Dean Norberto Grzywacz is in the process of implementing major changes to the work requirements for doctoral students on Georgetown’s main campus. These changes allow for an increase in the number of hours PhD students work per week without a commensurate raise in pay. They were made not only without the knowledge of the majority of PhD students, but also without the knowledge of a significant number of faculty and department chairs.
As members of the Doctoral Students’ Coalition — a group formed this year to advocate for doctoral student interests — we oppose these changes and are asking Grzywacz to delay them for at least one year. It is our hope that this delay will allow doctoral students and departments to work with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to find mutually acceptable solutions to the problems this new policy seeks to address.
Currently, doctoral students are expected to work 15 hours per week for our stipends. We are also allowed to work part-time at Georgetown for up to 5 hours per week. The new changes allow departments to require doctoral students to work up to 20 hours per week in teaching assistant/resident assitant positions. They also prohibit doctoral students from taking five-hour-per-week positions.
There are many serious problems with these changes. Doctoral students who currently do not have part-time employment may be required to work 33.3 percent more hours per week next year, with only a 3.8 percent increase in pay. Many of the part-time jobs we are prohibited from taking under the new policy help us make valuable connections within our fields, establish working relationships with faculty members, publish papers, gain experience working for academic journals and pursue different kinds of teaching opportunities.
Many doctoral students also work part-time for the university out of financial need. Although our stipend is increasing from $26,000 to $27,000 next year, $520 of which is a university-standard cost-of-living increase, the MIT Living Wage Calculator estimates that the cost of living in D.C. was about $31,000 in 2014. This is why many doctoral students — particularly those who have extra expenses like child support payments or medical bills — rely on part-time employment.
In particular, the policy has a dramatic impact on international students, who are legally prohibited from working more than 20 hours per week either on or off campus. This policy will eliminate opportunities for international students to find off-campus work. So, while doctoral students who are U.S. citizens can earn extra money and gain professional experience by finding off-campus employment, international students will be prohibited from doing so. This is especially worrying for international students who need to earn more than the stipend to afford visits to families and partners abroad.
Unfortunately, the policy also does not appear well-equipped to deal with one of the main problems it seeks to address: doctoral students being overworked. The dean has learned that some doctoral students are working in excess of 20 hours per week in their TA and RA responsibilities already. While we agree that this is a serious problem, we do not understand how the proposed changes offer a solution. Instead of enforcing the existing expectation of 15 working hours per week, the policy allows departments to raise that expectation without providing a clear plan for how to regulate or enforce the new limit. Shouldn’t there simply be better enforcement of the existing 15-hour standard? Ultimately, we believe that if these changes are intended to protect overworked doctoral students, then those doctoral students should at least be included in the conversation.
Some department chairs have expressed strong opposition to these changes and have made a commitment to keep the workload for TAs and RAs in their departments to roughly 15 hours per week next year. We strongly support the stance these department chairs have taken. However, we worry that other departments will respond to this policy change by increasing class sizes and workloads. In the departments where doctoral students are asked to pick up extra work, it may become more difficult for those students to complete their dissertations in timely fashions. Increasing class sizes can undermine undergraduate instruction by spreading TAs too thin and decreasing the amount of time they can dedicate to each student.
Hailey Huget is a PhD candidate in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Huget is a member of the Doctoral Students’ Coalition.