February 14, 2017

Teaching Assistantships: An opportunity, not a chore

Posted by AGU Career Center

By Seth Stein, Amir Salaree and Edward Brooks

For three hundred years, physicists debated whether light was a wave or a particle, before agreeing that it was both. Perhaps similarly, graduate students have long debated whether working as a teaching assistant was a chore or an opportunity.

Certainly, TAing sometimes feels like a chore, especially in introductory/distribution courses, flippantly called “rocks for jocks” or “moons for goons,” where some students are unmotivated and soak up lots of your time and emotional energy. Arguing over grades and dealing with cheating is frustrating. Even so, we think on the whole, TAing is an opportunity that can do you good.   Here’s why:

TAing is a real job

To the students in it, a course looks pretty simple. As a TA looking from the outside in, you realize it’s a complicated system involving coordinated lectures, labs, homework, tests and other aspects. And you know that it is the TA’s job to make it work. As a TA, you are both the student and the teacher; that gives you insight into which parts work well, which don’t, and why. You can use this insight both to improve the course and in your future career, whether you’re teaching or doing similar things in another setting.

TAing builds communication and presentation skills

Explaining scientific concepts looks easy when the professor does it. When you have to do it, you realize how much work is involved.  Concepts that seem to need only one-minute explanations can take hours of preparation, requiring countless different formulations and graphics until you find a version you like. Some explanations will be effective. Others won’t and you’ll have to look for an alternative. When you get it right, you’ll know it and feel good about it.  The experience will help no matter what your future career.

TAing deepens your understanding

Developing clear explanations of topics in class takes a lot of thought. Sometimes you’ll realize that the explanation given in lecture or the text wasn’t that good, and you can do better. That realization will help the students, as well as your growth as a scientist.

TAing is great preparation for qualifying exams

Grad students often get in trouble on qualifying exams for not knowing basics about a subject that’s not exactly what they’re usually working on.  This is especially a problem for those whose undergrad degree was in another discipline. TAing elementary courses is a great way to review – or learn – the basics.

TAing develops your teaching skills

You probably think you’re a good teacher – just as 80% of people surveyed consider themselves above-average drivers – so TAing gives a reality check. You’ll quickly discard bad approaches and replace them with better ones.

TAing can improve your English

If English isn’t your native language, TAing is a great way to improve it. You’ll talk to lots of students about many different topics, in situations where they’ll expect an immediate response, and you’ll get immediate feedback about whether or not they understand you.  You’ll learn to use visual aids and written material to support your spoken explanations. If you take it seriously, you’ll get good at it.  Don’t worry too much about your accent – the students want clarity, friendliness, and help, not diction.  Many TA’s are very successful despite English not being their native language.

TAing involves tough decisions

Helping assign grades and dealing with possible cheating cases forces you to think carefully about how to be sensible and fair – a skill you’ll need no matter how your career evolves.

TAing builds bridges with faculty

Doing a good job for a faculty member other than your advisor makes a good impression that is likely to pay off in useful advice, suggested opportunities, recommendations, or other help.

TAing helps you

Research can get solitary and frustrating – it’s easy to go for weeks without accomplishing anything. If you’ve helped some students, you have something to show and feel better.

TAing pays it forward

A few years ago, some TA helped you, perhaps even influencing the career path you’re on. You probably won’t get a chance to thank them – but you can pass the favor on by doing the same for someone else.

In summary, we think TAing is an opportunity. You can do something that’s good for yourself, good for other people – and get paid for it.

Seth Stein is William Deering Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University and president-elect of AGU’s Natural Hazards focus group. Amir Salaree and Edward Brooks are graduate students in geophysics and TAs at Northwestern University.