Physics students voice concern over possible TA position cuts

Eleanor Dearman

More than 140 physics graduate students have signed a petition voicing their opposition to a possible cut in the department’s teaching assistant positions.

According to Rebecca Roycroft, physics graduate student and TA, the opposition is in response to a proposed plan that was announced at a Nov. 21 physics faculty meeting, which the physics graduate welfare committee, a group of graduate students that serve as a liaison between faculty, administration and students, attended. According to Roycroft, someone suggested at the meeting that about 40 of the approximately 120 teaching assistant positions be cut and transferred to students with bachelor’s degrees. She said the plan is not definite, but it has caused concern in the department. 

“They were pretty alarmed by that and immediately emailed the rest of the grad reps to tell us about it,” said Roycroft, who is also a member of the welfare committee.   

Roycroft said the plan was proposed as a way to increase the stipend of TAs in the department.

“It’s accompanied by a small pay raise and some other incentives — things that are supposed to be good for grad students — but I think those benefits pale in comparison to the fact that they are proposing to cut 40 TA positions,” Roycroft said. 

Dan Knopf, associate dean for graduate education in the College of Natural Sciences, could not say whether this plan was being considered but said the College of Natural Sciences would not take any action that would negatively impact graduate students or the quality of undergraduate classes.

“I can’t speak to what physics is considering, but I cannot imagine any scenario in which graduate students would lose support or undergraduate classes would go unstaffed,” Knopf said.

The petition is worded, “We the physics graduate students oppose any plan that would result in loss of funding for continuing graduate students,” according to Frank Male, physics graduate research assistant and member of the welfare committee.

“It’s basically saying that leaving graduate students without funding in the middle of their program is a terrible, terrible idea that we don’t support,” Male said in an email.

Male said a lot of the student concern about the potential cuts stems from the financial support it offers to students. He said most graduate students in the physics department are offered a TA position or research assistant position as a way to pay for their degree. Knopf said many students are offered these types of positions as a source of income to stipend their education across all natural sciences.

“The way that physics works is that all students get through without having to pay,” Male said. “They are either given research assistantships or teaching assistantships. The teaching assistantships also provide help for professors, so they’re kind of necessary for fulfilling the actual teaching mission of the University and of the department.”

According to Roycroft, there is also student concern that, if the TA positions were cut, the department as a whole could decrease in size over time.

“Less money for TAs means either kicking current students out or recruiting fewer students in the future,” Roycroft said. “So that would sort of necessitate fewer grad students overall.”

Robert Stevens, physics graduate student and TA, said that, if the cuts were to happen, he thinks graduate students in their third year or higher would be impacted the most in terms of job loss.

“That plan is troubling because the department has contracts signed with incoming students that they are guaranteed employment for the first two years,” Stevens said. “So all the cuts will have to be absorbed by students that are third year or higher.”

Graduate students and TAs are waiting to find out whether these cuts will be implemented.

“All we know is nothing is definite,” Stevens said. “Nothing has been decided.”