As a first year Ph.D. student in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences/Teachers College joint program in applied anthropology, I found myself sitting in an office in Fayerweather Hall. I was one of two teaching assistants filling out paperwork to be a TA for the Barnard course Survey of American Civilization Since the Civil War.
As the mundane task of paperwork unfolded, something interesting happened. I was signing on the dotted line for the standard temporary TA contract: $5,000 for one semester of work—grading, discussion-leading, office hours. Offered the same agreement, my colleague, a Ph.D. student in religion, was insisting that his department arrange it so that if he TAed he would get his full Ph.D. funding restored. Pointing out this special arrangement caught the history department's administrator off guard. Still, this unfolded, with me as a bystander.
A typical Columbia Ph.D. package is a five-year agreement requiring three years of TA work. In exchange, you receive two years of scholastic freedom, tuition and fee waivers for all five years, a $24,000 annual stipend, and health insurance. Conservatively estimated, this package is worth $32,000 per semester (not including two free years). In exchange for doing identical jobs, my colleague was receiving $32,000, and I was receiving $5,000 plus a whole lot of student debt. Just in case you were wondering, the class went fine, the course reviews were good, and the world kept turning.
I've TAed undergraduate courses across seven semesters in three different departments—incidentally, more than is required for a full-funding package. I love teaching and intend to brave the academic job market in search of a college position. I also love my discipline. In anthropology, your job is one of translation, engaging in the impossible task of writing an account that is true for the people you are learning about and that simultaneously makes sense to your academic colleagues. This love affair with field research led me to the Ph.D. program in applied anthropology, with its excellent professors and field work training but terrible funding. And the lack of any formal TA opportunities in my program led me to the surplus TA labor market at Columbia's main campus.
There is one more wrinkle to this story. As absurd as it is for me to make $5,000 sitting next to folks making $32,000 for identical work, there are folks who think my $5,000 would be the chance of a lifetime. TA pay at Teachers College floats between $800 and $1,200 per semester (for graduate courses, mind you). To Teachers College's credit, senior administrators have increased funding opportunities for doctoral students. This past year they offered funding packages for 50 incoming doctoral students. And though the rollout frustrated a number of departments, since it restricted admission and drew on already scarce departmental scholarships, the intention was good. The rush, too, to grant 90 students $10,000 scholarships is admirable. But there are over 5,000 graduate students at Teachers College and well over 1,000 Ph.D. students. The larger problem remains: While graduate students lack scholarships and teaching opportunities, they have an abundance of debt. Despite my willingness to work, I've already gone over $100,000 in debt, all while filling gaps in Columbia's labor supply.
Again, it's wonderful that Teachers College's administration is prioritizing student aid. But this problem is not Teachers College's alone. This is a Columbia problem. GSAS Dean Carlos Alonso told the New York Times that he wants fewer and better funded Ph.D. students. Ph.D. students at Teachers College, by virtue of the Columbia University affiliation agreement, are students of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It would be nice if that better funding extended to all of GSAS's students.
Ph.D. funding levels don't just affect graduate students. If you have fewer Ph.D.s and don't cut undergraduate enrollments accordingly, you won't have enough graduate students to teach and TA introductory courses. Undergraduates, have you noticed how many of your introductory, breadth, or required courses are oversubscribed and have a waiting list? This is directly due to a shortage of funded Ph.D. students. That's why I've been able to TA every single semester, always at the last minute and always for a lower salary than my colleagues for the exact same work.
So there we sit, like little academic nesting dolls. Fully funded Ph.D.s at $32,000; folks like me at $5,000; and poor impoverished Teachers College TAs at just over $1,000 per graduate course. The University gets to boast its affiliation with Teachers College—the largest, oldest, and best school of education—bask in the light of the school's progressive mission and legacy, all while the University can't even pay an equal salary to the TAs it needs.
The author is a graduate student of applied anthropology at Teachers College.
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