There is not a lot of information out there on what it means to be a graduate Teaching Assistant/Associate, or “T.A.” That reality can make it seem like being a T.A. is something everyone already understands or knows how to do. In fact, working as a graduate T.A. is a unique experience the details of which greatly differ from school to school. And the only way to be a graduate T.A. is to go to graduate school. So, with the exception of graduate scholars who have completed an M.S. program with T.A. opportunities before going after the PhD., no one else applying has any experience doing it.
What teaching duties do most graduate schools require?
If you’re not interested in teaching, knowing more about what will be required of you as a T.A. might help to allay any fears you have about being required to T.A. in graduate school. If you are interested in teaching, it can be helpful to understand how to maximize the pedagogical training opportunities that are available to you during your graduate training. (Note: “Pedagogy” refers to the theory and praxis of teaching and is often used to refer to how people think about teaching in the context of higher education.)
The very basics: most T.A. assignments require 10-20 hours of work from students. The number of hours of work required for T.A.s will vary greatly by school. At Emory, 10 hours or less is the requirement per semester for first year graduate T.A.s completing T.A. as part of their core training. Advanced T.A.s choose to T.A. in consultation with their research advisor and may receive an assignment of 10 hours (considered a part time position) or 20 hours (considered a full time position – because additional hours are always reserved for advanced research.)
Initial T.A. experiences in graduate school are often viewed as training opportunities – you are learning to teach as part of your education. Different schools link these opportunities to stipend support in different ways. Some schools require students to work a certain number of hours as a T.A. to cover their stipend during part or all of the graduate career (in this case, it is likely called an “Assistantship.”) Some schools require T.A. training only as an aspect of professional development (which doesn’t mean it is less work!) Many schools, like Emory, have some hybrid where a few semesters of T.A. experience are required as part of a scholar’s training and advanced opportunities are available to provide both a portion of a student’s funding later in graduate school and/or additional training in support of scholars whose career goals are related to teaching.
What is the difference between being an undergraduate T.A. and a graduate T.A.?
In the discipline of chemistry, resource-intensive laboratory courses and the need for one-on-one support means that many schools do offer undergraduate T.A. experiences to their students. For this reason, it is not uncommon for students starting graduate school to have some form of T.A. experience. However, not all students have experience with student teaching. And even if they do, T.A. service as a graduate students is usually different from T.A. service as an undergraduate for a number of reasons, including that you will likely have more responsibility for the course, including grading. The vast majority of introductory graduate T.A. assignments will be in laboratory courses.
What do T.A.s do?
Some combination of any or all of the following:
- hold office hours for undergraduate courses
- lead recitation/review sessions
- grade for undergraduate courses
- provide hands-on support in a laboratory setting
- lead a laboratory session or lecture session
- create lesson plans for specific class sessions
- provide auxiliary support during lecture, such as working with small groups in a larger course
- make copies, take attendance, or other critical admin tasks related to courses
The most common T.A. tasks are probably office hours and grading. Some advanced opportunities may allow students to design a course session or even an entire syllabus.
Do I need to have teaching experience to apply to graduate school?
No! Teaching others is an important part of graduate-level education because it is a critical component of fully understanding material for yourself and of becoming a thought leader in your field of expertise. You are not expected to know how to teach before you go to graduate school. Formal teaching experiences are limited and training is required that is not available to most new graduate scholars. To address this, most graduate schools have programming to support new T.A.s. Emory’s Laney Graduate School offers the Teaching Assistant Training and Teaching Opportunity program, or TATTO to ensures that each student’s education as a scholar is balanced with thoughtful and thorough preparation in the art of teaching. The most relevant experience you will bring to being a T.A. will probably be your own experiences as a learner in college classrooms. You will likely emulate aspects of your best professors. Additionally, teaching is a leadership role where any experience with leadership as an athlete, performer, public speaker, debater, etc. can provide a useful foundation.
Student Perspective: Rachel Kozlowski
This next section of the post was written by Emory Chemistry graduate alum Rachel Kozlowski. Rachel wrote this post in 2019 when she was in the last year of her PhD at Emory in the Dyer Group. That same year, she was awarded the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship, Emory’s highest honor for graduate instructors that allows advanced students to design and teach their own course. As a Dean’s Teaching Fellow, Rachel taught her own section of CHEM 150: Structure and Properties, the foundational course in Emory’s undergraduate curriculum, Chemistry Unbound. As of Fall 2020, Rachel is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Georgia.
So you want to teach after getting a PhD? This can be a tricky topic to bring up to potential research advisers, as teaching during your PhD career means time away from the lab! However, if you want to be competitive for teaching positions, such as at a primarily undergraduate university (PUI) or as a lecture track faculty member, you will likely want to pursue teaching opportunities beyond your first year teaching assistant (TA) assignments. It’s not impossible to gain teaching skills while working on your PhD!
Required T.A. Training in Graduate School
As a first-year graduate student, you will likely be a TA for a lab section (or two) of 18-36 students (Ed. Note: This is true at Emory where lab TAs teach two semester for a commitment of about 10 hours per week.) As a lab TA, you will start to develop teaching skills by creating pre-lab lectures, being in charge of students, and grading assessments. In general, all PhD students have to teach at some point. At Emory, TA assignments are a part of your training in your first two semesters. T.A. service during those two semesters required as part of your graduate training but is not directly tied to your stipend support. At some schools, TA positions are tied to stipend more directly and you may be required to T.A. to fund your stipend at certain points in your career.
Advanced T.A. Opportunities in Graduate School
Once you have some TA experience under your belt, you can likely start requesting advanced TA positions, including opportunities to TA for a lecture course. As a lecture TA, you get to be directly involved in the lecture course itself. You usually hold problem sessions and office hours, as well as grade course assessments. It is important to get involved with lecture TA positions if you are interested in a teaching career because you get real class experience, and leading problem sessions is a natural progression from the pre-lab lecturing and tutoring mindset.
After you’ve had substantial TA experience, you can start to consider positions that require a greater teaching responsibility. There are opportunities at local high schools if your interests are in teaching at the high school level. For those interested in teaching at the university level, you should inquire about advanced student teaching fellowships and programs at the universities you are considering for your graduate work. There might also be opportunities to teach a module in a course or a summer session of a course—don’t miss out on opportunities by thinking too narrowly about what types of experience are relevant to teaching!
Instructor of Record
At Emory University, the Dean’s Teaching Fellowship is the highest regarded teaching fellowship. Many schools have an opportunity like this for advanced students. As a Dean’s Teaching Fellow, you get to be the instructor of record for a course in your department. Fellows take complete responsibility of a one semester course: planning, preparing lectures, lecturing, creating assignments, writing exams, holding office hours, grading, etc. So not only do you have the opportunity to acquire all of the skills necessary to teach a university course, but you also have the documentation of being an instructor of record for the course. You don’t have to be an instructor of record to apply for teaching-heavy jobs, but it is one thing that really helps to show you can plan and lead a course.
Do Your Research
Other universities have comparable programs to Emory, so in searching for your perfect graduate school, make sure to research the teaching opportunities! Graduate coordinators will likely be familiar with these types of fellowships or programs, so all you have to do is ask! Make sure to also discuss your teaching career goals with students and faculty in each school’s department, as they might have direct teaching connections or advice.
Hopefully hearing from someone who has been there helps demystify teacher training in graduate school. T.A. duties are a responsibility in almost every chemistry graduate program. They are a useful aspect of your training whether you are interested in teaching or not. Teaching something helps you to understand it in a new way. Additionally, any research position requires you to communicate what you know to others and to be a lifelong learner. Teaching provides skills – from time management to lesson planning to working with a team – that are relevant throughout a graduate career. If you are interested in a teaching career, pedagogical training may be even more critical to your graduate school experience. Advanced teaching opportunities can help make sure your PhD training is relevant to your goals. Whether you are interested in a teaching career or not, hopefully understanding more about what teaching in graduate school is like will help you during the graduate application process…and beyond.
- Emory’s Laney Graduate School: TATTO Training (An overview of Emory’s graduate-level teaching training, a component of which is program-specific T.A. opportunities)
- University of Chicago: Guide for Teaching Assistants (This is a very comprehensive overview of what is required of a T.A. at University of Chicago, including the philosophy behind the training and teaching itself)
- Cornell: Tips for T.A.s (a compilation of advice from experienced graduate T.A.s)
- Tools for Teaching (this is a definitive resource that some schools use as a textbook for graduate T.A.s. It covers practical teaching skills as well as developing a philosophy of teaching.)
- C&EN: My Scanner Ate Your Homework: The Trials and Tribulations of T.A.ing (scroll down to read this specific piece by Mai Kim Tran)