Graduate Assistantship 101

This semester I got the awesome opportunity to be a graduate assistant at my university (and in my department, which is actually 10x better, and more practical for what I want to accomplish.) For those who are looking into being a graduate assistant, I am here to give a basic rundown of responsibilities, compensation, balancing work and school, and finding a graduate assistantship.

Graduate Assistantships 101 | Are you in the market for getting a new graduate assistantship? Click through to read all about what graduate assistants do, how you get compensated, how to balance school and work with a graduate assistantship, and how to find a graduate assistantship.

Important Lingo

First and foremost, if you are looking for an assistantship job at your school, you will probably come across these three terms: graduate assistant, teaching assistant, and research assistant. Each of these are a bit different and here's why:

Graduate assistant

I think of a graduate assistant as someone who definitely does more general work. I will explain more in depth on what I do as a graduate assistant and what some others do as graduate assistants in a little bit. Graduate Assistants can help with professors work, work in an office setting on campus, and a whole lot more. I think that sometimes a Research Assistant (RA) or a Teaching Assistant (TA) may also be considered a Graduate Assistant (GA) but not always.

Graduate assistants work in a variety of settings on campus from academic to housing and student life. Graduate assistant work is so varied and it really depends on where you are placed as to what work you will be doing. I personally work in an academic setting and so do the people that I sent questions to for this particular blog post.

Teaching Assistant

A teaching assistant usually teaches classes. They are usually in charge of introductory level classes or possibly teaching a few sections of a lab. Their job is to get in the classroom and actually help the department with some of the course loads. Alternatively, they may not teach a class per sé, but they may be helping a professor with the course load, grading papers, attending class and helping ease the mind of students, etc.

Research Assistant

A research assistant's job is usually helping with research in a particular field. They are actually working on a study, writing the papers, etc. and that is their sole job as an RA. Professors, as a part of their tenure track, usually have to be working on some form of research so hiring research assistants to help them with this task is crucial.

Which is right for you?

Honestly which you are a part of depends on a lot of factors. Sometimes being a teaching assistant might require an amount of training or a specific proficiency in a subject area. Being a research assistant might be a matter of knowing about the position opening to begin with. Overtime you will be able to see which assistantship is right for you and it will also come with what is actually open and what your professors believe that you qualify for.

What does a graduate assistant do?

The responsibilities of a graduate assistant vary greatly. It really depends on where your graduate assistantship is and who exactly you are helping. Graduate assistantships are going to vary wildly depending on if you get your GA position within an academic department or some other college atmosphere. When there are graduate programs, there are usually lots of different places on campus that have graduate assistants. 

A Brief Look At My Job As A graduate Assistant

My job definitely changes daily. Essentially I work 20 hours a week with two professors in the CSG (Criminology, Sociology, and Geography) Department at my university. My professors both do a mixture of Criminology and Sociology. On Tuesday/Thursdays I attend class with one of my professors and help him with miscellaneous tasks like passing out papers, taking attendance, reading random passages, grading papers; but for the most part I am there to observe the class. Overtime I have had the ability to be alone in the classroom showing movies and overseeing/leading group discussions. It's a class on Collective Behavior which is really fun to help out with. It's also really fun to watch the class in that way--I am not a student (but I am also not teaching) it's definitely an interesting way to get into the classroom and become more comfortable in a more advanced classroom role.

When I am not going to class I am doing random behind the scenes organizational tasks like keeping up with Excel Spreadsheets, entering grades into Blackboard, labeling folders, and other tasks as assigned. I have also become a professional coffee drinker along the way. My latest project has been helping out with a survey that was done over SurveyMonkey and making daily reports to professors for extra credit.

Overall my tasks vary depending on the time of year and what my professors need, but it has been fun getting to see what they do academically as well as research wise.

Sockwun Phng

I sent a few questions over to Sockwun of Extra Extravagant. Sockwun is in her second semester as a graduate student and assistant. Sockwun is a teaching and research assistant where she teaches a foundation composition course and does research on linguistics. She offered this look into her job as a graduate assistant and why she loves it so much:

As a teaching assistant, I am responsible for teaching one section of foundation composition or freshman composition, as some schools call it. I am a stand-alone teaching assistant, so I do everything from lesson planning to grading. For my research assistantship, I am working with two faculty members on a new research endeavor where we look at the roles (or possible roles) of eye-tracking technology in language learning. We’re still in the beginning stages, so my responsibilities include doing research into the technology itself and what has been done with it in the past. I love being a GA (even though it takes up the bulk of my time) because it gives me real-life experience of teaching and conducting research at the university level, which is what I eventually want to do.
— Sockwun Phng

Iesha thompson

I also sent a few questions over to Iesha Thompson of LivingLesh. Iesha is finishing up her time as a graduate assistant and in her last semester of graduate school. She works in the Dean's Office of her universities College of Education. This is what Iesha does and why she loves her job:

As a GA, I am responsible for a lot of the clerical work in my office. On an average day, I am updating student information, assisting with any projects that need to be completed, and answer all student and faculty emails and phones calls that come to the office. It is a lot of work and I am busy the entire time that I am in the office, which is why I like the experience so much. Being a GA has taught me how to handle a fast paced career and multitask, which is something that I wasn’t able to do much of before.
— Iesha Thompson

do you get compensated for your work?

Yes, you definitely get compensated for your work. It really depends on the school as to how you get compensated for your graduate assistantship. I am not going to get into the specifics of the finances, but you should definitely be able to survive.

At my school regular graduate assistants get a paycheck every two weeks as our compensation. If you are a research assistant in my department (CSG) you get a higher salary for your paycheck, plus your tuition is paid for through the grant that funds the research assistants. At some schools you may get a stipend or paycheck plus your tuition or school paid for. It really just depends on the school you attend, what kind of assistant you are, and who is funding your position.

You should always expect that your school will pay you for your work during the time that you are a graduate assistant. 

How do you balance school and work?

As I am just starting my graduate assistantship--I say that my tip is definitely to schedule everything and keep up with your time.  Graduate assistantships require a lot of work, added on the fact that you are in graduate school so you need to make sure you are able to find time to do the work you need to do for all your classes. While your graduate assistantship might take up a lot of your time, it is important to note that without a good grade in graduate school you will not be able to keep your position for long.  Write down the tasks that you need to do and when they need to be done by with your graduate assistantship and also take time to understand what is needed of you in school. Downtime is time that can be spent with your graduate assistantship or at school. Depending on your position and the time of year you may be way busier with your graduate assistantship than normal so be as flexible as possible to when you can get work done.

Sockwun's tips for balancing school and work.

I cannot stress enough the importance of time management. The first thing to understand is that GA work, although it varies from institution to institution, might end up taking up more of your time than your classes do, and if your assistantship is like mine where the work differs from your own research interests (I’m in second language acquisition, but my teaching is in composition studies and research in computer-assisted language learning), learning to compartmentalize these three components was the best way I found for me to balance them. My best tip then is to define specific days when you’ll focus on GA work or on school work. By scheduling days instead of time blocks, it gives you leeway to sneak some school work into a GA-specific day (or vice versa), which comes in very handy during busy times of the semester.
— Sockwun Phng

Iesha's Tips For Balancing School and WOrk.

My best tip is just to keep on top of your schedule. I found time to do most of my work for class and other things during the weekends because I worked my GA position during the week and also maintained two other positions at outside jobs. Just know your limits and your priorities. Not everyone can take on all of the work that comes with being a GA, a blogger, a student, and having other jobs - so make sure to know where to draw the line.
— Iesha Thompson

How did you find your graduate assistant position?

My first semester of graduate school I did not have a graduate assistantship. I may have talked about this on the blog before, but I really didn't know if I wanted to attend AState so I turned down an interview for a graduate assistantship my first semester. During that semester I had a class with a professor who really encouraged me to take the extra step and apply for a graduate assistantship within the department. Luckily, they were hiring two additional assistants mid-year due to some movement within the graduate assistants so I was able to take one of the new positions on.

Obviously, in this case, finding my GA position was a matter of talking with a professor and realizing the position was open. Without my professor I probably wouldn't have known the position was even open or who to ask about it. I probably also wouldn't have asked because I still wasn't sure about returning to graduate school, but the job gave me a reason to return to graduate school.

Sockwun's advice for finding your GA Position

I’m not sure how other schools do it, but at Iowa State, the GA application is a part of the application process where if you’re interested in being considered for one, you just have to state your interests and include some extra application materials. That’s how I got mine. However, not everyone chooses to do it that way because they might want to use the first, easier semester to find their footing and get used to graduate school. After that, my best tip for finding a GA position, from seeing how my cohort has been doing it, is to decide what type of assistantship you want (teaching or research) and asking if anyone’s offering one. For teaching assistantships, you can get in touch with your department (or any department you’re interested in teaching for) and asking if they have TA opportunities. Most departments are always looking for TAs for the 100- and 200-level foundation courses. For research assistantships, if you’re new to the program, you can ask your advisor/major professor if they know of anyone looking for an RA. If you’re more familiar with the faculty and what their research interests are, you can approach them to see if they’re looking for an RA.
— Sockwun Phng

Iesha's advice for finding your ga position

My best tip is to not just apply everywhere. Apply for an assistantship that you think that will be the best for you. As I am transitioning out of my current GA position, I am interviewing candidates who are looking to take my place, and it become obvious that some of the candidates are applying just because they want any assistantship and not because they are actually interested in this particular one - it ruins the interview and leaves them without the possibility of filling the position. I found mine through looking at the positions and seeing which one would be relative to me. I only applied to one and I actually got it. As a teacher, I applied to a graduate assistantship in the College of Education, so my knowledge of the college and their responsibilities made me the best candidate.
— Iesha Thompson

Getting the most out of your graduate assistantship

As a thank you for viewing this great and detailed post about graduate assistantships, I have put together a little mini-ebook all about graduate assistantships. This is called "Getting The Most Out Of Your Graduate Assistantship" and enclosed are five great tips on getting the most of your assistantship. To get this list sign up to my email list by using the form below. You will then be emailed my awesome guide as well as some great resources for graduate students.


I hope that all of the information provided here today was extremely helpful as you begin to make decisions about what you want from graduate school and potentially decide to take on a graduate assistantship. It is a lot of work, but I wouldn't trade this experience for the world. For me it's a chance to be in the academic world, make connections, and grow in my professional abilities. What more could you want?

I want to give a huge shoutout to Sockwun of Extra Extravagant and Iesha of LivingLesh. These girls were so instrumental with their advice to this blog and I feel like with their expertise and different areas of working they give such a robust picture of graduate assistantships in their many forms. They also both have amazing blogs so don't forget to check them out.

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Amanda Cross

My name is Amanda Cross and I am the blogger behind The Happy Arkansan. I am a 20 something college graduate, graduate student, and all around awesome person.

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