Many students work their way through college, filling student worker or off-campus positions on a part-time basis. This is particularly true of graduate students, who may take on the role of teaching assistant (TA) in undergraduate classes and lectures. But what exactly is a TA and how do you become one?
Explore this guide to learn more about the roles and responsibilities of a TA. You will also discover some of the many benefits of stepping into a TA role on your campus.
What Is a Teaching Assistant?
In higher education, a TA is a graduate student who assists and supports professors who are teaching undergraduate classes. In some programs, PhD students are required to serve as TAs, while in others, it is optional. While they are teaching undergraduates, TAs are also taking their own graduate-level courses and working toward their master’s or doctoral degree.
The role of a TA can differ from one school to the next and even from one department to the next within the same school. On average, however, a TA can expect to spend roughly 20 hours per week on teaching and related duties in addition to their own coursework.
Professors who are teaching very large classes in lecture halls do not have the time needed to give personal attention to every student. This is where the TA steps in, delivering personalized instruction to smaller groups of students. TAs may also deliver lectures to the entire class, although this might happen only a few times per semester, depending on departmental procedures and the professor’s own preferences.
Other common duties of TAs are as follows:
- Lead class discussions in an engaging and informative manner
- Field questions from students during class, small group sessions and office hours
- Assess and grade students’ tests, essays, labs and other assignments, providing feedback as needed
- Maintain student records
- Develop lesson plans and deliver lessons with guidance from the professor
Steps To Becoming a Teaching Assistant
The process of becoming a TA differs from one school to the next. Typically, you must be an enrolled graduate student at your school to apply for a TA position (often called an “assistantship”). Note that TA positions are typically limited and there can be competition for them, so apply as early as possible.
You will likely need to submit an application. You may also be asked to include a letter of recommendation and write a short essay that explains your motivations and qualifications for becoming a TA. If you have previously served as a tutor, whether formally or informally, be sure to include that experience. Finally, clearly explain the subjects that you feel qualified to teach.
If you do not secure a TA position the first time that you apply, do not give up! Competition can be stiff for these limited positions, so do not hesitate to apply again the next semester or when the next academic year begins. In the meantime, use the following tips to help you secure a TA position the next time that you apply:
- Look for ways to bolster your qualifications, such as by applying to become a tutor either on campus or elsewhere.
- Maintain a professional online presence, such as by cleaning up your social media accounts if necessary and establishing a LinkedIn profile.
- Cultivate professional relationships within your department, both with professors and departmental staff members.
- Get to know the TAs in your department and ask them for advice on landing a position.
Benefits of Becoming a Teaching Assistant
As a TA, you will serve as a mentor to undergraduates and a leader on your campus. There are many benefits to becoming a TA during your time in graduate school, some of which are described below.
If you hope to become a professor someday, you will definitely want to become a TA. You will gain invaluable teaching experience in a classroom and/or lecture hall. You will learn by trial and error how best to deliver a lecture, lead classroom discussions, field questions from students and inspire students to engage with the subject matter.
You will also get a behind-the-scenes look at the roles and duties of teachers. You will work with professors to plan lessons, grade assignments and administer tests.
Even if you do not plan to pursue a career as a professor, acquiring teaching experience as a TA can be beneficial because it enables you to commit subject matter to memory more firmly. Many studies have demonstrated that learning-by-teaching is one of the most effective means of boosting memory retention. By teaching others, you are giving your brain an exercise in memory retrieval, which will allow you to commit facts to memory more effectively.1
Regardless of your future career plans, becoming a capable and confident leader will undoubtedly be important. All sorts of workplaces rely on leadership — from hospitals to human resources firms. When you become a TA, you will have ample opportunities to refine your leadership style and become a true servant leader.
Public Speaking Practice
Many people are nervous about public speaking. In fact, some people get so nervous about speaking in front of a group that they develop physical symptoms, such as butterflies in the stomach and shaky hands. However, practice is a sure way to calm the butterflies.
When you become a TA, you will speak in front of small classes and large lectures on a regular basis. This public speaking practice will enable you to become a polished communicator who can deliver lectures and field questions with confidence. This skill will serve you well no matter which career you choose.
Professional Networking Opportunities
College does not offer students only an invaluable education and the chance for personal growth but also the opportunity to grow their professional networks. This is particularly true for TAs. As a TA, you will work closely with professors, departmental staff, their professional contacts and, of course, your fellow students, with all of whom you can cultivate a working relationship and add to your professional network.
Recommendations From Professors
It is challenging for professors to write letters of recommendation for students whom they barely know. It is much easier to write a meaningful and impactful letter of recommendation for a TA, as TAs interact and collaborate with professors outside of the classroom. As a TA, you will find it much easier to acquire the recommendations that you need.
Among the many benefits of becoming a TA is the financial incentive. Graduate schools typically pay TAs a stipend, which helps them pay for their education. Those that do not offer a stipend opt for other financial incentives, such as discounted tuition.
Essential Skills and Qualities of Effective Teaching Assistants
If you think that you would like to become a TA, you can actively cultivate the qualities and skills that will help you become more effective at your job. Some of the characteristics of a great TA are as follows:
- Inquisitive, with a love of learning
- Patient and resourceful when answering questions
- Sociable/gets along well with a diverse range of people
- Organized, with strong time management skills
- Inspirational, with an ability to spark people’s interest in subject matter
A sense of humor is also helpful for connecting with students and, of course, communication skills are essential. Note, however, that it is perfectly fine to pursue a TA position even if you are not confident that you are a good public speaker. After you deliver a few lectures and work with a few small groups, you will quickly develop stronger communication skills.
The entire learning community at Grand Canyon University is committed to supporting the success of our students. Career Services at the Academic and Career Excellence (ACE) Centers offers a complete suite of career services, including student worker and off-campus positions, networking assistance, interview preparation and much more. Begin exploring our academic offerings and planning your future career path.
1 Retrieved from: The British Psychological Society, Research Digest, Learning by teaching others is extremely effective – a new study tested a key reason why in July 2022.
Approved by the Program Director for the College of Education on Sept. 16, 2022
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.