Graduate Assistantships are a great path to completing your graduate degree without going further into debt. They are offered at both the master’s and doctoral level of study. By securing an assistantship, you will be working (generally around 20 hours a week) for your university in some capacity to offset the cost of tuition, typically while also earning a small stipend. Usually, assistantships result in a waiver of tuition fees altogether; sometimes they result in paying at in-state tuition or other reduced rates. Some assistantships even offer some health, room and board, or other benefits. At the same time you are working to earn these tangible benefits, you are able to build your resume and personal network, coming out as a win-win. So many potential graduate students look toward Teaching and Research Assistantships to fund their education, but there is another, often overlooked, option available. Regardless of your program of study, you could look to secure a Departmental Graduate Assistantship. These assistantships are available throughout the university and usually at more frequency than specific research or teaching opportunities. They can be administrative or academic in nature. At some smaller institutions, these more general assistantships might be the only type offered.
Individual academic departments can sponsor these types of assistantships, as well as offering positions for teaching and research. Within the academic departments, Graduate Assistants (GAs) are able to develop close working relationships with faculty, most often the department chairs or other administrative leadership. Other departments, both those in academic support roles (academic advising, disability offices, diversity and inclusion areas, or career services, etc.) and those in student affairs (residence life, student activities, athletics, etc.) can host graduate assistants.
To determine which assistantships are available to you, you need to start researching them as you research graduate programs and institutions. Check the departmental and graduate school websites; ask faculty, graduate admissions representatives, and current graduate students; and check listings in resources like GradSchools.com. Once you identify the opportunities, you need to then check out the individual departments to which you would be applying. Keep in mind that these opportunities are highly competitive, so you need to conduct a smart job search to make yourself a top candidate for the positions. Unlike teaching and research assistantships, your selection will not be made by individual faculty within the department of your area of interest. The hiring decision will be made by university employees who are passionate about the area of work they pursue on a daily basis, and they want to surround themselves with someone who is both competent and has some passion for that area, as well.
In order to be considered a candidate, you will likely need to have been accepted to the graduate school first. Sometimes, students who are pending acceptance will be moved through the process. So, it is important that you be considering assistantships at any of the institutions for which you are applying. You will also likely submit more than one application, meaning you would be happy to secure any one of a number of departmental assistantships available. The trick is making sure you apply as though each one would be your top choice. You cannot do that effectively unless you have put in the research to know that you would indeed be a good fit in that department and that you have something to bring them from your own skill set and passions. Each department is only allowed to hire a certain number of GAs, so you can count on them to be very picky.
Within and academic department, the GAs will be responsible for any number of administrative and academic tasks. You could be working on social media initiatives, website maintenance, clerical assignments, grading assignments, scheduling, presenting, or attending meetings and running any number of errands.
In student support areas, you will be treated very much like an entry-level administrator for that department. You could indeed be doing some teaching or research, but your tasks will depend on specific needs and programs run by that department. For example, the GA in our office will supervise our student leaders in the office, be trained to conduct individual career coaching appointments, teach career education courses, lead marketing initiatives, and participate in some event planning. There are also lots of other activities that the GA can participate in during the course of the year: preparing training for the student leaders, participating in webinars and conferences, and attending meetings.
In student affairs areas, there is a tremendous amount of variety in the kind of work done by GAs, since the offices are so unique and varied. Athletics tends to be an area that generally has more GAs than other departments. The GAs in athletics serve predominantly as coaches. They participate in recruiting efforts, reviewing tapes, and providing coaching to the undergraduate student athletes. There are also other opportunities within athletics for GAs to run intramurals, coordinate fitness centers, and more. Residence life on many campuses has opportunities for GAs to live in the residence halls and supervise the undergraduate Resident Assistants. Some universities reserve that as an entry level position, so you will want to check at your target campuses. One benefit that comes with this position is the room and board option. Our campus also has campus ministry live-in positions for graduate students. On top of that, there are research, assessment, event planning, supervisory, and other opportunities in remaining departments.
While the department chairs can respect that you would want to apply to several departments in an effort to secure financing for your studies, it is worth repeating that they still want to hire someone that is a good fit for their area. As with any job search, you need to do the research, beyond just finding the opportunity and reading the job description, to be a successful candidate. They will want to know you have some idea of what their department does. Have you looked over their materials? Have you visited their space? Could you talk with the current GA in that position to learn more? Did you craft a cover letter specific to wanting that opportunity? You need to do these things if you want to make sure you indeed land an assistantship at the departmental level.
The departments will receive a list of potential GA candidates from the graduate school office. The packets will include a basic form of interest and a copy of your resume (that is right – you still need to prepare a great resume). It might include letters of reference, and it absolutely should include your personalized cover letter for each position. They will likely set up interviews for the candidates they have screened as top qualifiers. After the interviews, they will make final decisions. Best case scenario – you have multiple offers and find yourself in the selection phase again. It is highly recommended to reach that point, that you use your undergraduate career services and other resources to make sure your job search skills, especially related to resume and cover letter development and interview preparation are up to speed.
Once you secure your assistantship, you will want to make sure to take advantage of professional development and networking opportunities. This means that you need to be proactive. You can certainly react to any invitations you might receive to participate, but you will also want to be on the lookout for situations that will allow you to expand your professional experience. For example, I mentioned that our office GA will participate in webinars and conferences. If this is something in which your colleagues within the department are already participating, you can ask to be included. Webinars are offered all the time in higher education areas, and can be made available to the whole staff. Other trainings and conferences will usually offer a student rate to encourage graduate student participation. There are even scholarships offered by several higher education professional associations so that GAs and other graduate students can attend. In joining committees within your department and as a department representative throughout the university, you will expand your contacts. There are also graduate student associations in need of members and leaders. Make sure to take advantage of any opportunity that speaks to your interests and even those that allow you to address an area where you might feel challenged or in need of development.
You will be able to find wonderful mentors within the departments where assistantships are available. Make sure you keep in touch with those folks as you move on from your graduate programs. Using social media, like Linkedin, or other ways to keep in touch will pay off in dividends as you move ahead into whatever career path you choose.