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Message from the Dean: Clarification re. Teaching Assistant vs. Teaching Fellow

MEMORANDUM: Clarification re. Teaching Assistant vs. Teaching Fellow and PA State tax implications

James Herbert

January 28, 2016

RE: Tax status of teaching assistants/fellow stipends

FROM: James Herbert, Ph.D., Dean of the Graduate College

It has come to my attention that there remains some confusion over the distinction between the status of PhD students as Teaching Assistants vs. Teaching Fellows, and the implications for Pennsylvania State tax.

As noted in the PhD tuition guidelines (, a Teaching Fellow (TF) is a doctoral student who is being paid for teaching activities that are requirement of the program. In contrast, a Teaching Assistant (TA) is paid for teaching services that are not required of all students. The same distinction holds for Research Fellows (RF’s) versus Research Assistants (RA’s) with respect to research.

In most, if not all, of our PhD programs, full-time students meet the criteria for RF’s throughout their tenure in the program. That is, it is required that all students be involved in research (broadly writ) from the day they matriculate into the program until the day they graduate.

However, the same is not true for TF’s, because most of our programs do not require teaching as part of the program. To meet criteria for a TF, the teaching activity in question must be REQUIRED of ALL students in the program. For example, even a self-pay student who was not receiving tuition remission nor a stipend, or a student funded by an NSF or NIH grant, would need to be required to meet the same teaching requirements as everyone else in the program, and this requirement would need to be explicitly built into the program and articulated in program descriptions. Moreover, the specific teaching activities for which the student is being paid must be a program requirement; it is not enough to say that students must do some kind of informal teaching at some point in the program.

Where the confusion seems to have arisen is that some students are seeking a refund of their Pennsylvania state tax from prior years in which they were classified as a TA, on the grounds that their activities were required of the program and therefore met the current definition of TF. We have provided documentation to support these requests, and are happy to continue doing so. However, please understand that the onus is on the student and program to ensure that the teaching activity was indeed a formal program requirement at the time in order for this principle to apply.

Please feel free to reach out to myself or Assistant Dean Natalie Marciano with any questions. I hope this clarifies, and we apologize for any confusion on this point.