In the Physics and Astronomy Department, all regular (ie. not overtime) full-time graduate students have the opportunity to hold 4 teaching assistantships (TAs) per calendar year. In general, most students will perform two TAs in the fall semester and two in the winter semester. The time commitment for each TA is 65 hours per section, or 260 hours per year. TAing duties for Physics/Astro can vary widely, but generally include: supervising labs, leading tutorials, marking assignments, holding office hours, and invigilating tests. Graduate student TAs at McMaster are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3906.
In late spring of each year, current grad students will receive an email outlining the available teaching assistantships for the upcoming academic year. This list will include the course name, TA supervisor, projected enrolment, and the estimated number of TAs needed. Students are asked to compile a list of their 3 preferred TA assignments for the fall and winter semester. A smaller number of TA assignments are also available for the summer semester. Students who wish to be assigned in the summer need to request this when submitting their TA preferences.
In late August, a tentative list of the TA assignments will be circulated by email. Over the next two weeks, as the exact number of TAs required for each course is determined, the assignments for the fall semester will be finalized. Likewise, in December, updated TA assignments for the winter semester will be circulated. If you are a new graduate student in the department, it is very likely that your first TA assignment will be a first year introductory physics course, such as 1D03 (physics for engineering majors) or 1A03 (introductory physics for all majors).
Deferrals, Refusals, and Buyouts
Full-time PhD students can defer up to 1 term of their TA guarantee (subject to approval from the department). In the case of a deferral, the student’s TA guarantee is extended by one term (ie. you can defer a TA for the fall term of year 2, and instead work as a TA in the fall term of year 5). This option is especially useful if you are unable to TA because of course work, fieldwork, or research.
You also have the option to decline to TA, which means you are refusing the work assignment. Please note that if you decline the TA, as opposed to deferring it, the department is under no obligation to offer you additional work at the end of your guarantee to make up for the work you decline. In some cases, your supervisor may offer to buyout your TA. In the case of a buyout, you will receive compensation, but do not have to work. A buyout may affect your eligibility for benefits through CUPE.
Your TA supervisor, likely the course instructor or lab coordinator, will be your main point of contact throughout the semester. Your TA supervisor is generally responsible for assigning your duties, scheduling your work, and providing specific training or guidance as it relates to your assignment. In the case of courses with weekly lab components, it is common to have weekly or bi-weekly TA meetings to go over the details of the experiment.
Prior to the beginning of your TA assignment, your TA supervisor must provide you with an Hours of Work form. This form should provide an outline for the types of duties you are expected to perform over the course of the semester, and an estimate of how your 65 working hours will be allocated. It is important that this form is filled out with adequate detail to avoid ambiguity. The majority of TA disputes are avoided by having a satisfactory Hours of Work form. Signed hours of work forms must be returned to the department office. Once your TA work begins, it is a good practice to keep a log of your hours worked. Working hours include, supervising labs, leading tutorials or workshops, marking, preparation, office hours, and invigilating. If you believe you might be on track to exceed 65 hours of work, contact your TA supervisor immediately!
TA Rights and Conflict Resolution
If you have a conflict or a concern that you have not been able to resolve directly with your TA supervisor, CUPE will work to mediate the conflict on your behalf. If you are unsure of who to contact, the department has union stewards that can direct you to the appropriate person. The departmental union stewards for the 2016-2017 academic year are Dalini Maharaj and Alannah Hallas.
TA Income and Benefits
The current hourly rate of pay for graduate student TAs is $41.80/hour (however 2016/17 is the last year of this collective agreement). This salary is distributed over 8 biweekly payments during the semesters you are working as a TA. It is worth noting that scholarship salary payment is evenly distributed throughout the year. As a result, your total income will fluctuate throughout the year, and is likely to be significantly lower in the summer. The payment schedule can be viewed on the CUPE website or on your Mosaic account.
Graduate students who TA for at least 130 hours/year will receive dental benefits through CUPE. This plan provides a maximum of $1000 of coverage ($2000 for family coverage) for dental services (e.g. cleanings and fillings) per calendar year. For major restorative work such as a crown or a bridge, get your dentist to submit an estimate to the insurance company to check against your coverage before paying anything. Other benefits provided by CUPE are a health care spending account, which has a maximum entitlement of $250 per twenty four month period. This coverage primarily covers vision care. Students who do not TA for at least 130 hours per academic year (including those who have been bought out of their TA) do not qualify for the CUPE dental plan, and are covered by the GSA dental plan instead (which offers $750 of coverage per year).
Students beyond the second year of their Masters or fourth year of their PhDs are not guaranteed a TA posting (with the exception of deferrals, see above). Once all regular graduate students have been assigned TAs, the remaining positions are publicly posted and open to applicants, including overtime graduate students. Typically, however, these postings are given to undergraduate students.