We’ve all met them – the unsung heroes of your Intro To (Biology, Psychology, History, etc.) class.
Sure, they don’t give the lectures, but that’s about the only responsibility they dodge. Instead, they’re leading lab sessions, holding office hours, proctoring exams, and grading papers.
They’re the Teaching Assistants, or TAs, and they’re a critical part of undergraduate education.
But who are these heroes without capes?
We learn more in this week’s show!
We’re joined once again by Dr. Alaina Talboy, author of What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies. We last talked with her about why you should never refer to yourself as a ‘graduate student!’
This week, she’s here to respond to a listener question sent in by Kristi:
My question is – is there a place for people who just love teaching in academia? My dream one day is to be a professor, but I’m not sure I’d thrive in the “publish or perish” environment.
Dr. Talboy assures us there IS a place in academia for those who want to teach, you just need to know where to look.
And there are plenty of opportunities for graduate trainees to gain experience while also earning that PhD.
Three Types of Teaching Opportunities
There are certainly MORE than just three teaching opportunities for graduate students, but the three below are accessible and require different levels of commitment.
1. Teaching Assistant / Course Assistant
The illustrious TA. As mentioned above, a TA has a wide variety of responsibilities from leading labs to proctoring exams. You’ll be expected to know the course material, attend the lectures, and make yourself available for office hours.
A TA position is often required by the department that takes you on as a graduate trainee. It may be one of the criteria they use to award your stipend, and you’re expected to spend about 20 hours per week on the role.
The challenge is that 20 hours a week doesn’t leave much time for you to take your own graduate-level courses, or to embark on a novel research project. Time management is key at this stage, and Dr. Talboy shares some tips for managing student expectations.
“I always put in my lab syllabus that I answer emails within 24 hours with the exception of the weekend,” she says. “And I do not answer emails beyond 5:00 PM on Friday because I am off work. And that is a really important rule to set up for yourself!”
“Don’t answer emails on weekends, man. Just don’t do it!”
A Course Assistant may have additional responsibilities, like delivering some lectures in lieu of the main professor. It’s a great way to get some experience in front of the class.
2. Instructor of Record
As a TA, you were teaching, proctoring, and grading someone else’s course material. You weren’t expected to create the lesson plans, lectures, homework, or exams.
As the “Instructor of Record” you start with a blank slate and build the course from the bottom up.
This can take from 100-300 hours depending on the course and your level of experience, so it’s not for the faint of heart. You begin by defining the learning objectives you have for the students, then working backwards to develop assessments to test whether students meet the objectives, lessons and homework to tie the material to the outcomes, and lectures to put it all together.
There probably aren’t as many opportunities for graduate trainees to teach at this level, but those passionate about education, and who have gotten some experience as TA or Course Assistant, can speak with the academic director of the department to see whether any course openings are available.
3. Adjunct Faculty
Whether you realize it or not, your classes might be taught by ‘adjunct’ or ‘contingent’ faculty.
These are people with advanced degrees who may teach multiple courses in a given semester. But they aren’t eligible for tenure, they don’t earn a salary, and they receive no benefits.
Universities are employing more Adjunct Faculty than ever, a controversial practice that is considered by some to be exploitation.
But for the graduate student searching for more teaching experience and a bit of extra cash, it’s a way to expand your training on the side.
Teaching one course over a semester might net you between $1,000 and $5,000, but it’s just as much work as the Instructor of Record role above. If you have already taught a certain course a few times and have all of the materials prepared, it could be a safe way to earn a little extra cash by teaching a night-course.
But if you’d have to develop an entirely new course from scratch, it’s almost certainly not worth the time.
Moonlighting, AKA The Side Hustle
Most graduate students believe that it’s against the rules of their program to have any employment outside of their graduate work and the stipend it offers. This is sometimes true (read the fine print!) but often it’s just a belief the students harbor.
There are lots of different reasons you might want or need to get a job ‘on the side.’ You may need the additional income to support a partner or family. You may need the extra income just to support yourself in areas where the cost of living exceeds the stipend.
But many times, students look for additional work that builds on their skills. This might be editing for a journal, tutoring, or teaching a course.
If side jobs are against the rules in your graduate program, Dr. Talboy offers some advice:
Number 1: Don’t get caught. Number 2: Don’t fall behind on your grad school requirements.
If you’re doing well in your classes, making progress in your research and publishing papers, fulfilling other obligations, and you still have the time and energy, then go ahead and try out the side-hustle.
But don’t let that extra cash prevent you from your main goal, which is to graduate! It’s just not worth it.