V. Policies for Graduate Assistants
Graduate assistant policies from several sources are summarized here for easy reference. Some of the relevant sources that will take precedence if this summary is found to be unclear are the Graduate Degree Programs Bulletin and University Policy PR-6.
A. General Policies
1. Types of Appointments
Appointments may be for 1/4 time, 1/2 time, or 3/4 time on a full-time basis of 40 hours per week. Thus, the typical half-time appointment requires 20 hours per week. The pay rates may vary depending on the nature of the job and the student’s experience. Students with half-time appointments pay no tuition and must take from 9 to 12 credits per semester or 4 to 6 credits in the summer during the period of employment. All appointments automatically terminate at the end of the spring semester, if not before, and appointments carry no guarantee of renewal. Students who have had appointments for both the preceding fall and spring semesters are eligible to apply for summer tuition assistance if the assistantship is not renewed for the summer.
Appointments may be for a variety of duties generally classified as research (RA) or teaching (TA). Teaching appointments will be supported by internal funds. Research appointments may be supported by either internal funds or externally funded research. The latter is more common. Some appointments may be supported by two sources of funds in which case the service is to be split in proportion to the funds from each source.
A graduate assistant is not eligible for other forms of employment such as part-time hourly wage payroll, either within or outside of Penn State, unless approval is obtained from those supplying the assistantship, the graduate program coordinator, and the college dean. However, a graduate assistant is allowed to receive fellowship funds in addition to the assistantship.
A graduate assistant may deviate from the prescribed course loads (if given permission from the source of funds, the graduate program coordinator, and the dean of The Graduate School) only to the extent that one heavy semester is balanced by another that is light.
2. Periods of Service
Unless specified otherwise, a semester appointment requires 18 weeks of service and a summer appointment requires 12 weeks. A full year's appointment will then be 48 weeks. It is notable that class is in session for a total of only 44 weeks including exam periods. Research assistants work independently of the academic calendar, more or less, while the responsibilities of teaching assistants are concentrated during the weeks when class is in session. Teaching assistants may have pre-class preparation as well.
3. Health Insurance
All graduate assistants must have health insurance. A person may choose to purchase insurance separately and provide timely evidence that the policy meets Penn State standards. Otherwise a student is automatically enrolled in a group health insurance policy and in a vision care policy and dental insurance plan for graduate assistants and pays 20% of the premium. When requested, health insurance and dental and vision care insurance for the student’s eligible dependents may be included and the student pays 30% of the premium for dependent coverage. Because the details are too numerous to be repeated here, the student should go to 302 Student Health Center Building or call 814-865-7467 for information.
4. Pay Periods
Stipends are delivered electronically near the end of the month to the student's local bank account five times each semester and twice during the summer. A new arrival will not receive the first paycheck on time unless prior processing of the appointment has occurred.
5. Applicability of Assistantship to Degree Requirements
No student is required to have an assistantship as a part of degree requirements, but the official who appoints the assistant may direct that all or a portion of the work will be devoted toward meeting degree requirements. For example, a teaching assistant seldom devotes 18 weeks at 20 hours per week to assigned teaching responsibilities, but usually more than that amount of time to assigned teaching plus degree-related research. In part, most assistantships can be considered to support study as well as to require service.
6. Supervision and Evaluation
Each graduate assistant is assigned to a supervisor, usually a faculty member, who has the responsibility to specify the requirements of the position, to oversee the assistant's work on some regular schedule, and to evaluate the assistant's work, dependability, and readiness to move to higher levels of responsibility.
7. State and Local Tax Deductions
The University will not withhold state and local tax from assistantship stipends when a student is only performing services that are required of all degree candidates in his or her program.
B. Teaching Assistant Policies
1. Preparation and Training
Electrical Engineering has a positive history of teaching assistant performance in various capacities including classroom instruction. Student complaints about teaching assistants are not frequent and some have achieved unusually high student ratings for their services. We are careful in our selection of persons to serve and we strongly advocate preparation and training for specific jobs. Both supervisors and teaching assistants are responsible for ensuring that teaching assistants are properly prepared for their assignments.
During the first semester, a new teaching assistant should enroll in ENGR 888. This is a one-credit course that provides teaching assistants with the opportunity to learn some pedagogy and to discuss problems that arise in the classroom. In this course, teaching assistants can present talks relevant to their assignments and receive feedback from other assistants who are in similar situations.
Teaching assistants should expect to have meetings with their immediate supervisors prior to the start of the semester, and often during the semester. At the beginning, the teaching assistants should receive a course syllabus, a text, any information to be distributed to students, and specific details about their assignments. Teaching assistants and supervisors are to discuss the instructional goals and objectives of the course and the means to accomplish them. Periodically, meetings should be held to emphasize the purposes of a particular lab or project and how it should be evaluated. Teaching assistants should expect to attend course lectures, especially the first time assigned to a course, to be aware of the instructor's emphasis and expectations of the students.
State law requires teaching assistants whose native language is not English to pass a test of their ability to converse in English (AEOCPT). This department appoints only those who have already passed the test that is administered by Penn State’s Department of Applied Linguistics.
Teaching assistants may expect a wide variety of assignments including the following: grading homework, projects, and exams; preparing assignments; preparing solutions for posting or distribution; maintaining office hours and holding help sessions; substituting as lecturers when faculty members are out of town; helping to administer exams including evening exams and exams in courses other than the primary assigned course; preparing and setting up demonstrations; processing grade data and, in some cases, assigning grades. Teaching assistants are advised to keep a daily log of time devoted to the job and how it divides among various tasks.
Teaching assistants should not be asked to do the following: choose textbooks; prepare a syllabus; lecture regularly; teach a new course; help with a professor's work that is unrelated to the course; or meet with a supervisor outside of the hours from 8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m. except for formally scheduled exams.
From time to time, teaching assistants must be absent from an assigned job, yet clearly an unmet class represents a major lapse in responsibility and it creates a very poor image of the Department among the student clientele. In case of illness or planned absences such as professional trips, teaching assistants should notify the supervisor at the first knowledge of such absence and work with the supervisor to have the responsibilities covered. It is common for two individuals, students or faculty, to arrange mutual exchanges of responsibilities from time to time to allow for such personal needs. Any emergencies or extended changes should come to the attention of the department head who may need to reassign jobs.
During the first week of the semester, the teaching assistant and supervisor should meet to assure that start-up details have been completed. Late in the semester, any teaching assistant who has had contact with students will have an SRTE (Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness) evaluation. Additional information and evaluation guidelines are available from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence web page.
C. Research Assistant Policies
1. The Research Assistant Appointment and Thesis Preparation
Because a research assistant appointment is normally accompanied by the preparation of a graduate thesis, the research supervisor is usually the thesis supervisor and will have much to say about related course work and other aspects of the research assistant’s preparation. The dual aspects of the appointment cannot be separated. Likewise, the evaluation of the research assistant cannot be separated from the evaluation of the thesis preparation. All that can be asked is that the combination of research appointment and the registration for thesis credits represents a realistic workload, especially in light of other course work the research assistant may be carrying.
2. Work Hours
The nature of the work may well require that hours be spent outside of the normal 8:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m., Monday-Friday schedule. An obvious example is lidar work that must be conducted at night. Lab tests or experiments may require continuous supervision for an extended period of time. Those who accept research assistant positions do so understanding that unusual hours may be expected. No graduate student, research assistant or otherwise, should expect to be placed in a situation of personal danger by being asked to work alone in a laboratory with a hazardous environment or by being asked to work in an environment where that person might be exposed to harassment or assault from fellow workers or strangers. Supervisors are to be sensitive to such issues and to arrange work schedules to provide necessary safeguards for all individuals involved in the work. Concerns should be brought to the supervisor's attention immediately and to the department head if not promptly resolved.
Research assistants may be expected to do any of the following: maintain hardware or software; clean equipment and work-spaces (but not provide janitorial services); follow prescribed lab and safety procedures; prepare proposals; prepare reports and related graphics; collect and process data; interact with sponsors and vendors; and attend meetings and seminars. Research assistants should not be expected to travel without advances and reimbursement for expenses, to lecture for the supervisor, except for occasional substitutions, or to provide services unrelated to University business, such as consulting or moving household furniture.