaching responsibilities. Probably he thinks of dealing with students as a chore, and thinks he is doing you a favor by letting you get out of it, while still checking the box toward graduation.

If letting him know your expectations doesn't result in adjustment of your duties, your next actions should be to find out who in the department supported the practicum mandate, and bring the matter to their attention. Your goal is not to make trouble for the faculty, but to get moved to an opportunity that better advances your teaching career.

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    If the software used in class is software used in class, one could rightly suspect that those skills will be useful later. Having had professors who could code well, and professors who could not, it has an impact on pedagogy. – Fomite Sep 22 '15 at 1:23
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    @Fomite: He's not learning skills from writing out solutions to the class projects, or even making improvements to course-specific tools. He already has those skills. And if he didn't, there's the whole rest of his curriculum designed to cover that. Teaching practicum is supposed to provide experience in preparing material and dealing with students (expectations, complaints, grading mistakes, etc). – Ben Voigt Sep 22 '15 at 1:28
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    I asked the OP to clarify, because its unclear to me what the purpose of the software being developed is. But having once had to prepare software for a course that involved skills I "already had", I still benefitted greatly from doing to work - and it has improved by teaching dramatically. – Fomite Sep 22 '15 at 1:31
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    It is very, very important to actually get teaching experience as a TA. I found I did not like lecturing to a large group, even though I enjoy small group and individual teaching. I would not have learned that by doing software development, regardless of whether it related to teaching or not. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 22 '15 at 7:37

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