Ph.D students teach courses and take on double lead for extra experience

Graduate students are saddled with an enormous amount of responsibility. In addition to studying, many of them teach classes, conduct their own research and work multiple jobs.

“[We’re] gluttons for punishment,” said Steven Harris-Scott with a laugh.

Harris-Scott is in his eighth year in Mason’s history Ph.D. program and has served as either a teaching assistant or a professor at various points throughout his graduate career. This semester, he is a teaching assistant for a section of Honors 110: Research Methods, grading papers and leading recitations.

Mason enrolls more than 10,000 graduate students and offers 200 masters, doctoral and certificate programs. Although specific requirements vary across programs, students usually must pass a cumulative exam and complete a dissertation in order to obtain a Ph.D.

Assistantships and other teaching positions appeal to students for a number of reasons, most notably because they provide a source of income and an opportunity to gain professional experience.

Harris-Scott aspires to be a teacher and finds his work rewarding.

“I like to think of my years as a TA and graduate lecturer as an extended apprenticeship that will only make me a better teacher when I start to do it full-time,” Harris-Scott said.

Other graduate students, however, have more complicated feelings about pursuing their Ph.D.

Golala Arya is a chemistry and biochemistry student who enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Mason largely due to convenience.

“I knew I wanted my Ph.D., knew Mason didn’t have good incentives,” Arya said. “But I stayed because my husband works in the area and I could commute here easily.”

Compensation is a common complaint of student teachers. Graduate lecturers receive $2,500-$3,000 a class, roughly the same salary as an adjunct professor. Teaching assistants are a little better off, earning $10,000-$14,000 a class. Teaching assistants can also be eligible for tuition waivers and subsidized health care.

“One thing that’s difficult is [benefits are] unpredictable,” said Gavin Mueller, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the cultural studies department and a teacher at New Century College. “A lot of times the benefits will change from year to year and you’re not always ready.”

Because the northern Virginia area has a high cost of living, many students try working other jobs, though some have contracts that restrict their weekly working hours. To make ends meet, Mueller has done an assortment of odd jobs, from teaching at places other than Mason to writing for magazines and conducting market research.

The combination of work, classes, research and auxiliary duties that come with teaching as a graduate student, such as holding office hours for students and advising younger students, can put a tremendous amount of pressure on graduate students. Many of them struggle to manage their time efficiently and to find a balance between all of their obligations.

“I want to be the best teacher that I can be and sometimes, it feels like I can’t give it as much time as I would want to,” said Alexandra Perloe, a psychology student. She works an unpaid position at a clinic in addition to teaching ten hours a week and conducting I.Q. tests for children.

Arya is the president of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Graduate Student Association and has spoken to the university administration about raising the stipend paid to graduate teaching assistants. She finds that the time she devotes to teaching often hinders her research, and given the low pay, she cannot afford to take her daughter to daycare.

“It is beneficial to Mason and every other university in the country to produce quality grad students because that is how they get a lot of their money,” Arya said. “But in order to get quality grad students, you need to give them good incentives.”

Even with the time commitment and economic anxiety, most graduate students still consider teaching a welcome experience.

Adam Mitchell, a cultural studies student like Mueller, feels lucky to have the opportunity to share his knowledge with others.

“There are so many beautiful and challenging moments, I think, in every classroom,” Mitchell said. “And there are so many possibilities that come from – I believe it was Bell Hooks that said this – from the comforting co-presence of other learners, that as challenging as it might be to work in this field, to try to be a scholar in the 21st century, I still believe it’s worth it.”

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