From the mailbag: a PGWT response

A recent article on your pages (‘Assessment of postgraduate pay must be realistic’) suggests that pay for PGWTs (postgraduates who teach) is “off the scale”. As a PGWT in the Economics department, I must object.

While the £44 per hour that PGWTs in the Economics department are paid appears to be astronomical – at first glance – in comparison to any casual job available to students, it tells a tiny fraction of the story. This pay covers us for one hour spent in the seminar room. We’re not directly reimbursed for hour upon hour of checking and rechecking our knowledge of course materials, preparing what to say (mostly just bad jokes) or discussing seminar strategies with module leaders and other PGWTs. No-one pays us for sharing advice on how to improve ongoing seminars, holding office hours, marking, attending training sessions, or providing feedback to module leaders on where students’ gaps in understanding are. Even less are we compensated for the sleepless nights we all have before the first delivering of each seminar, or the sickening feeling afterwards that, just perhaps, we’ve said the wrong thing, and you’re going to fail, and it’s all our fault. But maybe that’s just me.

No tears should be shed for those of us are lucky enough to have funding, but many of us are partly reliant on teaching to provide the funds we need to live on

The take-home message here is that being a PGWT is not immensely well paid. When I calculated the effective rate for some in my department this year – a realistic assessment, I feel – I reckoned it to be in the region of £5-6, and certainly not “off the scale” as the previous article on these pages suggests. For departments all over the country, we’re the cheap option.

So why do we do it? If I, God forbid, were a real economist, I’d insist that as a rational, free, utility-maximising agent, who has decided to voluntarily enter into an agreement to act as a PGWT, I should shut up forthwith. I can’t even plead that I didn’t know what I was getting myself in for. I’ll be back for more hours of it all next year, assuming I’m not sacked due to my inability to get through a seminar without accidentally swearing. I genuinely – genuinely – can’t help it, and wish I could.

No tears should be shed for those of us are lucky enough to have funding, but many of us are partly reliant on teaching to provide the funds we need to live on. Unfunded domestic students pay almost £4,000 per year to register as a PhD student; non-EU students pay £11,750 per year, with no automatic loan system. Nobody receives funding for a fourth year, often needed to write up the research undertaken in the previous three. Being a PGWT is doubtless a nicer and more rewarding thing to do than bar-tending or shop work, but it’s often taken on out of the same desperation.

For those who don’t do it for financial reasons, reasons are varied. Partly it’s genuinely out of a wish to help, and partly it’s due to the access to the bully pulpit that allows us to share bizarre, niche, and utterly irrelevant views about post-Keynesian economics, or the degeneration of the workers’ state of East Germany. Again, maybe that’s just me. Partly it’s due to the sheer exhilaration that comes from thinking that we’ve taught a good seminar, rare as my students might say that should be. It’s also a nice distraction from research, at times. But, to the real hard-nosed economist, there are very few obvious advantages to being a PGWT. It’s something of an open secret that teaching quality gets departments mournfully little credit: it is unlikely that prospective employers, whoever they may be, will be interested in my teaching abilities, but the research output I produce. It’s a nice line on the CV, but most of us do it for two, three, or even four years, by which time any realistic improvements in employment prospects have just about hit zero.

So, while we do gain to some extent, I’m left in the unusual position of being an economist who mildly objects to being told “if you don’t like it, why not work in Asda?” We know we’re, in sum, incredibly lucky to do what we do. This is just a plea to be nice to your PGWTs. Most are in the latter stages of their PhD. They’re trying to remain sane, frantically trying to write up something decent in the hope they won’t have wasted three years of their life, rather than lying back, cackling, on a bed of money each night.

One comment

  1. 28 Jun ’12 at 2:49 pm

    reprehensible

    Quite. I would also add that far from hoarding capital ‘Rowders’ single-handedly sustains that York institution of dubious value that calls into question rational choice theory, Willow. If, in future, he applies his managerial accumen of scant resource, (as demonstrated by Wentys glorious victory in the plate), to the wider economy, he is sure go down as one of the universities most esteemed alumni. Frankly he deserves a pay rise. Or perhaps Cantor can reward him with a bung from his private coffers, as is befitting all great football managers.

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