A graduate assistantship helps students pay for grad school through a combination of tuition waivers and cash compensation. The position also might offer worker benefits such as health insurance, housing and meal plans, although the terms vary by school and by position. Graduate assistantships are similar in concept to undergraduate work-study programs, but instead of washing dishes in the student cafeteria, grad assistants are paid to perform tasks that align with their fields of study.
Hiring for graduate assistantships usually is done by an administrator or professor in your school’s graduate program. Because the competition for these positions can be intense, you’ll probably have to demonstrate excellence in your undergraduate work, write an application essay describing why you’re a good fit for the position and meet other criteria. Graduate assistantships break down into two broad categories – teaching assistantships and research assistantships, although some positions may involve both responsibilities.
For graduate students pursuing degrees in English, history, philosophy or another of the liberal arts, teaching positions are the more common form of assistantship. Duties vary — a teaching assistant might help a professor grade papers and prepare exams, give occasional lectures or manage discussion groups, or even run an entire class. The teaching assistant’s time commitment varies by the level of responsibility, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of SavingForCollege.com. If you’re leading study groups and holding specified office hours, the time you devote might be modest and clearly defined. However, if you’re preparing lectures, grading writing assignments and managing an entire course, the time commitment will be significantly greater.
Some institutions create a separate classification for graduate teaching associates, advanced grad students who aren’t designated as full faculty members but are responsible for designing a syllabus and determining grades. For students planning to teach as a career, teaching assistantships provide valuable experience and training, allowing you to perfect your skills in areas such as developing the entire framework and progression of a class, and becoming comfortable with public speaking, while still working under the guidance of an experienced professor.
While prestigious research institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, the University of California San Francisco and the University of Michigan were among the most prolific recipients of NIH grants in 2017, hundreds of colleges and universities received some level of NIH funding. The NIH Reporter site lets you search the database of federal grants and includes information such as the amount of awards, the focus of the research and the name of the professor leading each project; such information can be valuable to students searching for the best place to pursue their assistantship.
The NIH isn’t the only source of funding for scientific research. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) also pay for research projects, typically those involving non-medical research such as in engineering or computer science. Nonprofit organizations and private companies may also fund university investigators to conduct research. While research assistantships are most common in the scientific fields, they’re also available in other types of graduate programs, such as law school.
Rebecca Fae Greene, author of “Law School for Dummies,” writes that law professors often need research assistants to delve into such specialties as intellectual property law. Professors might announce openings in class or post them on a departmental bulletin board or website.
Ideally, students can use this research work to dovetail with the topics of their theses or dissertations. However, research assistantships can be competitive, and there’s no guarantee that the focus of the assistantship will fit exactly with the focus of your own graduate research.
It’s also important to consider that some research positions could end up involving teaching responsibilities as well. Federal grants are highly competitive and rarely last longer than a few years, so professors may find themselves short of funds to pay all their students. In those cases, they may ask their students to take on teaching assistant positions to help cover their salaries.
Meanwhile, it’s no secret that college athletics are a growth industry, and schools big and small rely on graduate assistants for everything from coaching and training to keeping statistics. The NCAA offers a comprehensive database of opportunities for graduate assistants.
Assistantships and fellowships both offer pathways for motivated, high-achieving students to pay for graduate school. There are some crucial differences, however. Fellowships, such as the prestigious awards given by the National Science Foundation, offer more freedom for students to explore their passions. “Fellowships might not have any official research or teaching responsibilities,” Kantrowitz explains, giving students more control over creating a course of study that fits their interest.
In some cases, however, a graduate program might have a department-wide fellowship that requires all students to assume some teaching duties. In contrast to the flexibility of a fellowship, assistantships require students to complete clearly defined tasks. As a graduate assistant, you’ll have the opportunity to focus on your area of interest, but you’ll also be working under the auspices of a particular professor who will assign you certain duties necessary for the pursuit of their research program. Many professors try to accommodate their students’ goals and interests, but it’s also part of the job to take on some administrative and housecleaning chores. In contrast to the freedom and prestige of fellowships, assistantships are more structured – and the work can seem mundane. In that case, it’s up to you to weigh the upside of some resume-building work with the downside of tasks you’re not necessarily joyous about.
Talk to the college. Financial aid for graduate school tends to be decentralized. Each individual department handles its own financial aid, in contrast to undergraduate programs, where the university’s financial aid office is in charge of financial aid. It’s the departments and sometimes the individual professors who control the money.
The pro is that it’s a source of funding to help you pay for grad school. If you had to work a full-time job, that’s much more time-consuming and, frankly, a distraction. The con is that it might not be enough to pay all of your costs. The debt for grad school can be as big as or greater than the debt for undergraduate studies. Another con is that your time is not necessarily your own. In the STEM fields, you’re working on the professor’s research project, and ideally, the work will turn into your thesis, but it might not turn out that way. If it’s a teaching assistantship, you might be preparing lectures. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you’re an international student, you can’t work on certain projects. If a research project’s funding comes from the Department of Defense, international students aren’t eligible.
It means careful time management. Teaching a single class probably is going to take a quarter to a half of your time. But a lot of it depends on the nature of your duties. You might attend the lecture with the undergraduate students, and then you’re meeting with a subsection of the students to help them understand the material. You may have office hours, but the time requirements can be more predictable and less time-consuming than actually managing a class. As a teaching assistant, it’s not uncommon for you to prepare tests, including the mid-term and the final exam. If you have to prepare lectures, that can take more time. Even if the professor has prepared the main lectures, the professor may have you give some of the lectures yourself. If the class meets 30 times a semester, you might have to teach one or two classes.
The tuition waiver is tax-free. The living stipend is typically taxable.