Berkeley EECS makes TA-ing more cushy

At the end of last semester I got a memo from our department trying to make TA-ing a more attractive prospect. In reality, a grad student in EECS is a TA here (or Graduate Student Instructor (GSI)) for one of three reasons : they’re a first-year and don’t have an advisor (yet), their advisor is low on funds or doesn’t have funds for their particular project, or they are fulfilling their teaching requirement to graduate (one semester only). The difference between being paid as a TA and as a research assistant (Grad Student Researcher (GSR)) is significant — the union negotiates the pay scale for GSIs, and the University is not going to let salaries rise if they can help it. In some instances a student’s advisor can bump up their salary to the GSR level. So now the department recommends:

  • If you are doing research the same semester you’re teaching, your advisor should give you a partial GSR to help out.
  • You can be appointing as a 100% GSR during winter break if you are around.
  • If your advisor can’t afford to pay you and you are GSI-ing to fulfill the graduation requirement, then the department will give you a unconstrained fellowship.

All in all, it’s seems like a much more pleasant deal — how this will end up changing the dynamics of TAing is unclear though. It also makes things much much nicer in EECS than in other departments, which seems somehow unfair in the end. Why can’t all GSIs get better pay?

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7 thoughts on “Berkeley EECS makes TA-ing more cushy

  1. “Why can’t all GSIs get better pay?”

    There’s a lot of factors that go into this.

    First, to first order, marginal expenses at the university are covered by tuition/fees, and increasing GSI salaries directly translates to higher tuition/fees for undergrads. If you asked undergrads if they wanted to pay more so that GSI salaries could go up, my guess is they’d say no. Also, given that each department has a fixed pool of money for GSIs, most departments would rather pay more students less money than fewer students more money – they can support more grad students that way.

    Second, in what I think was a bad move by Berkeley grad students several years ago, GSIs are unionized. As a consequence they are employees. And if they’re employees, they pay taxes and union dues. Compare to, say, Stanford grad students who aren’t employees and thus don’t pay taxes. Take-home pay is less for employee grad students than non-employees.

    Finally, there’s a supply and demand issue. The number of, say, history majors who would happily spend 8 years as Berkeley grad students vastly exceeds the number of history majors that Berkeley can handle. There’s no way to influence the supply, so the only way to cut down the demand (other than make the program worse) is to make it more of a financial squeeze. Make no mistake, if a GSI salary was comfortable, Berkeley could easily fill many of its PhD programs entirely with students who would happily stay for a decade or longer.

  2. my dept (EE) has a fund set up to pay the difference in salary between a TA and an RA appointment, so all students get equal pay. it seems we’re still always short of TAs, though.

    now, if the TAs got paid _more_ to compensate for what is essentially a loss of a term’s research time, then i suspect more early-stage grad students would be tempted to TA instead of pooh-poohing the very notion of having to teach.

    [i really enjoyed teaching-- i chose to do it this quarter instead of RA-- and i'd like to do it a few more times. that being said, i suspect having projects to work on will always win out over edumacating Teh Future, so i guess i'm not much better]

  3. A couple of years ago, my dept stopped increasing the TA payment (while increasing the research payment yearly) to actually DISCOURAGE people from depending on TAships for funding. (There really aren’t all that many to go around in our rather small school of ed.)

    Unfortunately, they didn’t really communicate this to the students. At all. In fact, most of us thought the dept guaranteed that your funding would never go down from the first year level (which is a special stipend equal to research pay). So the three of us second years who went on TA funding for the fall got a BIG shock when our paychecks went down by 15%! Luckily, the dept admitted they’d done a shitty job of warning us and made it up to us this year (and besides, most of us are on grants for the other two quarters), but they’re going back to the lower amount next year, just with fair warning.

  4. At Michigan, if you are a “guaranteed funding” student, the EECS (or maybe it’s just CSE?) department gives you a mini-fellowship to make up the difference between the GSI stipend and the GSRA stipend. The rule is that if you are guaranteed funding, you will make the same amount as a GSI, GSRA, or department fellowship.

    There’s definitely an imbalance between EECS funding and anyone out of LSA (Literature, Sciences, & the Arts). But the biologists are better off than all of us.

  5. What a puzzling discussion. Frankly, I’m shocked that the RA’s are paid more than the GA’s since an RA is a more desirable position. I wonder if it relates to the incentives for profs to raise funds for support of RAs exceeds the incentives for the university to spend money on better TA’s?

    As it happens, things are very different at Rutgers where the RA and TAs are paid the same, based on a union negotiated contract. Frankly, my impression is that the union benefits the RAs and GAs because 1) grad students don’t seem very price sensitive (someone who works for epsilon is likely to work for, say, 0.8\epsilon, and 2) the RAs and GAs don’t get “student health benefits” but instead get the same choice of health benefit plans as the faculty and staff.

  6. As a consequence they are employees. And if they’re employees, they pay taxes and union dues. Compare to, say, Stanford grad students who aren’t employees and thus don’t pay taxes. Take-home pay is less for employee grad students than non-employees.

    Interesting that this differs from school to school. At Northwestern, when you’re a TA you get taxes taken out (which made the drop in pay even more dramatic) but when you’re on a grant you don’t. Of course, legally you’re still *supposed* to pay taxes on anything that doesn’t go right back into tuition/books/fees/etc, you just don’t get withholding. Though you get completely out of FICA no matter where your funding is from.

  7. Actually, at Berkeley the GSR is also a employee appointment — this is why I am technically not a GSR this semester, since if I graduate early I would be in violation of my contract and would be responsible for paying my tuition and fees out of pocket.

    I think Stanford can get away with it since they aren’t a state institution, but the UCs are tied to the state system and all job appointments have secret codes that presumably tie into the state accounting system.

    Overall, I think that unionization was a good move on the part of GSIs. If they hadn’t done that they’d all be making $1K a month, which is *not* enough to sustainably live on around here.

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