Sept. 26, 2014

O-Issue 2014: Teachers and Grad Students (What’s the difference?)

Academia as an institution consists of much more than students and teachers. There are graduate students who work as instructors, professors who work as administrators, and administrators who are also graduate students. Understanding the basic distinctions between faculty members and other academic appointments can get you pretty far in understanding how UChicago functions, not just in the classroom but as a school.

Graduate students

Graduate students are a diverse bunch who have one thing in common: their pursuit of a master, doctoral, or professional degree. A group of 9,502 spanning five divisions and six professional schools, they are on campus for an average of five to seven years to take classes, conduct research, and write their dissertations. Given their long stays on campus, graduate students contribute a significant amount to undergraduate life, whether by being the resident head in your dorm or your neighbor in an apartment complex, a TA critiquing your Hum paper or working in research, an instructor teaching a full class or a classmate no different than yourself.

At UChicago, graduate students enrolled in doctoral programs are guaranteed funding, issued through quarterly stipends that are used to cover rent and other costs of living. Graduate students even have their own union, Graduate Students United (GSU), which acts as a voice for the graduate student body and lobbies for their rights. Started in 2007, GSU has successfully doubled the pay for TAs and called for more affordable health care and child care for graduate students.


The University has 2,190 full-time faculty who conduct research, teach, and contribute to decision-making on campus. Faculty are divided into four categories that vary based on factors like length of appointment and experience. The distinctions are as follows:

Instructors are hired by the University on a one-year or two-year basis and do not necessarily have a doctorate.

Collegiate assistant professors are appointed for four years at a time. You might want to watch for the Harper-Schmidt fellows, who are hired as Collegiate assistant professors to teach Core courses in the humanities, social sciences, and Western civilization. Because the fellowship is highly selective and is tailored specifically toward enriching the Core Curriculum, Harper-Schmidt Fellows tend to be excellent instructors—or, at least, receive rave evaluations. A word of advice: When choosing core courses, bid for the ones that they teach. You'll get more out of reading evaluations than you will out of some class readings.

The tenure track comprises three types of professors. Assistant professors serve for a renewable term of either three or four years for a total of no more than seven, at the end of which they are considered for tenure. Associate professors and professors have received tenure, which means that they are guaranteed their position at the University for an indefinite period of time.

As an academic community, the University puts great care into ensuring that its faculty have the power to shape the environment in which they work. These decisions are made through the University Senate, which is composed of tenure-track professors, along with the president, provost, and vice presidents of the University. According to the University’s bylaws, the University Senate is charged with “all advisory, legislative, and administrative powers in the University concerning its education work, except those vested in the president by the Board of Trustees.”

The University Senate meets once a year to discuss “matters of University interest,” whatever that means. The Council of the University Senate, a subset of 51 members of the senate, consists of the president and provost, along with 49 elected members of the senate. The council meets at least once a quarter.

Will any of this affect your life as an undergraduate? The short answer is: Probably, but the heck if we know how. Try to make friends with some professors or grad students.