UI graduate students struggle to maintain safety and trust in their programs

As the University of Iowa continues in-person and online classes, many graduate students are in limbo, saying they are putting themselves at risk to teach undergraduate students and obtain their degrees. 


Ayton Breckenridge

Graduate student Carter Cook studies for his online classes in his apartment. He only has one in-person discussion this semester.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

As graduate students embark on masters and doctoral programs during the pandemic, their education is looking a lot different, especially when it comes to learning to be a teaching assistant.

After moving classes online in March with the rest of the university, Graduate College Dean John Keller said the college has focused on helping its students remain successful while staying safe.

Keller said the university opened up more virtual opportunities for students and supported them from a distance by moving their dissertation defenses online.

“When you defend your thesis or dissertation, a committee examines you,” he said. “And when we moved that online, the vast majority of students and faculty members really enjoyed that mechanism of examination, and we are trying to maintain a digital option in the future… It also allows more people to participate, such as other faculty, colleagues, and even family members.”

The University of Iowa Graduate College held its first online orientation on Aug. 19. Lisa Kelly, coordinator for the Center for Research, Teaching, and Learning, said more students attended than in previous years and there will still be opportunities to meet students who are in their graduate programs.

“We did virtually the same thing we would have done face-to-face, we just flipped it online,” she said. “All of the campus resources we have for graduate students are still available and open… We’re trying to pivot as things change and try to meet the demands and needs of graduate students.”

Kelly has been working with teaching assistants in the chemistry department to ensure the safety of graduate and undergraduate students. While many graduate students are concerned about students not complying with masking and social-distancing mandates, she believes they are well prepared to handle such situations.

Some graduate students, however, still feel extremely unprepared. Nicole States is a Ph.D. candidate in the chemistry department and started her third year this fall. In an email to The Daily Iowan, she said she’s disappointed with how the Graduate College is handling the pandemic.

“When we transitioned in the spring, it was impossible to get support,” States said. “[The chemistry] program told us that if we were to get sick, we would lose pay because we only have five days of paid sick leave. They threw us into teaching online without guidance.”

She also mentioned the stress that lack of guidance has put on her.

“I have a very tiny apartment because that is what my salary allows, and I had to teach from a coffee table on a tiny laptop,” the student said. “I was expected to keep the same workload up while being trapped in my small space without proper equipment to work on all day.”

States said she had no idea what her program’s plans were for several months during her comprehensive exams later in the spring semester. She said she believes the university focused on ensuring a sense of security for undergraduate students while neglecting the graduate students who assisted in teaching classes.

Dan Stanfield, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in communications studies, said the experience was jarring. He said his plans for the future have to completely change because of the current state of the economy — something his advisor is working on with him.

“When I started my program, I wanted to be a tenured professor at an academic institution doing research, that was my entire career goal,” he said. “Now, I’m having to keep a lot of other options open.

He went on to talk about the insecurity around finding a job after completing school.

“I have to try and figure out ways to market myself in ways that I didn’t think I would have to. My advisor has been working with us on finding ways to make a job market search successful. I’ve had some distrust in the university’s [help] because of its overall response right now to [COVID-19].”

Stanfield said his and other graduate students’ wariness toward the UI has been consistent since it first went online. He said the current pandemic and the UI’s plan is unsettling and puts many teaching assistants and other students at risk.

Regardless of individual programs, Kelly said both graduate students — as well as undergraduate courses with teaching assistants — need to have grace as the Graduate College continues to develop safer ways to instruct and learn.

“I think having patience and good will about things will make everything easier,” she said. “The TAs could be doing this for the first time. We’re all new at this. Give a little bit of patience and work with the TA. It’s more important than ever for students to speak up if they are experiencing difficulties so we can change things and do better in every sense.”