How to Handle Being a Graduate Assistant

Being a Graduate Assistant, Teaching Assistant, or Research Assistant as well as a full-time graduate student can be overwhelming. While we were all excited about the opportunities that being graduate assistants offered us, we felt a lot of pressure to be good at our jobs while also being good students. In this week’s post, we share our experiences in dealing with time management, workloads, and advocating for ourselves as both students and graduate assistants. 

Dragana: Being a Teaching Assistant, Graduate Assistant, or a Research Assistant can take up a lot of time that you might want to be spending on your own schoolwork. At times it can be overwhelming to juggle both your graduate school work and your assistantship responsibilities. One of the most important things that I learned in my very first semester as a TA was that if I don’t stand up for myself and my time, I will be expected to do work that I am not meant to do. With that being said, I still managed to divide my time in ways that allowed for me to get everything done. I spent most of my time in my office at school doing my readings. Each morning I would take care of my TA duties—be it grading, responding to students, or creating reading questions—and then I would move on to my own work. When my schoolwork got too hectic, I would prioritize getting that done before my TA duties. Sometimes, if I knew that I had a busy school week coming up, I would get ahead in some of my class readings so that I was not behind in my TA class. An ending tip: it’s okay if you can’t do everything every week, just do what you can and move on to the next week.    

 Frank: An appointment as a teaching assistant can be both a demanding and rewarding experience, especially if one plans to pursue work as a teacher after graduating. It can be a very useful introduction to teaching and course preparation, and there is some truth to the idea that teaching a topic is the best way to learn it. Finding a good balance between assistantship duties, coursework and research is important, though. In my opinion, coursework and research should come first. Negotiating workload and duties, should they become too time-consuming or difficult, is something that should be communicated with your supervising professor.  

In my TA experience, I had the opportunity to lead the class lecture on several occasions. While stressful at first, I was grateful for the experience. It helped me conceptualize how to structure a presentation for a class period, lecture for a more significant amount of time than I was used to, and consider different pedagogical approaches. This experience also helped me become a better presenter in my seminars. Grading can also be useful preparation for how to successfully evaluate students and other’s writing. 

Kiri: Working as a Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, Grader, or whatever else your University has, can present a particular challenge for graduate students. There is a wide range in expectations from professors, and it’s often hard to gauge what exactly your professor expects from you each semester. In order to alleviate any potential misunderstandings or miscommunications, I’ve always tried to make sure to meet with my professor often, at least one a week outside of the physical class, especially if the class has weekly assignments like quizzes. When I’ve worked with professors who were more aloof, I’ve found myself anxious and it became easier to fall into the trap of imposter syndrome.

The workload from grading can become overwhelming, as it’s almost like you’re taking on an extra class. I’ve found the best way to make sure that I keep on top of grading is to set strict deadlines for myself and communicate with my professor if I ever feel like I cannot adhere to that schedule. Most of the time, your professor is going to know how hard it is to be a graduate student, and they’re going to understand when you need help. Communication, for me anyway, is the key to making sure that I am performing to the professor’s standards and ensuring that the professor knows what my limits are.

Chelsi: Being a graduate assistant ultimately depends on the professor you’re working for. The professor decides what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it, but in my experience, there are two major things I’ve learned. First, be upfront about what you have on your plate that semester because the professor knows that you are a student first. Second, sometimes you don’t have a choice with how much the minimum of work you’re assigned, but you can always ask for more.

In my first course as an assistant, my duties were essentially that of a grader, which was good for the first semester of my second year. Still, I was nervous and didn’t advocate for myself or my own work nearly enough. The professor noticed that I had gotten overwhelmed at certain points and would slow down on my grading, but I insisted it would be fine (it was not). My work suffered, and some students probably got away with more than they should have because I didn’t have the time to read that well.

In my second course, my duty was to sit in front of the class and take attendance, nothing else. Very early on my professor made it clear that because my masters was ending, I was in the middle of studying for comps, and dealing with the stress of PhD acceptances and rejections, he didn’t expect much. I was thankful for his understanding, even though I knew I could do more.

Hopefully, third time’s the charm and this year I can find the perfect balance and instead of letting professors think I’m fine when I’m not or letting them advocate for me, I can take it upon myself to know how much work is too much and how much is too little and speak up.

Clayton: Being a TA can be both a stressful and fun experience. As I have mentioned before in previous posts, my time as TA began in a very hectic way: about a week and half before my first year of graduate school I was offered a position as a graduate assistant because someone had just left the program. I was emailed about it on a Friday afternoon and had to respond by Sunday. I was obviously going to say yes, but because it was so close to the start of the semester, I went through a very rushed process preparing to be both a GA and a TA (I’m still not sure if I actually took the TA training). The actual job of being a TA is a balancing act. You have to make sure you are keeping up with the professor’s lessons, grading assignments, and paying attention to student questions, all while making sure you stay on top of your own work. However, being a TA also has some very rewarding elements. Personally, I found the classes I was assigned to interesting, so it was enjoyable to sit in on a class without being in a graduate student mindset. Getting to work closely with the professor in planning their lessons and assignments, I learned about the thought process that goes into planning assignments and lessons, and what it takes to teach and grade a class. I also got along great with the professors I was assigned to, which made the process much easier. I was even assigned to the same professor in three of my four semesters, which meant I developed a great rapport with that professor. Being a TA has its ups and downs, but overall for me it was an enjoyable and rewarding job.

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