Stipend for NSM teaching assistants raised to $2400

Graphic By Shubham Shekhar Jha | Mercury Staff

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Effective fall 2023, UTD increased TA stipends for the School of Natural Science and Mathematics, or NSM, to $2400, a $400 to $600 increase from last year.

The decision was made by the Provost’s Office and the Dean of NSM. Last year’s stipends ranged between $1,800 and $2,000, making the change an approximate 20% pay raise for graduate students. Dean of NSM David Hyndman said that this decision came about after several members of upper administration were concerned that graduate students were not making a reasonable wage. With the recent spike in rent rates around campus, food inflation and parking cost increase, the pay hike will help graduate students continue to serve the student body as TAs and perform research while also meeting their cost of living. This also puts the graduate programs at UTD at a competitive advantage against schools looking to recruit from the same talent pool.

“It did not seem like the department was ready to make an increase in our pay, but this came about, and I’m very excited about it,” said Ryanne Ehrman, a fourth year Ph.D. candidate and graduate TA in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.

Hyndman said that the administrative decision was a multi-step process that took years to execute.

“We have been talking about this issue for a couple of years and the first thing that came up was having insurance for graduate students — that was a priority for us,” Hyndman said. “First step was to get that in play, then second was to figure out a strategy to raise the wages of graduate students.”

He also said that since research assistants, or RAs — students paid by their doctoral advisor — need to be paid the same as TAs — students paid by the department — the grants that pay the RAs had to be submitted ahead of time with a budget of $2,400 per student per month.

Other UTD departments have also debuted similar pay raises in 2023, albeit not as high NSM; for example, the Department of Neuroscience increased its stipends to match the NIH recommendation of $2,262 a month. The NIH recommendation for graduate student stipend has often been used as a benchmark by universities to ensure their pay keeps pace with cost-of-living increases. However, that number is a flat rate for all of the U.S., meaning it may be worth less to those who attend school in more expensive cities. It is important to note that not all UTD departments and schools are guaranteed a minimum stipend that matches the NIH recommended payline.

“Different schools have different numbers — part of that comes down to market,” said Hyndman.

Ehrman said that even though the pay raise was a welcome change, it was well overdue, since even $2,400 is a tight budget for someone who has no financial support from family and cannot secure on-campus housing due to demand. In April 2023, 900 students were placed on the waitlist for on-campus housing for the 2023–24 term, and while some were placed into units over the summer, many did not make the cut.

“The cost of living has gone up a lot,” Ehrman said. “In my first year, I had two roommates and we lived in North Dallas. A new company bought the apartment complex and raised the rent from $1,850 to $2,250. We weren’t able to afford that, so I moved back in with my mom.”

Ehrman plans to continue the same living arrangement till she graduates. The sharp increase in cost of living does not just affect graduate students at UTD, but also other schools in the DFW area. Kapil Dev Sayala, a recent graduate from a doctoral program at Southern Methodist University, mentioned that over the duration of his graduate degree, he has observed how the rising inflation combined with stagnant stipends have negatively affected the lives of students.

“Prices have gone up in the neighbourhood around SMU insanely, especially since the pandemic,” Sayala said. “When I started as a student at SMU in 2017, the car market was good, and an average graduate student could afford a car. But I am not sure if that’s the situation now.”

In a study published by Elsevier and Ipsos MORI in 2020, producing high-quality research and recruiting and developing the best talent were rated as the two most important attributes in gauging performance of a successful research institution, and this sentiment was commonly shared across the Europe, North America and Asia Pacific regions. This research output eventually drives the rankings of universities, further attracting funding and more talent. Hyndman said that losing talented students to competition was an important matter for the school.

“I was concerned about the difference in wages across other institutions in the region and across the country. Having a competitive wage against those trying to recruit the same set of students was definitely one of the key factors,” Hyndman said.

Comparing the chemistry departments of both universities, SMU offered a larger stipend than UTD for the last five years. In a bid to make their program appear more attractive to students, SMU decided to fully cover health insurance for their graduate TAs in 2018, a decision which was replicated by UTD four years later. However, UTD’s new stipend raise to $2,400 has now made the department a more lucrative option for potential graduate students compared to SMU, a local competitor, whose students in the Chemistry department continue to receive a monthly stipend of $2,083.

Graduate student stipends have always been a source of conflict between more old-school academics — who believe that TAs are students first, employees second — and the newer generations who must face the harsh realities of being a student in times of unprecedented inflation rates.

“Graduate students are not often thought of as workers, and their association with the university is seen as an exchange — where the university lets you have a Ph.D., and in turn graduate students work for the university,” Ehrman said.

With graduate students often being reluctant to create conflict with authorities who control their access to funding, the onus often falls on organizations like unions to protect the rights of students that raise their voice. Late last year, the University of California’s graduate TA union demanded increased pay and benefits, and around 36,000 students went on a month-long strike in all 10 campuses — “the largest of its kind in the nation,” according to NPR. Currently, the TAs of UTD are not unionized, but when employers fail to keep their pay commensurate with the cost of living, the formation of a union is always a potential threat.

Even though he has graduated and moved out of the DFW area, Sayala is optimistic that UTD’s stipend raises will have a positive ripple effect not only within the university, but on his alma mater and in other neighbouring institutions as well.

“UTD is a very big school compared to SMU. If you want to attract good students and compete [with UTD], comparable stipends are a very important factor,” Sayala said.


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