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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Why COLA is so dire, according to a Ph.D. student

Kirsten Schulmacher discusses balancing intense workload of being a teaching assistant while also a Ph.D. student

Kirsten Schulmacher, a UC Davis Ph.D. student and teaching assistant with the English department, is constantly on the go. Between assisting undergraduates, preparing for discussion sections, attending lectures and taking Ph.D. classes, she rarely has time for herself. In addition to the grueling schedule and the slew of responsibilities that teaching assistants have, they also face a constant worry of financial stability. 

According to Schulmacher, the paychecks of the UC teaching assistants are not rising, despite a consistent increase in the cost of living in California. Finding affordable housing in Davis is a challenge for most students, but add to that the extremely inflexible budget that teaching assistants have and Schulmacher says it becomes almost impossible. She says that her paycheck does not even account for basic utilities that most affordable housing arrangements here in Davis do not include. 

“We are paid just enough to pay rent and buy food, which doesn’t account for any other things that we might need to buy, including internet, electricity, water, without having to room with like six other people,” Schulmacher said.

This lack of financial stability has become increasingly dangerous in recent years, leading to the current Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) strike, which began at UC Santa Cruz, where 54 teaching assistants have now been dismissed or have not received Spring Quarter appointments due to striking activity. Currently, some Davis teaching assistants are in a state of partial strike, meaning they will be withholding grades for Winter Quarter but are still fulfilling their other duties. 

These duties are no small task. As a teaching assistant for ENL 10A this quarter, Schulmacher says that she spends anywhere from 10 to 20 hours a week preparing for and leading discussion, grading papers, attending lectures, keeping up with readings and meeting with students in and out of office hours. Apart from time spent working as a teaching assistant, she said she is pretty much always swamped with Ph.D. assignments.

“Regretfully, the rest of the hours of my week are spent [doing Ph.D. work] and I think something that Ph.D. students are always working on is finding more time for themselves, but it doesn’t always work out because we just have so much work to do,” Schulmacher said. “I generally think that you won’t find somebody doing this with more than one activity.”

Her Ph.D. work includes taking two — or in Schulmacher’s case, three — seminar classes, each requiring an average of 500 pages of reading a week. This is on top of attending class, completing small assignments and a cumulative seminar paper, which is roughly 20 pages. 

Additionally, Ph.D. students in the English Department are constantly working toward taking the preliminary examinations needed to graduate, which require being an expert in two historical fields of study. Schulmacher, aspiring to be an expert in premodern literature and plants and agriculture, is required to complete a laundry list of readings in each field before she is deemed prepared for these exams. She and other Ph.D. students are also in constant communication with their advisors, making sure that they are able to keep up with these outside readings while also taking seminar classes and working as teaching assistants. 

On top of her overloaded schedule, Schulmacher actually has to work another job to afford to live in Davis and be in her Ph.D. program. Even with this second income, Schulmacher says that she is 80% rent-burdened, meaning that she generally has just $300 at the end of each month to pay for food, utilities and any other unforeseen needs. 

 “Frankly, I can’t afford to live here on my current salary,” Schulmacher said. “Through the UC system, I TA, but I am also an adjunct instructor at a community college in Nevada. I can pull two incomes from two different states, and that’s how I can survive. If that wasn’t the case, there’s no way I could survive here.”

Schulmacher is able to work remotely at a Nevada community college teaching online courses, but this also comes with more grading, lesson planning and reading. The hours that Schulmacher and many teaching assistants have to work to afford their current living situations puts them under a huge strain, which the COLA strike is looking to lessen.

“What the COLA strike is asking is just to be paid slightly more to have a living wage in order to not be completely dependent on your paycheck every month to the point where you could be destitute and homeless if you didn’t get it,” Schulmacher said. 

Readers interested in more information about the strike can find links here and here, and follow along at theaggie.org/campus/. 

Written by: Katie DeBenedetti — features@theaggie.org


  1. 80% rent burdened? I’m in a PhD program here and working as a TA, and I’m not even at half of that. I’m not rooming “with like six other people” either.


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