What No One Will Tell You About Being a T.A.

Every year, the BLS estimates that more than 110,000 students decide to take on graduate teaching assistantship positions nationwide. The jobs often mean long hours and low pay, but for many, they're an essential part of the graduate school experience. These days, with schools cutting back and fewer opportunities for teaching pre-graduation, being chosen to be a T.A. can even be an honor and a special distinction.

Yet being a teaching assistant is much more than a helpful addition to a resume. It requires a huge commitment of time and effort, and most first-time teaching assistants go into the experience having little idea what to expect. While most students know what it's like to deal with a T.A. (good or bad) during the course of their undergraduate education, it's an entirely different matter to be the one in charge and standing in front of a classroom full of students. So what is being a T.A. really like? Well, like any job, it's complicated.

The Benefits

For some grad students — the lucky ones, anyway — one of the benefits of being a teaching assistant is, well, benefits. Some positions come with health insurance that can be a weight off for those who don't have their own plans. Additionally, tuition waivers, not to mention fairly stable salaries, ranging between $17,000 and $30,000 a year on average, can be attractive to grad students as well.

It turns out that besides the pay and some help with tuition, being a T.A. offers one huge benefit that students might not be able to get in many other places: experience teaching a college-level course. Matt Rarey, a former teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and current Council on Library and Information Resources Mellon Dissertation Fellow, felt that being a T.A. was great experience in preparing for a life in academia, despite the lack of guidance from professors that some students might find challenging.

Rarey says, “I was lucky to have a professor who trusted our judgment: the other T.A. for the class and I were given relatively free reign to construct our sections, and so students had a radically different experience based on their T.A. I think this was great prep for being a future professor, but some T.A.s may hate the lack of direction.”

Erin McKellar, a doctoral student and teaching assistant at Boston University, agrees, stating that being a teaching assistant gives you a chance to really see what works and what doesn't in teaching college-level courses. She advises that students work with more than one professor if possible, adding, “It has (been) incredibly useful to T.A. for different professors because it's given me an opportunity to see different management and lecture styles at work.”

But what if you're not planning a career in academia? Is being a T.A. still worth it? Jenny Carroll, a graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Law, worked as a legal writing T.A. while she was getting her degree. Even though she didn't plan on being a professor, she still felt that being a T.A. was an incredibly valuable way to learn more about the material and to get to know fellow students.

“My first semester, I was a teaching assistant for a legal writing class for international students. I really felt that I was providing them with a great service, because as a T.A. who was a fellow student, I think they felt that I was more approachable than the professor,” Carroll said. “It also helped me to polish my own legal writing skills and was almost like a refresher course. Mostly, it was just enjoyable to get to know the other students.”

While being a teaching assistant can help students get to know undergrads better, it can also be a great way to get to know other graduate students, especially those who are also working as teaching assistants. Students can share tips and advice, get help, and help each other through the educational process. Some may even find collaborators for future research projects, lifelong friends, and a support system that makes the challenges of grad school just a little less scary.

The Rough Stuff

Like any job, being a T.A. isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Along with the benefits come some serious challenges, especially when trying to balance the demands of teaching with the rigors of graduate-level work. Many students find that the end of the semester, already a stressful time, is exponentially more so while working as a T.A. Not only are graduate students trying to wrap up lengthy papers, do research, and keep up with reading for their own courses, they're also grading papers and tests for 50 or more students, answering emails, and teaching courses.

It can be an exhausting experience, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

“Grading and preparing can take an eternity, especially if you really care,” Rarey says. “The hardest part for me, then, was putting in the effort to comment on students' work, trying to give them very personal direction, and just seeing a select few not care. But just one student taking it seriously, for me, made all the effort worth it.”

While working with students can be rewarding, it comes with its own set of challenges. Not all students are equally prepared to take on college-level work, and some may be lacking critical reading, writing, and time management skills that can incite some serious frustrations among the teaching assistants tasked with guiding them. Additionally, while many (if not most) students will put in the time and the effort to do well in the course, most teaching assistants eventually realize that not every student can be won over. Some simply won't care, no matter how much help and guidance they're offered, which can be disheartening to dedicated T.A.s.

One of the biggest challenges facing T.A.s is often learning how to teach and be in front of a classroom, as many enter the job with little or no experience. Some teaching assistants may even find themselves responsible for the entire content of a course, which can be incredibly intimidating. Yet taking on a course solo isn't always as bad as it seems, especially after a little practice. McKellar says, “When I started to T.A., I felt unprepared to actually write the occasional lectures I would have to give. I still feel apprehensive about this to some extent, but I realized pretty quickly that it's not as bad as I thought it would be, and that the students do actually listen to what I say, which is pretty unbelievable.”

While most students will form rewarding, strong relationships with the professors in their departments, not all are so lucky. Some professors simply aren't willing to offer feedback that can help teaching assistants improve their performance or are too busy with their own writing, research, and teaching to be of much help. Students may sometimes need to seek out professors to act as mentors to monitor and help them through their teaching assistantship, which can be an additional strain on an already overwhelming situation.

So Is It Worth It?

The reply will different from person to person, depending on personal and professional goals, but largely, at least according to those who've taken the challenge head on, the answer is yes. Despite difficulties with too-cool-for-school students and a serious learning curve for teaching and developing lecture material, most T.A.s find the experience immensely rewarding. McKellar, Rarey, and Carroll all agree that being a T.A. is well worth the time and the effort, especially when students really start to make improvements and grasp what they're being taught.

“I've found myself becoming a better public speaker. I've also found it rewarding to see students improve, as the ones I worked with one-on-one in office hours have turned in more assignments,” McKellar says of her experience. “Since the courses I've taught for this year are related ones, it's also been nice to develop working relationships with the undergraduates and to get a sense of what their interests are.”

In fact, some teaching assistants may find their experiences working with undergraduates far more rewarding than even their own educational goals or research.

“At the end of the year, one of my students was accepted to a graduate program and left a cupcake on my desk to tell me the news and thank me; two days later I won a teaching award that still means more to me than any fellowship I've won or diploma I have,” Rarey says.

The truth is that being a T.A. is both harder and more rewarding than many students initially expect. It's not easy, but the challenges you face as a T.A. can help to prepare you for a career as a professor or may even make you realize that you don't want to teach at all. Either way, you'll learn, build networks, get inspired, and have a better idea of where you want your career to take you over the next few years or even the rest of your life. As scores of current and former T.A.s can tell you, it's not always easy, but it can be worth it.