What is a Graduate Assistantship and why on earth should you care? I am always telling my students that nobody should EVER pay for graduate school, not when there are so many ways to get it paid for you. If you are reading this because you, like them, do not care for the idea of adding to your loan collection and are trying to figure out how to pay for graduate school, then join me in taking a closer look at just how a Graduate Assistantship can help you afford the advanced degree you seek.
Before figuring out why and when to look for an assistantship, let us consider what one actually is. A Graduate Assistantship is essentially a job where you work for the college or university where you will be a student, in one of their departments, and in return have your tuition covered by the institution. So, if you are hoping to complete your graduate program without going further into debt, and you don’t currently have a full-time job willing to reimburse you for an advanced degree, securing a Graduate Assistantship would basically mean going to school for “free,” that is, if you are all right with working around 20 hours a week to make that happen. Most assistantships result in your tuition being waived, the majority also pay you a monthly stipend (not glamorous, but enough to buy food and essentials), and some even come with health benefits.
Assuming you are now interested in at least checking them out further, the next question that has to be addressed is when to look for an assistantship. The quick answer is that you need to be looking for assistantships from the beginning of your graduate school search. So, if you are starting at the very beginning in seeking out an appropriate institution or program, then add to your list of things to check (along with cost, application deadlines, standardized tests required, and the like) whether or not the programs and institutions offer Graduate Assistantships. If you have already begun your search and have narrowed down your programs and institutions of choice, then just go back and find out about the Graduate Assistantship offerings of those selections.
What you need to know
You will need to know what you are looking for when you start your search. There are a few different types of general Graduate Assistantship positions: teaching assistants (TAs), research assistants (RAs), and graduate assistants (GAs). TAs will assist full professors with teaching undergraduate and sometimes graduate level courses. RAs will supplement research efforts taking place by the faculty in various academic departments. GAs will function in several different capacities across the university; perhaps directly for the individual academic program or possibly within an administrative capacity somewhere else across the functions of the university (like Residence Life, Athletics, Enrollment, or others). For this reason, you will want to check within the academic department of the program to which you are applying, as well as the institution as a whole when searching for an assistantship.
You should start by searching through the literature you have at your disposal on the program and institution. Does their GradSchools.com information page list that assistantships are available? In writing this article, I browsed several listings and found out that many do indeed mention it. One listing said, “A limited number of graduate assistantships are available for qualified students.” You would then want to check out the websites of the individual academic programs and the graduate school pages.
Where to look
After that, you want to check in with the contacts you have made in the graduate school office, the faculty of the department, and the students who currently attend the program. You can also do a search on LinkedIn or on the departmental pages to see if the current GAs are listed for the program. These are networking contacts you might want to consider making. I know that our GA is always listed on our website, for example. These networking contacts can let you know about available assistantship opportunities and how to stand out as a top candidate.
You can also use regular job search engines to find assistantships. A university’s own job search engine through the Human Resources website could provide available assistantship opportunities as well. General search engines might list some opportunities, but you will have more luck with specific search sites. For example, if you are interested in an athletics administration assistantship, you could check out the NACDA website, www.nacda.com, and discover the listings they have for Graduate Assistantships related to collegiate athletic administration. You could also check out www.workinsports.com for similar positions. Each industry and interest area will have different websites of value to your search.
Just like the individual programs, you need to start keeping track of application deadlines and materials needed for the assistantships. Do not expect the deadlines to all be the same (something you will no doubt encounter for the applications to graduate school, if you have not already experienced that). The requested materials will not necessarily be the same, either. At a minimum, you will need to fill out an assistantship application form, submit a resume, and provide letters of reference or reference contacts for each assistantship.
It could be that the academic program has a completely different set of parameters for their positions (more likely at a large research institution) than the rest of the university has for its assistantships offered through Student Affairs and other divisions. On our smaller campus, the graduate school office manages the entire assistantship program; the academic programs do not administer different parameters. But my sister, attending one of our nation’s largest public universities, had a specific process outlined by her academic department to apply for her RA and TA positions.
Applying for an assistantship could take two different paths. Some Graduate Assistantships will require that you be already admitted into the program in order to even apply for a position. Though all assistantships will ultimately hinge on your acceptance, many will let you apply for the positions as long as you are admissible (meaning you meet basic qualification standards, have likely started applying, and you are just waiting to find out officially whether or not you have been accepted). For example, when I am selecting my departmental Graduate Assistant, the University sends me their application forms and denotes whether or not they have already been accepted. I could certainly bring some through the interview process that were not accepted yet, but I would not be able to offer the position unless the University had accepted them first.
In case you missed it, I indicated the “interview process.” If you thought that applying to graduate school was going to get you out of the job search, you are sorely mistaken. In fact, the graduate school application in and of itself is a lot like the job search application process. But trying to secure a Graduate Assistantship takes it even one step further in that direction. You will be vying for sometimes one, but usually only a few select opportunities, competing with several to hundreds of other qualified, fund-seeking applicants. You need to be ready to devote a good deal of energy to the Graduate Assistant application process if you really want it. The terms resume and reference should not prevent you from moving forward, but you need to know what is expected to make this happen for yourself. Sure, you could just pay for the graduate school program yourself – but again, why, when there is an alternative?
Choosing the right assistantship
As with any job search, the more you align your own passion and strengths with what the position offers, the stronger a candidate you will make yourself for the position. If you are seeking a research or teaching position, what research and teaching experience do you have? Are you ready to articulate those strengths on a resume? Do you even have a resume started?
When I am making the decision on who to hire for my GA, I am not usually too concerned with the stuff that makes for a great graduate school applicant – I expect the University has already done their job in that respect. I am looking at the process like I would any other hire – what experience is captured on the resume (is it captured in a grammatically correct format with no typos?) and what passion for what we actually do in our department is captured in the cover letter. The interview is a crucial next piece for me. Some assistantships will not put you through an interview process, but others will. I suggest making full use of your undergraduate career services to make sure you are up to speed with all of the job search skills you will need to present yourself in the best light as a candidate. My current GA knocked her interview out of the park, which sent her skyrocketing past her competition for the position.
The waiting game
Once you have submitted your applications, you are back in the waiting game, just like you were for the graduate school acceptance. For my own graduate school experience, the offer of a first semester assistantship made all the difference. My top two institutions both offered me an assistantship, but only one of them could have it start during my first semester (since I was coming in as a spring semester start). That made the decision for me, amongst other criteria. This past year, I worked with a Ph.D. candidate in the same position. He applied to a few programs, but made his final acceptance based on where he received the best assistantship offer.
I have some undergraduate students working for me now who have applied to go directly on to get an advanced degree. I was pleased when three of them asked for letters of reference for their assistantships. They have all been accepted to their graduate program of choice. One of them has already been offered and accepted an assistantship. One has a second round interview coming up this week. One is still waiting to hear. All of them are on their way to a tuition-free graduate school experience, and I know they would not want it any other way.
Hilary Flanagan, M.Ed., GCDF, is a higher education career services expert, author, triathlete, certified career coach and certified etiquette consultant who is currently Director of the Center for Career Services at John Carroll University.