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Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.



Many graduate students have assistantships of some sort. We have a contracts, either annually or by semester, detailing our titles, what responsibilities are, and what our compensation will be. I was a math department teaching assistant for two years during my masters, I am a teaching assistant in electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering now, and I'm told I'll be a research assistant for academic year 2017-8. The letters I’ve signed, though, are not the entirety of the story. There's also the collective bargaining agreement through my union. Your relevant documentation may well include more than just the piece of paper you sign, too. Read all of it. In its entirety. I mean it.


Yes, I know: it's legal language. I hate reading legal language as much as I think most non-lawyers do. However, this is important. There's important information in each. The letter tells me:

  • My stipend rate: How much am I getting paid? I actually caught an error in this area once: any student who has passed masters qualifying exams gets bumped up from level I to level II, which means a pay increase. Because my masters is from the math department, and I currently work in electrical, computer, and biomedical engineering, someone didn't know that I qualified for level II. Over the course of the 2016-7 academic year, that mistake would have cost me $356. I'm a graduate student. I want my $356. I bet you want all the money you should get too.
  • Work time: How is the academic year defined? How long is it? How many of those weeks am I expected to be working? What are the rules about which of those weeks I'm working? Could I, as a TA in the math department, get the week of spring break off so I could go on the spring break trip with my ultimate (Frisbee) team? (I could and I did.)
  • My duties: The form letter says that we could be expected to prepare or teach labs or courses, proctor exams, grade homework submissions or exams, or hold office hours. The third page, labeled "duties and responsibilities addendum," has the specifics, which vary between departments and assistants. My duties have, at various times, been: teach a class and grade another, teach a class and proctor, teach two lab sections and grade most of the associated homework submissions, and grade for four classes.
  • Other sources of important information: I need to follow the rules in the University Manual (and so do the people I work for!) It's been a while since I read that in full, but I have done it. There are additional provisions in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which is the contract my union signs with the Rhode Island Council for Postsecondary Education.


When I first became a teaching assistant in the 2014-15 academic year, the new governing collective bargaining agreement wasn't signed yet, and we were still working under the 2011-2014 contract. That's the one I read first. Here's what I learned from it:

  • Dues: I'm going to be paying the union the same amount whether or not I officially join, whatever I may think. I may as well join, talk to them, and try to get my views represented.
  • Grievances: If I think my contract is being violated, I go to my immediate supervisor first. Then I would go to the University President (or his designee), then the commissioner, and then arbitration. I really don't want to need to do that, but it's good to know the procedure.
  • Outside writing: I blog, and not just here. I'm in a few anthologies that aren't related to my official field of study, too. It's important to me to know, then, that my ability to do so is protected. From the academic freedom clause: "When they write or speak as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline." That sounds like protection.
  • Disability: The university isn’t allowed to discriminate against me for being disabled. That's good to know. It's also federal law. Yes, I have read a good chunk of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Where do I go for accommodations? I have no idea. Students go to Disability Services for Students (DSS). Faculty and staff go to Human Resources (which then talks to DSS.) I'm a student and I'm staff. What do I do? No one knew.

Because I read my contract and asked around, I knew that no one had the answer regarding my accommodations. If I hadn't known that this was undetermined, I wouldn't have known to bring it up when I talked to my union. They wouldn't have known to bug the administration about it. Guess what? It's specified in the 2014-2018 contract! I go to DSS. I can also handle problems with accommodations that DSS can’t help me resolve  through the grievance system instead of filing an ADA lawsuit, because following relevant federal law on disability is now part of my contract. Again, I really don't want to need to do that, but having one more option is nice, and knowing what all my options are is important in case something goes very wrong.


The moral of this story is, read your contract.


What did you learn from it? What isn't clear?

[Image by Informed Mag and used under a Creative Commons license.]

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