Why every grad student should be a TA at least once

If there’s one thing I think everyone who’s ever a graduate student needs to do, it’s be a teaching assistant. There’s nothing like it (unless you’ve already been a teacher) to open your eyes to what the world of teaching at a University really looks like. And not just teaching – but seeing what students hand in.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve been at TA three times – a first year course, a fourth year course, and a grad course. In all three cases I’ve learned new lessons about what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be a student. What it means to be a TA differs between departments and universities. In my department, a TA is either 12 hours a week (full-time) or 6 hours (part-time) and TA’s run labs and mark assignments. They may occasionally fill in for a prof who’s going to miss a lecture. I have had friends where being a TA in their department means teaching an entire class – from creating the assignments, running all lectures/labs, and determining final marks.

6 benefits of being a TA.

  1. You’ve learned more then you think – There’s nothing more illuminating then TA-ing a first year class. It’s likely been at least 4 years since you took a similar class yourself. All of a sudden (usually with minimal to no training) you have assignments to mark, students to teach, and questions to answer. And you know what? You’ll take one look at the assignment and realize it’s so easy and simple. You’ll be confused that people think it’s difficult. It goes to show how much more sunk in over the years then you though.
  2. Presentation Skills – Whether you teach an entire class or just run a lab, you will get a chance to practice giving presentations. They may be up to 1.5 hours (in classes) or short 10 minute overviews in labs. Either way, the more time you spend standing at the front of a room talking to a large group of people, the better you will get at public speaking. Public speaking is a very important skill to develop as a grad student – so many things will depend on it. For some great help on developing your public speaking skills, consider joining up with a Toastmasters club in your area.
  3. Creating Assignments – If you’re lucky (and/or if you’re opinionated) you can have a lot of influence over the content of the class assignments. Remember, in a lot of cases the prof just stands at the front of a room and lectures, while you actually interact with the students in the lab. It’s quite likely that you will actually have a much better grasp as to how the students are doing then the prof does. Don’t be afraid to speak up if you think the assignment is going to be too hard/easy for the class, or if there are changes to the way assignments are structured that would reduce confusion. For example, when I taught the first year class, I realized that a lot of students didn’t understand how to test their programs and so I suggested adding example input/output in the assignment descriptions so the students would have a better idea of what was expected.
  4. Dealing with Students – Okay, this one can often be a huge drawback and not a benefit. In this case though, let’s focus on the benefits. You know how to do well in school – you’ve made it to grad school after all. However, the way you studied and learn will not be identical to every student out there. Being a TA you will get a chance to interact with students who learn in all different ways and you’ll have to figure out how to tailor your teaching to meet each students needs. You’ll also have to learn how to deal with students who are grade-grubbers and constantly argue their mark and want everything remarked.
  5. Dealing with Professors –  As an undergrad, professors seem to be high above you. As a grad student, you are getting closer to being on even ground with them – and many of them will treat you as if you pretty much are. However, as a TA, professors go back to being above you as they act as your boss. By interacting with them as a TA you’ll quickly learn how academia really works. What professors will stand up to students and what professors are too weak to do so that they’ll try to put you on the front line (and here you need to stand up against that). You already know what type of professors you liked as an undergrad, but based on what you’ll see from the other side, your opinion of what makes a great prof will likely shift and change slightly. You’ll realize that being a TA is an odd position – you have some power in how things pan out, but how much depends on the prof. All of this will help you determine what type of professor you want to be (and, possibly, if you think you even want to be a professor).
  6. Just because someone is in University doesn’t mean they’re smart and/or care – One of the most interesting things I discovered when marking for the first time (and re-discover every time I’ve marked since – including mark graduate students work), that just because someone makes it into University, doesn’t mean that they are actually very smart or even that they care. It will amaze you what people consider good work, and how many people don’t care about handing stuff in on time (or even at all). Depending on where you went to school for your undergrad you may or may not have a good idea of where you ranked (relatively if not actually) within your classes. Seeing what people hand in, you’ll have a much better idea of what it means to be an A student vs a B student or a C student.

Do you know of any other benefits of being a TA?

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2 thoughts on “Why every grad student should be a TA at least once

  1. I know this post is rather old, but I have a few questions… I hope you still check for comments. Do you have to be top of your class to be a TA? Does the university ask you or do you ask the university? How do you go about becoming one? Any direction would be highly appreciated.

    • TA assignments is very University and department specific. In my department, they are generally given first to incoming students who don’t have a scholarship or RA. This guarantees them some income. They are then given to students in later years depending on whether they have a scholarship/RA or how many years they have been there (fewer is better).

      If you’re interested, one possible way to approach becoming one, is to talk to your supervisor or the grad chair. Let them know you’re interested and ask how one can become a TA. Also, if there is a professor that you’ve worked closely with or taken a lot of classes from that you have a good relationship with, you can also mention your interest to them. Often, one way to ‘get around the rules’ is to have a professor say they want you as their TA.

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