Before you apply to and accept a Teaching Assistant position (TA), there are some things you need to do to prepare. A great place to start is identifying the type of TA that you would want to be and the kind that is being offered by the institution. Assuming you have decided that being a TA is the best path to funding your graduate school experience (TAs typically receive anything from a full tuition waiver to in-state tuition fees), you will want to make sure you are in the best position to have this impactful work experience be as productive as possible, not just a means to an end.
What it takes to be a TA
As a TA you will be assisting a professor with teaching undergraduate and sometimes graduate courses. Your role could be anything from helping with grading and running tutoring sessions to actually teaching an entire section of a particular course. There will undoubtedly be a great deal of work for you to do, though the exact expectations are determined by the specific professor with whom you will be working. In fact, establishing a good working relationship with your supervising professor will be the key to a successful TA experience.
By now, you may have identified that the program (or programs) to which you are applying offer Teaching Assistantships for funding options. If not, be sure to research their availability through departmental literature, the website, and contacts made through the faculty, graduate school, and current graduate students associated with the program department. TAs are highly competitive slots on most campuses and require a thoughtful application. Many students I work with are concerned that not having completed their undergraduate degree at the same institution could hamper their efforts to be selected as a TA. This is generally not the case and never anything I have encountered firsthand or anecdotally.
Regardless of your undergraduate location, the faculty in the department will want to know that you have a solid grasp on the subject matter. So, yes, good grades are imperative for consideration. Assuming you have decent undergraduate grades, you will move on to the next hurdle, where the faculty members will try to assess whether or not you have the skills needed to serve as a TA. Each circumstance is going to be slightly unique with the different personalities involved in making the decision, but there are some general guidelines for standing out as a strong TA candidate when you are presenting yourself through your resume and in an interview.
First, you should do some self- assessment (here is a great plug to use your undergraduate career services, if you have not done so already to help you with that assessment). A few basic questions to ponder:
- Why do you want to be a TA?
- What kind of interest do you have in teaching?
- Do you have a passion for the subject material?
- Are you a whiz at the subject material?
- Do you have any experience teaching, tutoring, or coaching? If so, what were the outcomes of your intervention?
- Do you have anyone who can serve as a reference to your abilities to share knowledge with others?
- What do you know about the TA position offered in your program of choice?
- What role does the TA play?
- Who are the supervising faculty members?
- What are their teaching styles?
As long as you are still moving ahead with becoming a TA after some self-assessment, you are ready for the marketing piece. When you have dynamic answers to these and similar questions, you will be ready to best present yourself through your application materials and interviews.
If you have been selected to be a TA, you now need to make some plans to work well with your supervising professor, translate your passion in the classroom, and create opportunities for success. Once your supervising professor has been determined, you need to get a feel for his or her teaching style, communication methods, and management habits. If you can walk away with a clear understanding of those areas, you can set yourself up for a smooth relationship.
What it means to be a TA
As a TA, you could be responsible for a wide variety of tasks. Sometimes, it will mean grading homework, quizzes or tests, helping with homework, leading study sessions, hosting office hours, teaching a particular topic in class, and prepping course materials. Other times, it could mean doing all of those tasks for a section or more of a course you are teaching on your own, under supervision of the lead professor. If you are teaching your own class, you will likely meet with the supervising professor and any other TAs in a similar role on a regular schedule.
You will want to make sure that you are ready to handle the time commitments for these meetings, as well as completing all of your course-related tasks. If regular meetings have not been set by the supervising professor, make sure you work with that person to set some up for yourself. You will want to make sure you understand how to regularly communicate and how to bring to his or her attention any emerging or immediate problems or concerns.
Then, of course, you need to translate your passion in the classroom. Whether they are undergraduate or fellow graduate students, the members of your class are relying on you to learn. Remember what it is like to sit in their shoes? Oh yes, you need to be brilliant AND engaging – every single class. You cannot let a bad day translate into a poorly taught lesson. You need to be ready to shine in your instruction. The supervising professor will most likely help guide you in terms of overall content. There will be final exams that you need to ensure your students are capable of passing. There will be suggestions for communicating this to your class, but the final method of delivery and classroom management will be on you.
It will be easy to start with teaching how you like to be taught. Just make sure you also remember that others might have a different learning style than yours. Talk with friends who might learn differently than you and try to incorporate some different ideas to make sure you are being effective with each member of your class.
Remember that you are now the subject expert. Sure, you can seek guidance when needed, but you must portray confidence in your abilities to teach and share your knowledge. This is certainly much easier when you are passionate about the material, which is why you should gravitate toward opportunities to teach what you enjoy. If you do, you will create more opportunities for success.
How to be a great TA
A student I worked with during her transition to TA at a large state research university was able to create several opportunities for success. In her undergraduate and master level studies, she excelled in her subject area in terms of grades. She was a natural communicator and had some tutoring experience at both the undergraduate and graduate level. She researched the faculty at length before submitting her applications to doctoral programs. One reason was to find the right fit in terms of her own studies, the other was to find a good fit to become a TA. At that particular institution, the TAs were awarded full tuition for the semesters they taught. She was awarded two years of TA responsibilities teaching her own undergraduate courses under the supervision of a departmental faculty member and with a team of either one or two other TAs, depending on the semester.
This student excelled at teaching. She found enjoyment in sharing her expertise (even once in a subject area that was not as exciting to her, but a basic introductory course for the undergraduate major). But, working to her strengths, her classes did well. She received high marks on her student evaluations, and her students (for the most-part) got decent grades. Her reputation was elevated within her college, and she was brought up as a candidate to be tagged for a special program. This program highlighted teachers in a given academic year who were deemed appropriate to work with at-risk students. Her courses the next semester were disproportionately filled with those students. She had several breakthrough moments with individual students that semester. She even won a teaching award that was usually only bestowed to a full professor.
Can this happen for you? Maybe not the exact progression of events, but if you are enjoying what you are doing it will translate in the classroom. If you are communicating effectively to both your students AND your professor and fellow TAs, you will find your own pathways to exciting opportunities. Soon, you might find that your students will be asking you for letters of recommendation. Whether or not a career in academics is in your future, you can better finance your own education by actually helping others through your TA experience.
About the author: 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.