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Being a Graduate Assistant

All graduate students admitted to the program with funding are employed by the University as graduate assistants.  In this role, our graduate students play a vital role in helping the Department to realize its goals with regard to undergraduate education and research.  Through employment as a classroom instructor or on a research project, graduate students also learn skills that are central to their achievements beyond graduate school.

What are the privileges and responsibilities associated with being a graduate assistant?

As a graduate assistant, your tuition charges are remitted for the semesters covered by your appointment. Furthermore, following two successive semesters of service, tuition is remitted for summer session up to 9 credits. If you are appointed as a graduate lecturer, tuition is remitted for up to 5 credits.  However, you must apply for this additional tuition assistance.

In accepting appointment, you join in the department's teaching mission and will have specified educational functions to perform. The proper performance of these responsibilities is the principal charge for all of us. Unacceptable performance of assigned responsibilities will lead to termination of an appointment.

Unless you have unusual qualifications, you will be required to register for 2 credits of CAS 602, Supervised Experience in College Teaching, in each of your first two semesters.  You also may wish to take advantage of the teaching mentor program conducted by the Graduate Forum, in which new graduate students receive guidance from experienced teaching assistants during their first year.

You also will be required to register for one credit of CAS 590, Colloquium, in each of your first two semesters in the program.  You need not register for Colloquium after your first year, but you are bly encouraged to attend Colloquium throughout your graduate career at Penn State .  Colloquium helps sustain the intellectual community of the department by providing opportunities for scholarly dialogue and professional development.

Graduate assistants generally teach independent sections of CAS 100 or assist in lecture-lab sections of other courses.  Depending on the needs of the department, you may be assigned other, equivalent duties at the discretion of the department Head.  You may intern undergraduate courses other than CAS 100A by contacting the instructor in charge, securing his or her approval, and registering for 1 credit of CAS 602, Supervised Teaching in Communication Arts and Sciences.  Generally, you will not be assigned to teach a course unless you have experience teaching or interning that course.  Interning a course, however, does not guarantee the right to teach it and should be viewed as part of your professional development.


What financial support is conveyed by an assistantship?

  1. The principal criterion for awarding financial support is the applicant's promise for scholarly and professional growth, productivity, and contributions to knowledge.
  2. To continue receiving financial support, a student must have achieved a GPA of at least 3.0 at the conclusion of each semester. Students who do not meet this requirement will be notified that financial support will end at termination of the contract.
  3. Students receiving financial support who earn two grades of C will be notified that their financial support will be terminated at the end of their current contract.
  4. The number of years of financial support available to graduate assistants in good standing typically is two years for the completion of an M.A. degree and three years beyond the M.A. degree for completion of a Ph.D. degree program. In cases in which the student begins a degree program without support, only the remainder of the maximum number of years of support will be available. For example, a student working toward an M.A. degree who had completed l8 credits beyond the B.A. degree would be eligible for one year at half-time, and a student working toward a Ph.D., who had completed l8 credits beyond the M.A., would be eligible for two years at half-time. These guidelines shall apply to students who receive credit for graduate work completed elsewhere.
  5. Ph.D. applicants who received support as M.A. students in this program may not presume automatic continuation of support. Eligibility for continued financial support depends on the applicant's promise for scholarly and professional growth, productivity, and contributions to knowledge as compared with other Ph.D. applicants.
  6. Relinquishing appointment as a graduate teaching assistant carries no assurance of reappointment. If the individual relinquishing an assistantship wishes to be reappointed, he or she must so indicate to the Graduate Officer. The request will be considered along with all other applications for financial support.


How does the Department assess and monitor professional progress?

  1. Faculty supervisors of activities to which graduate student assistants are assigned are responsible for assessing the students' competence in the performance of their assigned tasks.
  2. When a graduate student assistant's performance of  responsibilities does not satisfy the basic requirements of an assignment or does not meet the supervisor's expectations of competence, he or she should be referred by the supervisor to the Graduate Officer and the department Head. In response to such referrals, necessary consultation, review, and adjustment in assignments should be undertaken by the department Head, supervisor, and graduate assistant promptly.
  3. Graduate student assistants tentatively assigned to CAS l00 are responsible for establishing evidence of their preparation for that assignment through participation in the teaching assistant training program. Before making final assignments, the CAS l00 Coordinator determines the adequacy of each student's preparation. In cases in which the student is judged to be inadequately prepared for that assignment, the student either receives an alternative assignment or is notified that his or her appointment is not being renewed.


What is the semester release policy?

As a result of the course reduction implementation (3 courses per year) and the growing number of semester releases, the department has devised the following policy:

For a half-time teaching or research assistantship (currently, a typical 2/1 teaching load), students are expected to work 20 hours per week on teaching and/or research assistant activities. That expectation holds for both semesters. Students in their one-course-instruction semester are expected to translate any hourly gain in instructional workload to the areas of research or scholarship.  With that clarification as background, students who receive an award that provides for a one-semester release from teaching (or other duties) will be released from their teaching duties during the semester in which they would have otherwise been assigned one course (or equivalent assignment for other duties). This policy applies to semester-release awards regardless of funding source (e.g.,  RGSO dissertation award, Sparks Fellowship award)and is consistent with RA assignments as outlined below.

NOTE:  The rationale behind the enlightened policy of 1-course release each year is simple:  It provides you with additional time to conduct research, build your CV, think deeply, and graduate on time.  The same rationale underlies the research release that you receive from the department (and sometimes the college) for your dissertation.  Please be advised that during any released semester the expectation is that you will devote your time to research, not to additional teaching.  In fact, departmental policy is that you may not teach an overload from Continuing Ed, World Campus, or the department during a released semester.  We attempt to monitor all of this from the front office, but our system is not foolproof.  So, if you receive an offer to teach from CE or WC (or even the CAS dept!) or to engage in any other kind of overload during a released semester, it would be appropriate for you to decline that offer and to focus, instead, on your research.


What is the overload policy?

The Pennsylvania State University provides a guideline for faculty relating to time spent on consulting practices. A parallel guideline has been deemed appropriate for students funded with TA and/or RA monies during their graduate education, both to be consistent with university policy and for the benefit of our students. As per the Pennsylvania State University’s graduate handbook: “A graduate assistant may accept concurrent employment outside the University only with permission from the assistantship department head and the assistant's graduate academic program chair.” The below policy applies both to employment outside the University and overload requests within the university.

An overload shall be defined as any paid duties beyond the contracted TA or RA duties (e.g., other teaching assignment, work outside the university, work inside the university). These duties include overload instruction within the department, World Campus or Continuing Education instruction, and part- or full-time jobs within or outside the university, among other examples.

Criteria for determining whether an overload is possible

The graduate student must be making satisfactory progress toward the degree, although exceptional progress is the preferred minimum for allowing overloads. Overloads of any sort are bly discouraged unless the benefit to the student is unambiguous.

Satisfactory Progress Includes, But is Not Limited To:

  • a GPA of 3.0 in the dept and of 3.0 overall
  • the complete absence of any Incompletes
  • satisfactory progress in coursework, in completing other degree requirements and on all teaching, research and/or course-related expectations. For ABD students, this includes concrete progress on the dissertation in the six months prior to the request.

Beyond meeting the requirement for satisfactory progress, requests will be evaluated for the extent to which the overload would contribute in an important way to the student’s educational and professional development. In addition, each request will be examined within a wholistic analysis of the student’s status in the program, any previous overload requests, her/his course load, and other teaching and research expectations.

Process for requesting an overload

It is the responsibility of the graduate student to inform the graduate director in writing of his/her request for an overload. The request must clearly identify the particular overload being sought and justify its appropriateness using the stated criteria for considering such requests.  The graduate director, in consultation with the student’s advisor, will then (a) assess whether the graduate student is making satisfactory progress and (b) judge whether the overload is likely to impede subsequent progress towards completion of the degree. The Graduate Director, following such consulation, will make the recommendation as to the permissibility of the overload, with the Department Head having final decisional authority. A decision will be rendered within 3-4 weeks after the request was submitted. Multiple overload requests (e.g., requests to teach two CE course in the same semester, requests to teach CE course across two different semesters) require separate request submissions. Overloads that continue across semesters require new requests for approval each semester.

Penalties for violating the policy

Violations of the policy will be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Violating the policy may result in a range of actions, from initiating probationary status to termination of funding.


How are research assistant assignments made?

RA Assignments will be made as follows:

  • RAs assigned as 1/4 time for one semester teach 3 courses (1 in the semester assigned RA duties and 2 in the semester not assigned RA duties)
  • RAs assigned 1/4 time for one year teach 2 courses (1 each semester)
  • RAs assigned 1/2 time for one semester teach 2 courses (2 in the semester not assigned RA duties)
  • RAs assigned 1/2 time for the year teach 0 courses


What are the requirements concerning an instructor’s absence from class?

Teaching your scheduled classes, whether at the beginning of the semester, the end of the semester, before holidays, or during the rest of the semester, is a minimum requirement for all instructors, no matter what your rank or status. If you know in advance that you must be absent from a class for reasons such as attending a conference, you are expected to notify your department head ahead of time and, within the options approved by each department head, inform the head how the class will be handled in your absence. It is the head’s role to approve or not approve the absence. It is not acceptable to reschedule classes, with the exception of independent studies or small graduate courses if this is done in a way that does not shorten the semester or lengthen vacations.

If you are teaching online, or partly online ("blended learning"), it is your responsibility to keep up to date with the course schedule and to promptly respond to student messages and grade their assignments. If you will not be able to do so, you must inform your department head how the class will be handled in your absence; as with residence-education courses, it is the head's role to approve or not approve the absence.

Of course, unanticipated absences for reasons such as sudden illness or injury or serious family emergency are exceptions to this requirement. Obviously, it is not possible in those situations to make arrangements in advance, but you should provide notification to the head as soon as possible.