Understand your Teaching Assistant

by James

in Teaching

Why is it highly unusual to have a TA who answers 700 emails a week and gives rogue review sessions?

The bottom line is something that you’ve probably guessed by now:  TA’s are generally too busy with their own research projects to devote themselves wholeheartedly to teaching.

It might help you to understand why this is.  I can only speak from my own experience, but it’s likely similar to thousands of other TA’s out there in academia.

How Graduate School Works*

TA’s are generally pulled from the ranks of graduate students. A graduate student is someone who has finished their undergraduate degree and is now enrolled in a M.Sc. or Ph.D. program.

To earn a Ph.D., a graduate student works in the laboratory of a research supervisor, performing original research on a project that is supported by funds from grants and other sources.  Graduate students do not generally pay tuition [note 1]; barring scholarships, the costs for tuition, as well as a modest stipend, are paid for out of the supervisor’s research funds.

Although most graduate students do not pay tuition, it is common for them to “pay their way” by contributing their labor as a teaching assistant. It’s win-win-win for the department, supervisor, and graduate student : the department needs skilled but  relatively low-cost individuals to supervise laboratories and to give supplementary problem solving sessions; the supervisor has their research costs defrayed [note 2]; the graduate student earns a stipend.

Note that last line: earn a stipend. Being a TA is a job. It pays the bills, but it’s probably not the reason they’re in graduate school in the first place.

A TA’s Primary Focus Is Their Ph.D. Research

Put yourself in the position of a graduate student. What’s your motivation for spending 5 or more years in the graduate school trenches?

1. To gain in-depth knowledge about a particular subject; to be experts in their field.

2. To gain research experience

3. To earn an academic credential and research track record that leads to a paid position in academia or industry.

The most important person in the graduate student’s professional life is their research supervisor, otherwise known as a principal investigator (PI). A great reference letter from a research supervisor can open doors to employment as well as the opportunity to work in prestigious research laboratories. The surest way to the PI’s heart is to perform lots of high quality research that results in publications widely read scientific journals.

In organic chemistry, that means lab time. A *lot* of it.

So where does  teaching fit into this? Well, it gets squeezed out.

It’s not that there aren’t benefits to doing a great job as a TA. Teaching a subject is the surest path to truly understanding it.  For graduate students, it’s also an opportunity to act as a mentor and role model for undergraduates,  people that were in your position just a few short years ago. And for students who earn excellent evaluations, there is the opportunity to win departmental teaching awards (which can be handy when applying for future teaching positions).

If you look at the incentives of the graduate student and the incentives of the research supervisor, there aren’t any factors that would lead any but the most exceptional students to go above and beyond the call of duty for their TA responsibilities. I could try tell you I was one of those outliers in graduate school, but I’d be lying. Research came first.

Put it this way. When I went into my Ph.D. defence, I had to field lots of questions from my committee about different experiments I ran, how certain reactions worked, and different research pathways I could have taken. All research-related questions.  Nobody on my committee said, “you spent too much time in the lab and not enough time teaching.”

I’m not saying that’s good or bad. It’s just the way that it is.

So if you have a TA who is willing to answer all of your emails, take your phone calls, and give extra review sessions, count yourself extremely lucky: you’ve got somebody special.


*This is from the perspective of research-intensive American (and Canadian) graduate schools. I’m less familiar with how things work in Europe and the rest of the world, as well as at smaller colleges.

[Note 1]  At my (Canadian) graduate school, I was responsible for paying my own tuition [which was much lower than at a typical big US school]

[Note 2]  It’s possible for a PI  to “buy out” a student from teaching for a semester, but this would come at additional cost. So whether this is actually a “win” is debatable, but it does keep costs lower than they would be otherwise.

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