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Get Paid for Your Degree: Teaching Assistantships

Get Paid for Your Degree: Teaching Assistantships

Working as a TA can give you the boost you need-- in financial aid.

By Chris Diehl

March 18, 2009

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “work your way through school?” Waiting tables? Working the night shift? What about standing in front of a roomful of freshman students teaching course material? Many university graduate programs offer the opportunity to become a graduate teaching assistant (TA). A TA position offers many benefits, including relief from paying full tuition and an opportunity to earn a little extra money.

Do Your Homework

When applying to graduate school, talk to the admissions office about available assistantships. Not every graduate program offers teaching assistantships, so don’t assume your school will have one. Inquire about the number of positions available and ask about the percentage of graduate students who are TAs. For example, a program might have 30 positions, but only one-third of all grad students TA; another program might have only 20 positions, but half of all grad students TA.

TA positions are competitive. You’ll need to submit an application and compete for the position among other students. If you haven’t started yet, begin thinking about who will write your recommendation letter(s). Most applications ask general questions regarding your qualifications, why you want to be a TA, and what you’re looking to get out of the experience.

Make sure you understand how much tuition you will be responsible for. Many TA programs offer full-tuition waivers, but not all of them. Some programs offer only a stipend to offset your tuition, but you would be responsible for the rest. Besides tuition, ask whether other benefits are available, such as health insurance or a meal plan. Confirm if working an additional job (on or off campus) is allowed.

When Is Pay Day?

Your stipend will not be extravagant. Stipends vary wildly from program to program, and the range can be as low as $2,000 and as high as $10,000 per year. Even stipend amounts in the same discipline can be different depending on the funding available at your prospective school. When you ask about the stipend amount, be sure you know whether the figure is per year or per semester.

Other factors that can affect how far you can stretch your stipend:

  • The surrounding area: Your program’s location could influence your cost of living. The price of consumer goods like food and clothing may be significantly more in an urban area than in a rural one.
  • Transportation: Can you make do without the added expense of a car?
  • Funding: Read the fine print and you’ll discover that stipends generally are not guaranteed year to year. Ask about the funding situation at your prospective grad school. If possible, try to arrange a private (and frank) conversation with a current TA in the program.
  • Limited number of hours: The number of hours TAs are allowed to work is generally capped at 20-25 hours per week. If you plan on working longer hours for additional cash, check whether that’s allowed.

Stipends are not intended to allow grad students to live in luxury and the low wage is often seen as a tradeoff for the money saved on tuition, however, there is currently debate in some circles about whether the stipend is enough to live on. As a prospective graduate student, the most important thing for you to understand the stipend situation before you decide to accept.

Living the TA Life

Find out what your responsibilities will be before or during the application process:

  • How many hours will you be required to work? You could work anywhere from 15 to 30 hours per week, though 20 hours per week is about average.
  • Will you be asked to teach a class? You might be asked to do something as mundane as setting up lab equipment or as complex as lecturing an entire course. You might teach a freshman intro course or teach another grad program. How do you feel about public speaking?
  • What day-to-day duties will be expected? Some standard TA duties include grading papers and giving quizzes and exams, but you may be expected to keep office hours, create the syllabus, or assist the professor in research.
  • Will work hours be consistent week to week? The TA work you have will be in addition to the work you’ll be expected to complete in your regular graduate program.

While a teaching assistantship and the stipend considerations can significantly affect what you get out of graduate school, remember they are only a portion of the total experience. When you weigh whether to take an assistantship, keep your perspective and do so against the backdrop of the overall quality of the grad program itself when you make your final decision.


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