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Supporting Graduate Assistants through the COVID-19 Pandemic

September 23, 2020

This document offers suggestions to directors of graduate studies and faculty supervisors about how to balance the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on graduate assistants with the need to continue unit operations, offer high-quality instruction to undergraduate students, and support research excellence. 

While this document offers guidance for supporting your graduate assistants, we suggest that you also consult this document, developed by University Human Resources, for guidance on supporting staff.  The Office of Faculty Affairs is developing similar guidance on supporting faculty, and guidance on supporting undergraduate students has been issued as well. Policies relevant for supporting graduate assistants and other graduate students are included at the end of this document.

The Uneven Impact

The COVID19 pandemic has transformed graduate assistants’ work in a variety of ways, creating additional burdens and new challenges, with an uneven impact depending on the particular circumstances of each graduate assistant. 

Many daycare centers are closed and several counties are conducting elementary education remotely, creating particular challenges for graduate assistants with young children. Graduate assistants may also have eldercare responsibilities; need to care for sick relatives; they may face mental health challenges; they may suffer from isolation. They may have lost members of their family or be facing financial stress due to a partner or spouse losing their job. Moreover, some students have lost income due to the job cuts caused by COVID-19. The additional pandemic of racism, as well as health disparities, will impact different graduate students in different ways, affecting their ability to fulfill their assistantship duties. International graduate students may face difficulties related to their visa status. Given their intersectional identities, many graduate assistants may face more than one of these challenges at the same time.

It is important that directors of graduate studies and faculty supervisors remain flexible and help create conditions in which graduate assistants with caregiving needs and other challenges can fulfill their assistantship duties and responsibilities. 

Supporting graduate assistants through the pandemic means meeting people where they are at, rather than providing everyone the same access and same opportunities regardless of their background, demographic, or identity. In collaboration with the Office of Faculty Affairs and the graduate student members of the Graduate Council, the Graduate School has developed the following guidance.

Some options to consider:

1) Develop an awareness of the challenges graduate assistants face due to the pandemic.

  1. Express empathy by considering graduate students’ emotional and mental well-being. Many students are living away from their families and other support networks, leading to loneliness and other stressors.
  2. Avoid making assumptions about who has caregiving responsibilities, or is facing other challenges, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Consider raising the issue of uneven impact at a unit meeting, a meeting with graduate assistants, and/or forming a working group, to brainstorm strategies for addressing the crisis.
  4. Collaborate with your graduate assistants to alleviate tensions between supporting graduate assistants and maintaining department operations.
  5. Recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the research progress, including dissertation and thesis work, of different graduate students in a variety of ways. Some graduate assistants may be doing experiments in a lab or be engaged in research involving human subjects; others may be doing computational research that can be carried out remotely. Benchmarks may need to be delayed to take into consideration research limitations caused by COVID-19.
  6. Recognize that the COVID-19 pandemic will impact teaching assistants in different ways. Graduate teaching assistants may lead in-person or online discussion or lab sessions, be the instructor of record for an in-person, blended, or online course, or their duties may be limited to grading assignments and exams. Faculty supervisors and directors of graduate studies should reconsider workloads so that graduate students can continue making timely progress towards their benchmarks (see Duties and Time Commitments Policy at the end of this document).
  7. Recognize and acknowledge that some initial indicators suggest that the productivity of women and underrepresented minorities may be disproportionately impacted in both the short and long term.
  8. Recognize and acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has also created a mental health pandemic and an economic pandemic. Please be empathetic to all students, and most especially minority students who are disproportionately impacted by this triple pandemic.

2) Invite graduate assistants facing caregiving and/or other challenges to meet with you individually, as each situation will be different.

3) Be flexible when discussing options with graduate assistants. While it is not within the scope of the director of graduate studies and/or a faculty supervisor’s responsibilities to find, for example, child care solutions for graduate assistants, it is important to be flexible in assigning and scheduling courses and other activities. Encourage everyone to have realistic expectations and try to create individualized plans. For example:

  • Collect and consider school and daycare calendars and schedules when assigning courses and research duties to graduate assistants. Ask caregiving graduate teaching assistants for their input. Encourage GAs to share their daycare schedules so that the department can organize events accordingly.
  • Collect and consider school and daycare calendars and schedules when scheduling critical meetings. It may not be possible to avoid all conflicts, but please be mindful when scheduling key meetings (e.g., meetings to discuss Ph.D. exams and professional development opportunities).
  • Make schedules predictable. For example, create recurring lectures and meetings, avoid last minute schedule changes, and place meetings at least several weeks in advance.
  • Encourage graduate assistants to set office hours that balance undergraduate students’ needs with their needs.
  • Carefully consider any service requests for graduate assistants that are outside the scope of their assistantships. For example, asking GAs to serve on committees or engage in other types of unpaid service work pulls students away from their degree programs and family needs.
  • Consider starting a conversation about how assessments of a graduate assistant’s performance may need to be adapted in light of the pandemic, balancing the importance of providing guidance to graduate assistants with an awareness of the impacts of the pandemic. In all assessments, consider how the pandemic, economic crisis, and social unrest have disrupted students’ work.
  • If it does not negatively impact the program’s needs, consider allowing graduate teaching assistants to repeat familiar classes rather than support and/or develop new ones.
  • Sponsor a workshop led by Graduate Counselor Simone Warrick-Bell to help graduate assistants in your unit deal with stress and anxiety. The University’s Red Folder Initiative can help you support students in distress. The University’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion provides resources for engaging in difficult conversations and taking action. The Counseling Center offers workshops to help faculty and staff address common student mental health concerns.
  • As the unit’s budget allows, consider extending funding for graduate assistants whose work has been severely disrupted by the pandemic, but who otherwise are in good standing.

4) Ensure that all graduate assistants and their faculty supervisors have the required expectation-setting meeting. Encourage them to use the Graduate School’s Statement of Mutual Expectations Template. This template can be edited to document graduate assistants’ individualized plans, especially as they may need to change throughout the pandemic.

Further Considerations:

  • Check in regularly with graduate assistants regarding how they are coping with the pandemic and what further support they may need that can be reasonably provided. For example, directors of graduate studies and/or other department administrators could hold biweekly virtual coffee hours with graduate students.
  • Ensure that added flexibility toward some graduate assistants is not placing undue burden on others. Ask for flexibility and understanding by those within your unit as you try to balance the needs of the unit with those of individual graduate assistants, faculty, and staff. Strive for equity not equality. Please consider that some students may need more help than others to reach the same benchmark.
  • Ensure that graduate assistants are aware of the support available to them (see policies, guidance, and campus resources below).
  • Remain open to alternate arrangements in this unusual time, even if those arrangements may need to continue for an extended period of time.

5) Relevant Policies and Other Support for Graduate Students

Policies and Guidance:

Additional Campus Resources:

Contact Information

The Graduate School
University of Maryland

2123 Lee Building
7809 Regents Drive
College Park, MD 20742