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Many institutions of higher learning would have difficulty functioning without the services of graduate teaching assistants (commonly called TAs). Their actions generally fall into one of two categories: Some assume full responsibility for teaching lower-level undergraduate classes, while others are hired to help professors with the demands of handling large classes. In either case, TAs promote a better learning experience for the students they encounter.
To become a graduate teaching assistant, you must be enrolled in a graduate program at the college or university. Combining your own studies with the demands of being a TA can be tricky, and the situation requires excellent time management. In addition to teaching or assisting when the class meets, graduate teaching assistants frequently hold office hours during which students can drop by for additional help.
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Graduate Teaching Assistant Duties and Responsibilities
While there will be some differences depending on the requirements of the class being taught, many tasks are similar for graduate teaching assistants whether their area of interest is English or biology. These activities are critical to being a TA:
Whether they are leading an entire class themselves or running a discussion section for a group of students enrolled in a large course taught by a professor, graduate teaching assistants need to stay on top of what is going on. They read the assigned material, think of the best ways to present it, formulate questions to spur conversation, and design worksheets and other materials to aid in retention and comprehension.
Lectures, discussions, Q&A sessions, and hands-on exercises enable students to learn the subject being studied. TAs determine which of these tools to use given the material at hand and may come up with different strategies once they see how pupils are progressing.
Interact with Students
Colleges hire graduate teaching assistants to provide individualized attention that would not be possible for busy professors alone to give. In addition to talking to students in class and answering their questions, TAs offer outside help. They may work one-on-one with a student to go over a concept or formulate a paper, or they might moderate a group of undergrads working together on a project.
Evaluation is a key component to most college classes. To this end, graduate teaching assistants may read rough drafts of papers to offer revision suggestions, check worksheets and other assignments, talk with individuals about their performance, and assign a final grade at semester's end.
As employees of a university, graduate teaching assistants are expected to know and abide by the policies and procedures the institution has in place.
Graduate Teaching Assistant Skills and Qualifications
Successful TAs tend to be passionate about the subject they are teaching. This enthusiasm encourages students to engage and learn. Other good abilities to possess include:
- Interpersonal skills - patience, listening, and empathy are all "people skills" a graduate teaching assistant must tap into while explaining concepts to students
- Communication skills - excellent communication is a must in order to convey information clearly at a level undergraduate students can understand
- Planning and organizing - determining beforehand what is going to be covered in class and how it will be presented keeps the course on track and makes good use of everyone's time
- Multitasking - juggling the needs of multiple students, requests from the professor, and one's own academic work requires effective management and prioritization
Graduate Teaching Assistant Education and Training
Being a graduate teaching assistant is a step on a career ladder, not the final rung. TAs come to the position with at least a bachelor’s degree in the area in which they will be teaching. While holding the job, they themselves are students pursuing a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree. The chance to teach a class or assist with one provides valuable experience that helps when entering the job market for permanent faculty positions. It also lets TAs “test out” whether teaching undergrads is something they’d like to do more of in the future, or if they’d prefer focusing on research or finding employment outside of academia.
Employing institutions provide training for new TAs before they start teaching. They may attend workshops, get individual help from professors in the department, and receive manuals with guidelines. At many places, graduate teaching assistants support one another by gathering formally or informally to discuss the experience and its challenges.
Graduate Teaching Assistant Salary and Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there are over 135,000 graduate teaching assistants in the United States. The BLS lists the national median annual salary for graduate teaching assistants as $34,240. Those in the lowest 10 percent earn about $18,340, while the highest-paid TAs make over $55,000 per year.
As nonpermanent employees contracted to teach or assist with specific classes, graduate teaching assistants generally do not receive benefits. Often, however, they receive tuition waivers or discounts that reduce the cost of their education. As students, they also may be eligible for low-cost healthcare insurance, free campus transportation, use of fitness facilities, and admission discounts at area establishments.
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Graduate Teaching Assistant Helpful Resources
If being a graduate teaching assistant is part of your career progression, take a look at these sources that can help you get the most out of the experience:
this bound copy of articles previously published in periodical form covers an array of topics pertinent to being a graduate teaching assistant
this YouTube video put out by the University of Saskatchewan features actual graduate teaching assistants talking about the challenges and joys of the position
the third edition of this title covers lesson plans, discussions, grading, and other essential subjects. It also examines how to transition from being a teaching assistant to a fulltime instructor
this studentrun nonprofit advocates for improving the quality of life of graduate and professional students across the United States and provides opportunities for connection with peers
whether you need help designing a syllabus or conquering jitters when facing a group of students, this list of relevant articles has you covered