If you’re considering a graduate degree, how does reduced/no-cost tuition, the ability to gain professional experience during your program, and networking and leadership opportunities sound to you? Too good to be true? Not at all — in fact, these are just a few of the benefits of landing a graduate assistantship while you’re pursuing your degree.
You already know that your degree will expand your career and earning potential, but these benefits can begin even earlier with a graduate assistantship. However, because of their obvious perks, assistantships are also quite competitive. That’s where this guide can help!
Below, explore the various types of graduate assistantships and discover how to find these plum positions. You’ll also get insider tips about how to stand out when you apply. Keep reading to learn how graduate assistantships can ease the financial stress of grad school, help develop your professional network, and enrich your academic experience.
Types of Graduate Assistantships
Graduate assistantships (the assistants themselves are commonly called GAs) come in three primary forms — teaching, research, and general assistantships — all of which provide financial support for graduate students. Additionally, these positions can also enhance your resume while allowing you to develop marketable skills. Continue reading as we dig into each GA type and learn about their unique benefits and responsibilities.
While the specific responsibilities of teaching assistants vary between schools and depending on the professor you’re supporting, teaching assistants (TAs) typically help faculty deliver undergraduate course curriculum. In addition to teaching introductory-level classes, TAs can expect to help professors with course preparation, leading discussions, and grading assignments.
Teaching assistantships can be especially beneficial for students planning to teach in a higher education environment. TAs get the chance to work closely with experienced instructors and gain valuable insight into everything from crafting a syllabus to managing challenging students. Teaching assistantships can also play a significant role in developing your professional network with faculty and peers.
TA opportunities can help offset the cost of your graduate degree while providing vital teaching experiences, but you’ll need to balance the responsibilities of your role with your own coursework and research.
Research assistants (RAs) play an essential part in helping faculty and their teams conduct academic research. Responsibilities for RAs can vary between roles, but you can anticipate designing and conducting experiments, collecting and analyzing data, crafting grant proposals, and assisting in writing research papers.
In addition to benefiting from tuition waivers and stipends, as a research assistant you’ll gain valuable experience that can play a significant role in preparing you for careers in research and academia. And because research assistantships often rely on a team-based approach, the collaborative nature can be especially rewarding while helping you develop your professional network.
Graduate research assistants work in a wide range of scientific and practical fields; here are some of the most common areas that utilize graduate research assistants:
- Biomedical sciences
- Environmental science
- Computer science
- Political science
In addition to teaching and research assistantships, other, more generalized opportunities exist that allow grad students to help offset the cost of their education. General graduate assistantships often encompass a variety of administrative tasks that can include event planning, scheduling, managing budgets, outreach, marketing, IT, and clerical work.
While these assistantship opportunities can vary widely in their scope, they typically offer practical training and experience that can benefit those seeking administrative or academic roles in the future. Like other assistantships, these general positions can help students beef up their resumes while developing lasting professional relationships. You’ll usually be working side by side with one or multiple faculty members, and you’ll likely work out of a campus office or other school facility.
Benefits of a Graduate Assistantship
Graduate assistantships often play a significant role in the grad school experience and offer numerous benefits to grad students. In addition to supplying financial support for your education and living expenses, assistantships provide extensive practical experiences in teaching and research while helping students bolster their resumes and professional networks.
Graduate assistants also get the chance to work closely with experienced faculty who often act as mentors, shepherding their GAs through the challenges they encounter while earning their diplomas. Keep reading as we dive into some of the significant benefits you can expect from your graduate assistantship experience.
Completing your graduate degree can involve a significant investment of both time and money. Thankfully, graduate assistantships offer a convenient way to secure financial support while completing your degree. Rather than accumulating debt through student loans, graduate assistants receive stipends and/or tuition waivers in exchange for their work. The amount of funding can vary, but these can often cover the entire cost of your education.
Additionally, graduate assistantships typically accommodate your class schedules and research obligations. As a result, you’ll rely less on outside employment while spending more time on campus.
Develop New Skills
Learning new and relevant skills is never a bad thing. Graduate assistants have the unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience in teaching and research while receiving financial support. Additionally, while working alongside experienced faculty and researchers, you may be introduced to practical skills like project management, research methodologies, time management, and leadership in a team-based setting. For future college professors, your hands-on experience as a teaching assistant can prove to be a foundational learning experience.
Earn a Paycheck
As a grad student, you’ll spend most of your waking hours at school; might as well get paid to be on campus! While it’s true that not every graduate assistantship will cover all your bills, GA opportunities offer a regular and reliable income, helping you manage your living expenses while easing your financial burden. Plus, you’ll get to couple your paycheck with invaluable on-the-job training you’ll receive from faculty and staff, meaning you’ll receive immediate benefits and some that may even pay well into the future.
Less Grad School Debt
You’re likely well aware that grad school usually comes with a significant price tag, so figuring out how to finance your degree is serious business. That’s where graduate assistant opportunities come in. You may still have some loans, but they’ll likely be much less than if you didn’t work on campus and have the benefits of a graduate assistantship. The amount you can earn from your graduate assistantship can vary, but according to salary.com, the median annual salary for GAs is over $31,000. Factors like school, location, and area of study can all impact how much you can earn.
Whether you plan to remain in academia or pursue a career outside higher education, your networking opportunities as a graduate assistant are ample. Working alongside faculty, researchers, and fellow grad students allows you to establish meaningful professional relationships that can translate into future career opportunities. Additionally, developing professional relationships with respected faculty can translate into valuable recommendations down the line. As a grad student, you’ll also have the chance to attend other networking opportunities like conferences and workshops.
Let’s face it: Graduate assistantships are coveted positions for a reason, and if you earn one, it is a big deal. Being chosen as a graduate assistant means you’ve gone through a competitive vetting process to ensure you’ve got what it takes to flourish in that role.
Having a graduate assistantship on your resume can be a tremendous asset when you’re looking for future academic and professional opportunities. Graduate assistantships indicate academic excellence and dedication to your field of study, signifying to employers that you’d be an asset to their team.
Reduced Tuition Cost
Not all positions offer tuition waivers or reductions, but most do. And because of the rising cost of college, reduced tuition costs can make the difference between incurring significant debt and graduating with a reasonable financial burden. Tuition waivers exempt graduate students from paying tuition entirely, while reductions can decrease costs significantly.
Reduced tuition costs can make it easier on the wallet while easing the stresses and mitigating distractions that come with mounting debt. This financial support allows you to focus your energies on coursework and research, allowing you to perform at your academic best.
In short, a graduate assistantship looks excellent on your resume. Future employers will inevitably notice your commitment to your field of study and consider you a serious asset. Additionally, your assistantship shows that you’ve gained vital experience that’s directly related to your area of expertise. Employers look for more than just academic achievement, and your time as a GA translates to practical experience.
In addition to enhancing your resume, a graduate assistantship can make you stand out from the competition. Because graduate assistantships are inherently competitive, hiring managers may take notice of the fact that you earned this coveted role.
A Few Challenges to Consider
There are seemingly endless benefits to being a graduate assistant, but there are also some challenges inherent to the role. From competitiveness to limited work choices, graduate assistantships do have a few downsides worth considering. Continue reading as we highlight some aspects to weigh before applying for or accepting an assistantship.
Competitive to Earn
It’s worth repeating: Graduate assistantships are highly prized and are often difficult to secure. These resume-boosting opportunities come with academic, financial, and professional benefits, meaning you’re often competing against a sizeable list of graduate students to secure your GA role. Later in this guide, we’ll discuss how you can stand out when applying.
May Not Offer Great Work-Life Balance
Graduate assistantships have the potential to add significant work to an already overloaded schedule. There are a finite number of hours in the day, so it’s vital that you prioritize coursework — you are a grad student, after all. Add GA work to schoolwork, plus personal obligations and a few hours a week for your own wellness, and you’re looking at a potential recipe for burnout.
When researching potential graduate assistantships, be sure that the requirements match up with your academic and personal needs. Take some time to consider what you need to perform best, and plan accordingly.
Pay Trends a Bit Lower Than the Market
Sure, you may receive a tuition waiver while getting paid as a graduate assistant, but you probably won’t get rich from this kind of work during your graduate study. Annual stipends can vary dramatically between schools, with TAs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison making about $23,000 per school year, while Cornell Tech students earn more than $40,000.
When considering your graduate school funding, be sure to take advantage of other financial aid opportunities alongside graduate assistantships. Loans, grants, and scholarships are available to help offset the cost of tuition and living as a grad student.
They May Require Maintaining a Certain GPA
If you’re considering a graduate assistantship, odds are that GPA requirements aren’t much of a concern for you as you’re a standout student ready to compete for a coveted assistantship. That said, some GA positions require more rigorous academic standards to maintain your assistantship.
While GPA requirements shouldn’t discourage you from applying, it’s an important consideration. When tackling your assistantship, you want to go in with your eyes open, fully aware of the significant time and energy you’re about to invest.
Work Choices May be Limited
Graduate assistantships are a limited resource, and there aren’t enough positions for every grad student. As a result, work choices may be limited. You might not get to have much say in the type of work you take on, which can impact your experience and what you take away from it. Still, graduate assistantships can be valuable, even if the position fails to align perfectly with your academic and professional skills and goals.
Where to Find Graduate Assistantship Opportunities
Even before you begin the application process and setting yourself up for success against other qualified candidates, the deceptively simple task of finding the right graduate assistantship can take time and effort. But we’ve done some of the work for you. In the following section, learn practical ways to make use of your network and utilize various online and campus-based tools to find the right graduate assistantship for you.
Start with Your Current School
If your current school offers a graduate program that mirrors your academic and career goals, it might make sense to stay put. Rather than navigating a new school with numerous unknowns, staying at your current school allows you to lean on the network you’ve developed over the years. Familiarity with faculty and staff in your academic area can help boost your chances of earning an assistantship.
In addition to the connections you made during your undergrad experience your prospective graduate school’s administrative personnel can also point you in the right direction of finding assistantship opportunities for graduate school.
Talk to Your Advisor
Your advisor can be an invaluable resource for helping you find a graduate assistantship. Because your advisor is familiar with your skills and goals, they can recommend departments and professors in need of graduate assistants and offer insights into the expectations and requirements for the positions.
Additionally, advisors can help as you navigate the admission process. Advisors can review and provide valuable feedback on application materials while also helping you prepare for any prospective interviews. Your advisor is there to help; be sure to utilize their expertise.
Networking is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but it can be an effective way to help find graduate assistant opportunities. To establish connections and develop your network, consider attending departmental events, seminars, and workshops. Additionally, don’t be a stranger — it’s especially valuable to build relationships with professors and fellow students.
Joining professional organizations in your field and attending conferences and meetings can also offer ways to meet other professionals. Further, you can take advantage of volunteer and internship opportunities related to your area of interest. Finally, online tools like LinkedIn and other social media platforms can help you expand your network.
When searching for graduate assistantships online, start locally by visiting your school’s career center website or on school-based and department-based job boards. When expanding your search to other colleges and universities, be sure to find out when you need to apply and other details to ensure your applications align with grad school applications.
When searching online, be sure to also check out professional organizations in your field. And don’t forget those social media platforms we just discussed, which can also connect you with GA roles in various departments.
Do These 8 Things to Maximize Your Chances of Landing an Assistantship
So, you’ve found a great graduate program that offers assistantship opportunities — what’s next? Because graduate assistantships are so competitive, every element of your application needs to be on point to maximize your chances.
In the following section, we highlight eight things you can do to help you stand out when applying for an assistantship. From application tips to offering up a proper “thank you,” we’ve got you covered. Ensuring you’ve followed these suggestions may require a bit more time up front, but they’ll pay off in the long run when you earn that prestigious assistantship.
Complete your Application Correctly
You’re about to enter (or you’re already enrolled in) graduate school, so this may feel like a rookie suggestion. But it’s worth underscoring how important it is to submit a fully completed graduate assistant application that’s entirely devoid of errors. Use grammar and spell check. Read it and then re-read it. Review the instructions and follow them explicitly. Before you submit the application, it’s also worth having a mentor or trusted peer review the application. A fresh set of eyes can make a world of difference.
Customize Your Application
Due to the competitive nature of assistantships, you don’t want to just treat this like any other job application. Boilerplate applications that are merely copied and pasted are conspicuous and can make you look lazy. Make sure you customize your application and resume for the position.
Additionally, customizing your application means crafting it in such a way that lets your best qualities shine through. It’s useful to assume that others competing for a graduate assistantship are equally (or more) qualified for the role in question. So, what makes you stand out? What skills and experiences do you have that make you a unique and desirable candidate?
Focus on Your Grades
If you’re a few years removed from your undergraduate experience, there’s not much you can do about your transcript. Still, past academic achievement can play a role in determining if you’re a good fit for a graduate assistantship. If your undergrad transcript has blemishes, be sure to highlight personal and professional experiences that make you a quality candidate.
For those still completing their bachelor’s degree: Focus on getting the best grades possible. Grades might not be the sole determining factor in securing an assistantship, but they’re important. This is especially true for coursework that corresponds with your future academic work.
Gain Insight from the Experts
Guides like this one can provide valuable information, but gaining insights from individuals with personal experiences with graduate assistantships can be especially illuminating. While online research and chats with advisors and instructors can help, nothing can compare with the first-hand knowledge of current or former graduate assistants.
Whether at your school or through social media and platforms like Reddit, hearing about the real-world experiences of graduate assistants can help you through the application process and can help you manage your expectations before you apply.
Make Sure You Are Qualified
Even if you submit the perfect application, if you’re not qualified, you won’t have much of a chance to secure an assistantship and its associated funding. Be sure to take the time to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of the position to really determine if you meet all of the requirements.
It’s often unclear if application requirements regarding things like experience and GPAs are hard rules or merely guidelines. If you have questions, take the time to reach out to faculty and staff.
Prepare for the Interview
The interview is often key to earning a graduate assistantship, as it gives your future supervisor a chance to see if you would be a good fit for the role. Being prepared is vital and can help boost your confidence when interview anxiety creeps in. Here are some tips:
- Research the department and faculty you may work with.
- Review your cover letter and resume.
- Be ready to chat about your academic and professional goals.
- Practice answering standard interview questions, such as your strengths and weaknesses.
- Prepare thoughtful questions to ask the interviewer about the assistantship and department.
- Dress professionally.
- Arrive early.
- Practice with someone you trust.
Take it Seriously
All these tips really make it seem like you’re applying for a life-changing job, don’t they? That’s likely because you might be. Securing a graduate assistantship could mean the difference between graduating with abundant student loan debt and graduating free of debt. Your competition will take this process seriously, so you should, too. From gathering application materials to preparing for your interview, be sure to approach this process with passion, seriousness, and professionalism.
Say Thank You & Follow-up
Crafting a thoughtful follow-up email to thank interviewers for the opportunity is a classy move and gives you a chance to reiterate what excites you about the role. And while this gesture of etiquette and politeness won’t make up for any glaring deficits in your application, it certainly doesn’t hurt your chances. If it’s practical and time permits, a handwritten note takes your follow-up to the next level.Consider arriving at the interview with a stack of notecards, and when you’re finished, find a quiet place to spend some time customizing your notes for anyone who interviewed you. Don’t forget to reframe your strengths and interest in the role, reiterate your gratitude for being considered, sign it, and then leave the notes with the department receptionist.
Interview with an Expert on Graduate Assistantships
Jon Morgan is the CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Venture Smarter, a leading consulting firm that specializes in helping startups and small businesses scale and grow. With over nine years of experience in the industry, Jon has a wealth of knowledge and expertise in areas such as strategic planning, market research, and financial analysis. Born and raised in California, he received his MBA from the University of California, Davis where he also held a graduate assistantship. In addition to his consulting work, Jon is also a sought-after speaker and author, sharing his insights on business growth and success with audiences around the world.
What is the typical workload for a graduate assistant, and how does it vary between different assistantship roles?
The typical workload for a graduate assistant can vary depending on the role they are assigned. In my experience, most assistantships require an average of 20 hours per week of work, which can be spread over multiple tasks, such as teaching, research, or administrative duties. However, the workload can vary based on the needs of the department or program.
How much financial support can a graduate student expect to receive from a graduate assistantship, and what additional benefits are typically included?
Financial support for graduate assistantships varies depending on the university, the department, and the program. However, most assistantships offer financial support that includes a stipend, tuition remission or reduction, and health insurance. Other benefits may include professional development opportunities, networking events, and the chance to work closely with faculty members.
What were your key responsibilities as a teaching assistant, and what skills are necessary to excel in this role?
My key responsibilities as a teaching assistant typically involved assisting faculty members in teaching and grading assignments, conducting office hours, and preparing course materials. Skills necessary to excel in this role include excellent communication skills, the ability to work independently and as part of a team, strong organizational skills, and a deep understanding of the subject matter.
What are the benefits of working as a research assistant, and how can this type of assistantship enhance a graduate student's academic and professional development?
The benefits of working as a research assistant include the opportunity to work closely with faculty members, gain experience in research methodologies, and develop valuable skills that can be applied to future academic and professional pursuits. This type of assistantship can also lead to opportunities for publishing research, presenting at conferences, and building a network of professional contacts.
How competitive are graduate assistantships, and what can a student do to increase their chances of being awarded an assistantship?
Graduate assistantships are highly competitive, and many students apply for them each year. To increase their chances of being awarded an assistantship, students can focus on developing strong academic credentials, relevant work experience, and a clear understanding of their career goals. This will ultimately allow them to stand out from the crowd when applying.
What is the process for applying to and obtaining a graduate assistantship, and what are the typical timelines for doing so?
The process for applying to and obtaining a graduate assistantship varies depending on the university and program. Generally, students must complete an application, submit transcripts and test scores, provide letters of recommendation, and undergo an interview process. The timeline for applying and obtaining an assistantship can vary, but students should typically plan to apply several months in advance of the start of the academic year.
How does an assistantship fit into a graduate student's overall academic program, and what are the expectations for academic performance while holding an assistantship?
An assistantship is designed to fit into a graduate student’s overall academic program, and students are expected to maintain a high level of academic performance while holding an assistantship. This includes meeting academic requirements and deadlines, completing coursework on time, and maintaining a strong GPA.
What support and resources are available to graduate students who hold assistantships, and how can they access them?
There are many support resources available to graduate students who hold assistantships. These can include access to mentoring, academic and career advising, professional development opportunities, and support for navigating challenges or issues that may arise during their assistantship. Students can access these resources through their department or program, as well as through the university’s graduate school or student services office.