Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Playing with House Money

Thank you so much for your comments last week. You all helped me identify many sources of funding that can be broken into three main categories: in-house or university/department funds, external fellowships and scholarships, and personal funds. This week, I want to talk about university/department funds that some of us use to get by.

Departmental and university funding generally comes from three different sources: teaching assistantships, research assistantships, and block grant funding. I’ll take them apart one by one below and enumerate the pros and cons.

Teaching Assistantship (TA-ship) ““ a TA-ship is generally either a 25% (10 hours a week) or 50% (20 hours a week) time commitment. TA-ships can look wildly different from class to class ““ sometimes you’re leading discussions or labs, and sometimes you’re teaching lectures. Readers (people who read and grade exams for large classes) are often lumped in with TAs but they are almost always 25% appointments.


  • You get to build up your teaching resume. Almost all post-docs and faculty positions like to see at least a little bit of teaching. It’s not crucial to be a great teacher (in fact, at research institutions, I hear that the goal is to be an A-grade researchers and a C-grade teacher), but it’s vital to have experience since teaching is always something that comes along with the appointment.
  • You might find out you like to teach, in which case, the 20 hours a week or whatever spent in the classroom are enjoyable ones. It’s great to have the opportunity to explore various types of work (teaching, research, etc) while in graduate school.
  • You can teach and keep your research interests separate. This will make more sense in a bit. Hold up.


  • It takes up time, time you could be spending on your dissertation, time you could be spending to get done with grad school and on with your career. It adds nothing to your research and it doesn’t further your academic goals.
  • It does not pay very well at all. For how much work goes into TAing, the wage isn’t particularly great.

Research Assistantships (RA-ships) ““ Generally speaking, you work as a lab tech or research assistant for your advisor or another professor in the department. You can work on their main project, or on side projects that are directly related to their main project. You are generally paid from their grant.


  • If you’re lucky, you can work on something related to your research and get MORE publications. While you might not be able to directly work on your dissertation (sometimes you can, but it’s pretty rare), you can build up your publication resume, which is great for future academic work.
  • If you have a good situation with your advisor, this could be a very mutually beneficial set-up: you get paid for doing work that is immediately interesting to you.


  • You could be consigned to doing dull repetitive work which you are not interested in at all and which has absolutely nothing to do with your dissertation research. It could be tedious, time-consuming, and unrelated to your own work. It can take time away from your research.
  • This is the biggest con, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come with the RA-territory (though it often does) ““ you may feel pressure to work on things your advisor finds interesting, not what you find interesting. If you’re getting paid to work on their projects and don’t have time to work on your own, then you may feel that it’d just be easier to find a dissertation topic that could be worked on under the RA-ship. This is one reason that I think RA-ships should be undertaken with care. They aren’t worse than TA-ships, necessarily, but it could lead to messy scenarios. By the by, this gets into a whole field of the goals and attitudes of the program towards their grad students. That deserves its own post.

Block grants and department funding ““ The university/department provides funding that matches how much you’d earn as a TA or RA. Generally, this only happens for one semester or quarter a year, with the student being required to have a TA or RA-ship for the remaining time. This is a pretty sweet deal.


  • You get money! Not a ton, but as good as any other time.
  • It doesn’t take any time! You just get money for being in good standing. Usually, this sweet deal only lasts when you’re taking courses, so enjoy it when it happens.


  • None really. I mean, it’s usually a very limited time thing because the university can’t afford to give funds to people willy-nilly. Like I said, most programs, if they have something like this, use it for students who are near exams or in the middle of heavy course work.

The overall cons of all of these options are that they can be hard to get and the amount of money can be quite low, making budgeting very tricky. Budgeting takes time so it’s especially difficult when you already have to spend so much time working on the TA/RA work and your own research. While the financial stress is eased by any TA/RA-ing/departmental funding, it can still make graduate school a difficult experience.

These options vary in their availability depending on university, department, and whether you’re a Masters or PhD student ““ PhD students in STEM fields at private universities usually get the best financial deal. Still, if you’re getting your PhD, do not accept a program unless you get some funding ““ any of these options, honestly, are pretty good ones. I guess I can’t speak for RA-ships since I haven’t had any, but I’ve enjoyed my TA experience and I look forward to having more of it.

How about you? What have your experiences been? What are the pros and cons in your mind for these various funding options? Is there something big that I’ve missed?

Next week: external funding!


5 replies on “Women in Academia: Playing with House Money”

Be aware that some fields are different than others, and some departments are different than others.

I’m doing my PhD in a molecular biology department within a College of Medicine. Generally, PhD students who are accepted into programs in Colleges of Medicine are given Graduate Assistanceships (GAs) which cover a fairly decent sized stipend for income support, as well as a 100% scholarship. The GA is paid for by the mentor or by the department or is made up by fellowships or grants awarded to the student.

There is no teaching or anything similar involved. The student is required to spend 40+ hours working on their dissertation research in their mentor’s lab. The idea is that the amount of the stipend is returned many-fold in grants the student helps the mentor receive.

This is different in comparison to biology departments in a College of Arts and Sciences, for example. Fewer faculty tend to have grants and while mentors will pay part of their students’ stipends, it is likely neccessary for PhD students’ incomes to be supplemented with teaching – thus TAing.

Just wanted to add that being a TA isn’t *always* a ton of work. If you’re teaching a class you’ve taught before, or for a professor who is very hands-on (one seriously wrote our lesson plans for us, which sucked but did free up a lot of time), sometimes it can be surprisingly little work. I’ve had quarters where I seriously spend about three hours a week on the class except when a batch of papers came in–and I wasn’t slacking, it just really didn’t ask that much time!

This is a great series, I wish someone had told me a lot of this around 4 years ago. I’m very lucky with my RA in that I have always been able to do my own research for the most part. Of course, I’m obligated to do boring tasks for my advisor occasionally (give tours, write grant proposals, etc), but that is the minority of my time on the job. My partner, though, has exactly that RA problem: he does what he is told, no academic freedom. He will probably be one of those types who just does a dissertation on something his professor is interested in.
We are in the same department, but the big contrast I see is that my prof is an ancient big-deal tenured dude, his is still trying to get tenure. So while my advisor is actually mostly interested in furthering MY career, its pretty obvious whose career Mr. Alebrije’s advisor cares about.

Oh keep these posts coming! I am just getting into the postgraduate world and man do I feel like I am just running around blind!

I was just accepted into the program of my dreams (an MA) and I have received a $25 000 CND offer to go for the two year program, naturally $20 000 of the offer is pay as a TA, so although the offer seemed unreal at first it’s really only enough to cover tuition, I imagine. Still I thought it was a pretty good offer considering the economy and everything else!

The other Uni I was accepted into was asking me to pay what came out to about $30 000 for the 12 month program and no financial aid.

Brown rejected me, which is probably good because that was going to be about $60 000 USD a year… ouchy…

So I guess I’m just hoping that my offer is on par for what an MA student typically gets if they have reasonably good grades and that jazz.

There is no overstating the extent to which teaching assistant positions are at the mercy of various department pressures. In my department, 4 years of funding are guaranteed for PhD students in good standing, but that does not include summer work. There are far fewer summer classes offered, summer class sizes are smaller, and the spots are granted by seniority – which means readers/graders/discussion leaders rarely get summer work. Another thing to keep in mind is that the crappy economy WILL affect your work load. This semester my student load is 40% larger than previous semesters. In fact, the graduate school required departments to provide each grad instructor with 1 grader for every 90 students until last year. I currently have 98 students, no grader, and my own research demands. That’s just the money stuff. When the department chair changed 2 years ago, the new one slashed the number of small sections taught by grad instructors in favor of large sections with more graders. If you accept university funding you should be prepared for a LOT of job duty instability, because your master’s degree is the bottom of the barrel in this environment and they will jerk you around to keep the department in the black.

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