Teaching Assistants

Graduate teaching assistants often have a big influence on college academics. Find out which schools have a lot of TAs.

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Welcome to college. Wherever you go, it will be night and day compared to high school.

Attend a large university and you may find yourself in a lecture hall packed with several hundred students.

TAs bring an interesting perspective to course material that may differ from the professor teaching the course.

The professor may not recognize you, let alone know your name. College can be intimidating. Where do you turn when you need help?

A large lecture class doesn’t necessarily mean that your professor isn’t available for one-on-one time with students. In fact, be sure to ask questions in lecture and contact your instructor during office hours for additional help outside of class.

However, in many cases, you’ll find that graduate teaching assistants – TAs for short – will be your main point of contact. Developing a strong relationship with your TAs can go a long way toward your academic success.

But who are TAs? How do they get chosen to teach or assist with classes?

How Teaching Assistants Help

Teaching assistants play many roles. They aid professors by grading papers, providing study sessions, giving exams, and even teaching lower-level classes. In the most common scenario, teaching assistants are graduate students in the department that they work in.

High student-to-instructor ratios are common at large public universities, and can make academic support harder to come by. However, teaching assistants can bridge the gap between professor and student. Like the professors they support, TAs also hold office hours outside of class. They also frequently head study and recitation sessions before exams or on a regular basis during the semester or quarter.

Generally speaking, colleges structure these class sessions to address a smaller set of students. As such, many undergrad students find it easier to ask questions and get help solving problems than they do during large classroom lectures.

The smaller, more intimate setting of study and recitation halls can make it easier for undergraduates to develop a rapport with their TAs. There’s a greater possibility for a person to take a vested interest in your success once they know you.

What TAs Have to Offer

Often not far removed from their own undergraduate careers, TAs can easily recall the struggles of college academic life. They understand the pressing need to find help outside of class. As a result, it’s often easier to get graduate teaching assistants to help undergraduates with their studies than the professors they work under.

TAs may also bring an interesting perspective to course material that may differ even from the professor teaching the course. Teaching assistants are often involved in their own research projects or are in the process of writing a master’s thesis or PhD dissertation. Undergraduate students can benefit from this added level of expertise on a course’s material.

Teaching Assistant: It’s A Job

As an overall rule, you’ll find a higher supply of teaching assistants at large universities where a larger student body naturally demands their services in greater numbers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 100,000 graduate teaching assistants were employed nationwide at four-year universities and colleges in 2010. At community colleges in the US, 2,280 TAs were employed.

The basic requirements of working as a TA, as you might suspect, is being enrolled in a graduate program. And like all jobs, working as a teaching assistant involves a tradeoff between employer and employee.

TA roles will vary, but benefits commonly include free or reduced tuition, a term or annual stipend, and also a means of fulfilling graduate school credit requirements. Many TAs are seeking careers as teacher themselves, and the experience gained by working with high-level academics can really pay off for them down the road. The instruction TAs provide to undergraduate students is great on-the-job training.

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