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‘Incredibly Difficult’: Social Science Profs Struggle to Find Graduate TFs

Social Sciences courses are facing a shortage of graduate student teaching fellows after Harvard's Ph.D. cohorts became smaller during the Covid-19 pademic.
Social Sciences courses are facing a shortage of graduate student teaching fellows after Harvard's Ph.D. cohorts became smaller during the Covid-19 pademic. By Natalie Y. Zhang
By Elizabeth R. Huang and Connor J. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

Courses in the Social Science division are facing a shortage of graduate student teaching fellows as Harvard’s Ph.D. cohorts have shrunk following the Covid-19 pandemic and amid a general shift away from the humanities and social sciences.

Though the total number of doctoral students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has “remained relatively unchanged,” according to a GSAS report released last year, more students are enrolling in STEM programs, while Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences have seen a steady decrease.

Now, professors in the Social Sciences division told The Crimson that they have struggled to find enough Ph.D. students with relevant expertise to help teach their courses.

Matthew Blackwell, a professor in the government department who teaches Gov 50, faced the challenge of finding enough TFs for his class this fall.

“In Fall 23, our enrollment was around 250, which would have required at least 8 TFs, but the department was only able to provide 5,” Blackwell wrote in an emailed statement.

Edward L. Glaeser, an economics professor and the department chair, faced similar challenges for finding TFs for Ec1011a, a class he taught in the fall.

“Finding teaching assistants for Economics 1011a, which is a hard course, is incredibly difficult,” Glaeser wrote.

“The problem is getting worse, and this year, Economics 1011a had a single teaching fellow for the entire class,” he added.

“We supplemented with undergraduate CAs who taught sections, very similar to other large classes like Stat 110 or CS 50.” Blackwell wrote. “For Gov 50, at least, our mix of graduate and undergraduate TFs worked really well and I think will probably be the model for the course in the future.”

Glaeser pointed to low TF salaries as a primary cause of the shortage.

“Shortages occur because prices are too low to match supply and demand.” Glaeser wrote in an email. “The fundamental problem is that we don't pay teaching fellows enough for the courses that are difficult to teach and staff.”

Ericka R. “Ricky” Sanchez wrote in a statement on behalf of Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Auto Workers that “many student workers in the humanities and social sciences would agree with Prof. Glaeser’s assessment.”

“It’s impossible to have ample teaching staff if the university refuses to bring in the student workers who would do that work,” Sanchez added.

A University spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday evening.

In emailed statements, government professors Stephen Chaudoin and Stephen D. Ansolabehere wrote the supply of available TFs was also affected by decreasing recruitment rates and the impact of Covid-19 on the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

“There is a lot of student demand for Government classes, which raises demand for our TFs,” Chaudoin wrote in an email. “But the number of PhD students we’re allowed to recruit has also shrunk a lot.”

Ansolabehere wrote GSAS had been shrinking Ph.D. cohorts even before the pandemic, but added that the problem was exacerbated by the “echo of COVID.”

“The graduate school had to shrink during COVID to allow current PhD students to have additional time in the program,” Ansolabehere said.

Nathan Grau, a History Ph.D. candidate, said the number of students in his program saw a steep decline. In the cohort after his, 19 people were admitted to the Ph.D. program, according to Grau.

“The year after the pandemic, there were seven,” he added.

But Grau said the “huge contraction in the number of Ph.D.s that Harvard lets into the History department” was “really long overdue,” calling it a temporary solution for a broader crisis facing academia.

“What the history Ph.D. trains you to do, fundamentally, is to become a professor of history at a university,” Grau said. “The number of available jobs in that field is basically falling off a cliff — our field is in this really radical decline.”

“The change that needs to happen is broader than just Harvard,” Grau said.

Kenneth Alyass, another Ph.D. student in the History department, echoed this sentiment.

“I think what we’re seeing in this department with its TF shortage is just a symptom of this broader issue,” Alyass said. “People in the department, they can put a bandaid on it, but at the end of the day, the solutions to this problem have to come from much higher places at a much larger scale.”

—Staff writer Elizabeth R. Huang can be reached at lizzy.huang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @lizzyrhuang.

—Staff writer Connor J. Yu can be reached at connor.yu@thecrimson.com.

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