Funding and Appointment Transparency
Potential graduate students often receive offer letters that are not clear about what kind of financial support they can expect from the university beyond their first semester. This leaves many students in positions where they do not realize they need to apply to Fellowships/TA positions/RA positions until it is too late–or in worse cases, in positions where they are ineligible for those funding sources and must either pay their own way the rest of the degree or drop out. This issue is particularly important for international students.
Additionally the wide range of contract lengths (15 - 19 weeks/semester) can lead to extended pay gaps for many students. Additionally, there is no clear justification for why students in some departments receive pay over winter break and others don’t. These gaps are all too common and contracts are often delivered late or incorrectly, with the resulting burden being placed on ASEs, such as the fall 2022 delay in health insurance enrollment.
Working Conditions / Workloads / Training
ASEs experiences vary widely across and within departments. These issues can arise from both systemic consequences of the administration’s actions or lack thereof as well as toxic work environments from an advisor’s inherent power over student employees.
For example, TA workloads vary widely with no standards to adhere to. The number of hours worked per class or lab section varies widely from department to department; in some departments, a TA might be required to teach twice as many sections as another department without any increase in hours or pay. Frequently, the number of hours an ASE is paid for is determined by departmental needs, not a true reflection of the hours an ASE works. Additionally, TA responsibilities range from teaching independent sections as the primary instructor to teaching lab sections to teaching a section alongside a professor. Despite this huge responsibility, in many departments, TAs are given a day or less of training in teaching and pedagogy. Any required training sessions are often held before contracts start by up to a week–forcing students to arrive early in Fairbanks and quit other employment without being given any form of compensation.
Outside the classroom, the university system has influence over the physical accommodations and work spaces. Living in Alaska, especially over the winter can be difficult. The long dark winters can be both mentally and physically taxing, so it is especially critical for ASE health and productivity that work environments be comfortable. Many grad student offices are tucked into interior rooms or basements without access to natural light, with some buildings even lacking potable running water.
In Fairbanks, where a large number of graduate students live in housing without running water (‘dry cabins’). Living in a dry cabin should be an option if people want to save extra money, but it should not be by necessity due to insufficient pay. Because of this, access to shower facilities is a major issue related to ASE health. Some buildings on campus do have showers available to students and staff, but they are usually closed during ‘non-business hours’ including early mornings, evenings, weekends, and holidays. This puts the burden on ASEs to take time out of normal work hours to shower and compete with others using the showers in the same timeframe. Additionally, shower facilities are restricted to people who are currently enrolled in classes or receiving paychecks. This means that ASEs without funding over the summer months are excluded from using those facilities.