The TA Concept – A PhD Student’s perspective

My second guest post comes from Tríona O’Connell, a PhD student in the School of Biotechnology here in DCU. This is a reply to my recent post in which I suggested that Irish PhD students become more involved in undergraduate teaching, and in a more meaningful way (the TA concept). At this stage, I’m not going to get embroiled in the discussion other than to encourage you to re-read my post before reading Triona’s. However, it would be great if any PhD students out there would comment and give their opinion on all aspects of how they feel they are treated by the system.

 …..

Greg’s recent blog proposed using postgraduates to help relieve some of the workload of teaching first years. As a postgraduate, I am compelled to object to this, but outlining some of the likely objections is probably better than just saying “no” repeatedly on twitter.

The first objection is probably “where will we get the time?”. Whether or not you work in a group where publishing papers is an important part of the lab work, you still need to produce a thesis of some sort by the time (or close enough to the time) your funding runs out.

As it stands, postgraduates (in my department) are involved in assisting with practical demonstrations. This comes to about 100 hours per year, or roughly two to three weeks out of your PhD project work each year. These hours can be blocked in groups of a few days or they can be one afternoon a week for a semester, it depends on the lab in question. Generally the work involved in the practicals is confined to the practical, we don’t have to correct student’s work outside the lab hours. In other departments/universities, postgrads may have to do more or fewer hours and also do the corrections. There’s little prep for the demonstrations beyond being familiar with the protocol to be demonstrated and basic lab safety (aka common sense).

In addition to formally teaching in labs, postgrads often help supervise final year projects. Again, this could be confined to 8-12 weeks in the second semester or can be spread across the entire year. The first few weeks of the project will take a lot of the postgrad’s attention, making sure the undergrad knows the protocols/procedures and the basic lab safety.

Take the first year biology module in our Biotech degree programme. It has 36 hours of lectures and 11 tutorial hours. Preparing for each lecture hour will take at least an hour if given a prepared slide-deck and two to four hours if you have to devise the deck from scratch. So, if it’s been prepared you’re looking at (36+11)*2 = 94 hours, that’s another two-three weeks out of the potential project time. Swapping out the practical demonstration for such a module might work, but there aren’t unlimited people to provide demonstrating cover either (funding more postgrads would work here). Offering tutorial hours to postgrads (for some sort of compensation) might alleviate the pressure on lecturers with heavy first-year teaching loads.

The next objection “what sort of compensation will we get for our time?” Practical demonstrating is rewarded with cash money (into your bank account), theoretical money (into your supervisor’s account) and “it is a way of saying thanks to the department for hosting you“, depending on where you are. The latter is a great way to get students to resent taking time from their projects to teach. Practical demonstration gives the postgrad some experience in on-the-job style training that will be useful in a future technical position, lecturing experience won’t necessarily have the same utility. “It looks great on your CV” won’t cut it for those who don’t plan to teach in the future. Extra commitments should have some tangible reward, covering extra salary for a PhD student who has run past their stipend might be appreciated. The more experienced postgrads have limited time for non-project tasks as they’re running up against the end of their wages, but I’d imagine these are the sort of postgrads you’d prefer to give teaching responsibility to. Indeed, it might be a good idea to offer teaching hours (with payment) to postdocs who are interested in applying for lecturing positions in the future as much as to postgrads.

Of course “some people should not be allowed to teach anybody, especially not impressionable first years”. I’m pretty sure this would apply to a lot more than postgraduates though. Making first year lecturing obligatory for postgrads would capture some people who don’t like teaching for a variety of reasons. You can’t expect every lecture to be inspiring and insightful, but it would help. You’d probably need a certain amount of public speaking experience before you stand the postgrad in front of a few hundred bored faces. Some of my colleagues are intimidated by presenting their work to their lab group, not to mind to say larger, less familiar audiences.

I read those blogs that they have there in that America, and they basically use TA’s as cheap labo(u)r to shore up their education system”. The American PhD student has a very different experience to the Irish student. US stipends need to be supplemented with teaching, and their projects tend to run for five to seven years instead of three to four. There’s many blogs that view postgraduate teaching and adjunct teaching as a cheap way to run universities. You can pay them less and put them on short term contracts. Adjunct style positions might be a better solution than postgraduate teaching for relieving the pressures of first year teaching. It would certainly be a more expensive solution than using postgrads, especially if it was introduced in a fair fashion with stable contracts and reasonable pay.

Ultimately, I don’t think postgraduates will be of much use for first year teaching given their likely time commitments/goals. Any solution will cost money. Swapping out experienced lecturers for (almost) free labour devalues the cost of teaching, so bringing in dedicated teaching staff should probably have similar terms to existing staff. Most of the staff I interact with regularly love teaching, if you could rearrange time itself they’d probably be quite happy to lecture all the spare students you could find, but altering fundamental physics is probably a little more challenging than finding extra budget.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in education, Research, structured PhD, teaching assistants, Third Level. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The TA Concept – A PhD Student’s perspective

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The TA Concept – A PhD Student’s perspective

  2. cormac says:

    One positive side of teaching for the postgrad is that it gives you chance to sample a core aspect of academic life early on.
    I was forced to undertake a teaching module (4 hr/wk) at nearby DIT in the second year of my PhD due to chronic shortage of cash. To my great surprise, I soon found I really enjoyed the teaching, sometimes more than my research to be honest. It helped me in my career choice and also helped me focus better in the lab

    • Greg Foley says:

      Cormac, I agree. When I was a Newman Scholar in UCD I used to long for a little bit of variety by doing a (small) bit of teaching. For me, variety is the great thing about an academic job.

  3. Cecilia says:

    I think lecturing/TAing can be quite a good idea, but what needs to be discussed is:

    1. Topic: Is the topic the student TAing in relevant to what s/he is studying e.g. I was given demonstrating for 1st year undergrads in Biology at DCU, whilst my project was mainly Chemistry based, though in Biotech). Therefore, the TAing I did had not relevance to me and I could not contribute much, if at all to the students. Having to give a lecture on the basics of what I was doing, would have been welcome, and when I was given the opportunity to do this towards the end of my PhD, I jumped at the chance and really enjoyed it.

    2. Compensation: I think anything except option 1 mentioned by Triona (Actual physical payment to the student) is unfair, and I do not agree with ‘covering extra salary for a PhD student who has run past their stipend might be appreciated.’, unless there are systems that consider what happens if a student does not run past their stipend, and effectively penalises students who have successfully finished on time and ingrains the idea that no PhD student can finish on time [Being able to use that funding to go to a conference, if you do not want to give actual cash, could be a welcome option].

    The TA concept can be a great opportunity for students/postdocs/a university. However it needs to be put into place in a correct manner, such that everyone benefits [looks good on your CV is not really a benefit].

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