Graduate students: overworked and underpaid

Many Wichita State graduate students fund their education with graduate assistantships, but some say the university does not pay enough to cover their basic living expenses.

Teaching assistants in the English department teach the vast majority of freshman composition courses, which are required courses for all students. Most are required to teach two three-hour courses a semester for a yearly stipend of $8,500.

But their contracts don’t allow them to work an outside job. They are not to work more than 20 hours a week. Despite these stipulations, many teaching assistants find themselves taking out student loans, holding second and third jobs or applying for government assistance.

“I get paid about $400 every two weeks and I can’t live off that,” said Jesse Allen, a graduate student in English literature. “So I have a job at Watermark Books and I’ll probably get a third job tutoring.

“I love teaching,” Allen said, “but that’s beside the point. I think everyone should get a living wage.”

Teaching Assistant

English teaching assistants also receive a tuition waiver that covers the cost of tuition, but they must pay their student fees of up to $1000 a year.

“You start out in-the-hole every semester,” said Josh Zimmerer, a teaching assistant in the English department who is studying for his master’s of fine arts in creative writing. “It’s strange to be paid by the school only for them to take the money back.”

Zimmerer teaches two sections of English 102 this semester. Although he does not receive government assistance, he said he knows of at least two teaching assistants in his department who have applied for food stamps this fall.

“It’s kind of a well-known secret that people work second jobs, just so we can survive,” Zimmerer said. “($8,500) is not a lot of money at all.”

English teaching assistants are paid for 20 hours of work, and each teaching assistant is also a full-time graduate student enrolled in nine hours of classes a semester. To be a teaching assistant, graduate students must maintain a grade point average above 3.0.

“We’re supposed to work no more than 20 hours a week, and some weeks we work up to 40,” said Krystal Iseminger, an English teaching assistant pursuing her master of arts in English literature. “It’s not like you can sit down and only take 10 hours to grade papers.”

Iseminger teaches a class with 37 students. Each essay she grades ranges in length from six to 12 pages.

“We really do try to keep our work under 20 hours,” Iseminger said. “You have to draw that line between ‘Am I doing the best that I can?’ or ‘Am I following the rules?’ If you’re passionate about educating, it’s a really hard line to draw.”

The WSU English department has 25 teaching assistants. English teaching assistants instruct 1,105 WSU students this fall. Assuming their students pay in-state tuition, their direct instruction generated $705,564 this semester, not counting student fees. That’s more than $28,000 a teaching assistant, at least, going to the university this semester.

Kayla Haas, another English teaching assistant, works two other jobs in addition to teaching two online courses for the English department. She also has an internship and takes student loans to help support herself.

“I think maybe I would like teaching somewhere else,” Haas said. “But I don’t here, because the amount of work I’m asked to put in is disproportionate to the amount of money I’m being paid.

“And the fact I know the administration isn’t going to step up and support us, like other schools might,” Haas said.

English graduate teaching assistants at the University of Kansas are paid $14,000 a year and their tuition is covered. At Kansas State they receive $12,000 a year, but teach one less class a year than WSU teaching assistants and receive health benefits. Their tuition is also waived.

Even teaching assistants in other departments at WSU earn more than English teaching assistants.

Saambhavi Ramakrishana is a teaching assistant in the math department who has taught classes ranging from beginning algebra to pre-calculus. She teaches college algebra this semester.

With two three-hour sections a semester of 40 students each, Ramakrishana is paid $14,400 a year and her tuition is waived. That’s nearly $6,000 more a year than English teaching assistants.

Ramakrishana enjoys teaching and the pay that comes with her job.

“The math department is very nice and welcoming,” Ramakrishana said. “Providing math education to people is a key element for anyone’s education because nearly every profession uses some form of math.”

According to the U.S. labor bureau statistics, the average wage for college teaching assistants in 2015 was $32,510, more than twice what Ramakrishana’s wage and almost four times what English teaching assistants at WSU earn.

“It’s frustrating,” Iseminger said. “We do so much more than teach writing — we teach how to use BlackBoard, we teach how to use email, we teach the first classes a lot of these students encounter at the university.

“It is worth it to get your master’s, but it is really hard to continue in that pressure when you are worrying about eating healthy. I know people who are like ‘Oh my God, Ramen noodles again this week,’” Iseminger said.

“Like, it’s not a joke — it’s for real.”