Next month (August) I am supposed to go back to the US to continue my math PhD programme in a Public State University. I hold a TA position as everybody does in my department. Nobody, I say again, nobody holds an RA position. My duties, as equal to almost everyone, are two recitation sections of 60 students each. Every section meets 3 hours a week, that is 6 hours a week for both, plus preparing material, grading a weekly quiz (120 for both) plus grading homework weekly (120) plus grading classwork weekly (120) plus holding office hours plus organizing and keeping grade records plus going 4 hours a week to a center called "math help room".

I saw many US students leave the programme. They get fed up. The vast majority of the students are Chinese and they seem happy with it but I do not. The workload is too heavy and there isn't much time for learning or research. I have seen most people get their PhD at my department with only one publication that even says "to appear" on the resume of the PhD graduates. All advanced PhD students at my department spend even more of their time on TA duties than doing their research, as opposed to my country (Mexico) where advanced PhD students do not have TA duties.

Is that normal? Is my math department a scam?

I was surprised and happy at first that I was accepted to a US university to do a math PhD. But I could not get admission to a PhD in my country nor Spain nor Brazil, which are not supposed to be as good as a US university. Is my reasoning ok? Why did my department accept me when lower schools rejected me? Do they only want to get staff for their recitation sections?

Is my reasoning correct? Or is the main objective of a PhD here in the US just teaching?

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    It's very common for graduate students in mathematics to be teaching assistants and much less common for graduate students to be supported as RA's. The work load that you've described is also fairly common in my experience. If I were in your shoes I'd be looking at recent graduates of the program to see where they've ended up. If graduates from your program aren't having the kind of career that you want to have, then it's time to reconsider the program. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 4:16
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    You are in an exploitative system, but you really shouldn't expect anyone outside it to recognize that. Talk to your adviser about your concerns and ask if he or she can support you or request you for a TA job where he or she can control your workload. The unfortunate advice that I feel compelled to give after being in a similar situation is that you shouldn't allow your own work to suffer in favor of your students. You should limit your time spent preparing and grading to next to nothing. Grade as fast as you can ( in my experience no one cares), and prepare just enough to be a passable TA.
    – PVAL
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 4:29
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    @Pete That ProTip sounds highly dodgy to me, unless the course convenor/co-ordinator has OK'ed this...
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:40
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    @YemonChoi It's extremely common in my experience. In the US the "20 hour limit", or stated working time for graders if they are different, is a legally enforceable thing. Possibly with a union behind it. The sheer reality is that when the number of students climbs into the 100's, which is increasingly common in public universities, you will of necessity run afoul of these legal issues if you try to have every problem on a "reasonable assignment" graded in detail. Of course the grader shouldn't instantiate it all on their own, but it's highly likely to be approved if asked for. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 5:29
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    It's probably true that, generally speaking, PhD programs in the US are better than programs in Spain or Brazil or your home country. It doesn't follow that every program in the US is better than every program in your home country. All your mathematics training isn't worth much if you can't use quantifiers correctly in real life. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 6:36

5 Answers 5


The idea that there is some sort of dichotomy between academic mathematics "research" and "teaching" in the U.S. is an incorrect over-simplification. It is true that there is considerable PR hype about "research" being the fundamental goal/criterion/status-generator... It is true that almost all math grad students in the U.S. are supported as TAs, not RAs. It is also true that sometimes the TA workload is unreasonable, and, often, people seem to find the TA work more immediately gratifying than their research, and if done inefficiently certainly takes more than 20 hours per week.

It is also true that some grad students from abroad are happy enough to be in the U.S. that working conditions are not an issue...

While it may be that many academic math jobs, particularly those with lighter teaching duties, are filtered on research, faculty still inevitably spend quite a bit of time on teaching and service. If teaching is extremely unpalatable, then academic math will be unpalatable.

Some people might say that any situation in which the "apprentices" cannot expect to get as good a job as the "master" are scams... but it's hard to find a situation in real life which works differently, I think. It's only a scam if someone makes a stupid promise to you that you'll eventually have a job just like your advisor, since, based on numbers alone, that's unlikely.

In my opinion, the true goals of graduate education in math are several: learn how to be an effective undergrad teacher, learn some advanced mathematics, learn how mathematicians make new mathematics, and practice attempting that.

In particular, research in mathematics requires mastery of so much prior work that it's very unusual for grad students to have genuine publications prior to the award of the PhD. This is very unlike lab-oriented engineering or CompSci degrees. That fact is not a sign of failure. If anything, it might be a sign of substance, that faculty insist on graduate education and more genuine research accomplishment than "papers" per se.

Also, in particular, again, the purported dichtomy between "researcher" and "lecturer", and a perception that the "goal" of graduate programs is to produce one or the other, is inaccurate. Graduate programs teach advanced mathematics to the grad students, and show what research is. The likely fact that they'll be doing a lot of teaching in their subsequent career does not affect the advanced mathematics... and the TA practice is helpful in becoming efficient and effective as a teacher.

There is sometimes a subtler issue, of grad programs which recruit international grad students who won't complain ... about workloads or anything else. That's not a good sign... but "even" domestic students are often pessimistic about the possibilities of change, and don't want to speak up for fear of retribution, etc. In the range of "generally reasonable", there are extremes, and there are abuses, indeed. Nevertheless, even then, it's probably not really a "scam".

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    @ Paul Garret: If I complain, will I get kicked out? At this stage, I actually do not care, but I had already complain to the department chair. He has not reply me yet.
    – Marcelo
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 19:39
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    Marcelo, it's not that they'd "kick you out". I hope you "made an inquiry" more than "made a complaint", in the first place. Also, the proper person to inquire of, and who will be your "boss" as combination of student and TA, probably has job title "Director of Graduate Studies", rather than dept chair. I'd speculate that to "complain" in advance, before truly seeing what's going on, might be interpreted as "being a whiner", even if the problems truly exist. For that matter, if the abuses are anecdotal or gossip, then it's hard to really know, especially because self-reporting skews things. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 19:49

1) Right now, the academic job market for research-oriented jobs sucks balls. The truth is that, if you are not absolutely f-ing brilliant AND extremely hard-working, your chances at a research-oriented job are pretty close to 0. Given that you couldn't get admission to a PhD in either your country or Spain or Brazil, and I'm guessing your university in the US is not one of the top-20 programs, you're most likely not absolutely f-ing brilliant. But I can't say for sure - maybe there are reasons I don't know about, and some people don't realize their brilliance until later in life.

2) I would guess that the vast majority (possibly even 100% historically) of graduates from the program you are in end up in jobs where research is a secondary part of their job (if they end up in an academic job at all). They will end up teaching in small, lower-rated liberal arts colleges or regional state universities not offering a graduate programs, or even community colleges, and their teaching workload as a professor will be more than double your current teaching workload. (They'll still be required to do some amount of research, but it might not ever add up to anything as significant as their PhD dissertation.)

3) Given (1) and (2), your program is probably designed to produce graduates who are competent at teaching upper-level undergraduate courses, which includes having enough personal experience of research to be able to explain to students what research in mathematics is and guide students in getting their feet wet. Research productivity beyond this level for their graduates is purely a bonus - appreciated but not aimed for.

4) It's quite common for mathematics PhDs to graduate without a completed paper. What matters is not how many papers but how good they are. If you want a research job, it's probably much better to finish graduate school with a paper in preparation that people think will end up in Algebra and Number Theory or Compositio Mathematica (especially if it's really your ideas rather than those of your supervisor that made the paper work) than three published papers in journals at the level of International Journal of Number Theory or twenty in the Journal of the Elbonian Math Society (which is made up - but, for the purposes of this answer - assumed to be a legitimate but obscure journal).

5) Your teaching workload is not particularly unusual for a lower-tier doctoral program in the US. If your goal is to be a teaching professor, wouldn't it seem weird to complain about doing a lot of teaching? If you really want to be a research professor and think you have it in you, wouldn't you be grateful for the chance, poor as it is from your point of view, to prove yourself?

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    @Marcelo - This is a dichotomy that makes less sense in the US context, because the liberal arts tradition thinks all people teaching in universities should have some contact with research. But - yes - your program aims to produce graduates for whom the purpose of research is to enrich their teaching rather than produce new knowledge. Then again, that's true for just about every mathematician - the only difference is the level of teaching and how much continuing research is necessary. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 18:46
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    At the end of the day, the only reason my university pays me to do research is because my doing research is necessary for me to be able to give doctoral (and occasionally some masters and undergraduate) students interesting and genuine research problems and useful advice on tackling them. The reason my doctoral students do research is so they can communicate to their future undergraduate students how mathematics works rather than just reiterating facts the origins of which they don't really understand. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 18:51
  • @Marcelo - Since UH is rather tilted towards applied mathematics, maybe it's more accurate to say that it also aims to train people for development positions in industry - positions where you apply relatively new research to "industrial" problems. But it's still not really aiming to train researchers per se. Frankly, it would be irresponsible for them to do so, since most of the graduate students it can get won't be absolutely f-ing brilliant and hence don't have much chance at getting a research job. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 19:10
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    Keep in mind that, at the end of the day, approximately zero people are paid purely for doing research in mathematics. You will learn advanced mathematics doing a PhD at your program or pretty much any other PhD program. I don't think you'll get a substantially better deal elsewhere. Whether it's worth it is up to you. One can always learn and do mathematics as a hobby, with or without a PhD, though it is much easier to do mathematics in a mathematics department, and one needs some way to make enough money to not die of starvation or exposure. Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 22:25
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    or even community colleges Oh no! The horror!
    – user1482
    Commented Jan 28, 2017 at 23:53

Is my math department a scam?

I've never heard of the math department of a US public university being a "scam". There are for-profit universities that are considered by many to be not much more than a scam. But I have a lot of trouble imagining a public university being one. My rule of thumb would be that if most of the university professors in your department are actively publishing papers, it would be a really "long con" to be a scam. So I wouldn't worry about that so much.

Is that normal?

I cannot say for sure it's exactly normal, but it is at least not so far from it. During my PhD (statistics), I almost always was supported by TAing, although that was only 1 course per quarter. However, my friends in the math department at the same university TA'ed for two courses. I'm not exactly sure what leads to that, but I would assume it has to do with the undergrad course/grad student ratio.

So I don't think you're being intentionally scammed or your PhD program is completely out of sync. And as a light at the end of the tunnel, I will say that my first 2 years in my program were absolutely miserable (60hrs/week of homework + TAing, exams, etc can take a bit of an emotional toll)...but the following 4 years were really enjoyable!

With all this in mind, that's not to say there's no need to question your program; it is possible that it is a legitimate program but with poor job placement afterward. Assuming your program has been around for a long time, looking at what our students in your program have done is a somewhat good predictor for what your job prospects will be. This is not a perfect predictor of course: almost everyone in my program went into industry but I did not.


My first semester of graduate school in mathematics at State U, I was given two courses per semester (not TA, I taught them) and ran a tutoring session. I didn't think it was a scam, but eventually I realized I could do better by just working construction 20 hours a week and simply paying my tuition.

My last semester, the department sent out an advertisement for a tenure track position. Starting salary $30000/year, 3 courses per semester. They received over 400 applications from great schools all over the US and got someone who I regarded as very capable and had nice publications from his PhD. That's the reality for non-elite mathematics professors in the US. I guess by your definition, tenure-track professors are being scammed as well.

I now solve differential equations for a steady income, so I regard the trade I made to my university as a good one, but if things hadn't worked out I'd probably agree with you. Just be glad you aren't going into massive debt like the law school students.


Since you said that you come from Mexico, I presume that you are on a F-1 visa. If so, then as a condition of your visa, you are permitted to work on-campus only up to 20 hours a week. Keep time sheet to see if you work more than that. If you do work more than that, talk to whomever is responsible for assigning the TA work in your department to reduce your load down to 20hrs. Do not be swayed by "this should take less than 20hrs" if in reality it takes more than 20hrs.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The text above is not a legal advice.

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    The TA workload is almost always exactly 20 hours officially. I am not sure how this helps. The person assigning TA's to classes (usually) does not have any control of what constitutes a TA workload of 20 hours. The only way for the workload to go down is for the department to restructure the duties of a TA for a certain course number (or negotiate with the instructor for each and every course). What's the recourse when everyone involved says nothing more than "this should take less than 20hrs"?
    – PVAL
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 10:25
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    I was in a similar situation, and I let the people involved know that I was working over 20 hours and all that came into question was my competency as a TA and likely an unfavorable review by the instructor (and I feel like this will result in less desirable TA jobs in the future at my institution). I certainly will not do such a thing again.
    – PVAL
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 10:30
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    The workload the OP describes doesn't seem entirely out of line with a 20hr/wk expectation, although with 120 students and three hand-graded assignments taking more than a minute or so if all office hours are actively used by students could push him slightly over. I wonder if the OP has control over the structure and grading of the assignments. Weekly graded classwork in college sounds odd, and don't most lower-level math classes (the types GTAs would be teaching) have online packages that can handle much of the homework side of stuff relegating him to just check a box in the grading system? Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 10:32
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    @ChrisWhite A good employer will try to understand why you took more time than they expect, and help you to be efficient. A bad employer constitutes the "scam" that OP refers to, as by being admitted to the PhD program OP was promised that he will TA no more than 20 hours, and spend rest of the time on their studies. It might happen that OP is particularly inept, so much that employer decides to terminate him. But it is not clear what OP gains by sticking around, keeping quiet and being unhappy.
    – Boris Bukh
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 20:54
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    @ChrisWhite In view of the confidence of your comment, do you have experience of working anywhere with a visa or a work permit?
    – Yemon Choi
    Commented Jul 9, 2016 at 22:36

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