A Graduate Assistantship is an excellent option for students to pursue who want to line their pockets while studying and gain invaluable insights into their chosen subject or program. Coupled with a wealth of experience that one can amass during an assistantship and building a network of people and information, the prospect of becoming a Graduate Assistant becomes more alluring. There are advantages and disadvantages to being a Graduate Assistant. Still, it is up to the student to decide what they want and whether it makes sense to consider such an ’employment’ option. Be warned that a Graduate Assistantship is serious business and comes with a host of roles, responsibilities, and accountability. Time and effort are of the essence, and diligence to duty, along with exacting discipline, is called for. This article exemplifies what a Graduate Assistantship entails, whom it suits and why it is a compelling alternative to seeking part-time employment outside of campus.

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What is a Graduate Assistant

So, what is a Graduate Assistant? A Graduate Assistant is a graduate student who the university has appointed to assist the Institution, a Program, a Department, or a Faculty Member, in carrying out certain duties. Graduate Assistantships are obtained by applying to the university and are granted based on academic merit and faculty referrals or recommendations. Based on the roles and responsibilities the graduate assistant has to undertake, they receive a tuition waiver or a stipend, or both, that can ultimately fund their studies.

A Graduate Assistantship is invaluable to students who wish to pursue their Ph.D. due to the practical field experience, broader and deeper understanding of their subjects they acquire, and the connections they build with faculty, students, and industry experts.

Types of Graduate Assistantships

There are broadly three types of Graduate Assistantships offered by Universities across the country. These are:

  1. Graduate (Student) Assistants
    The roles and responsibilities of a Graduate Assistant are largely generic and seem administrative. Graduate Assistant Students are expected to assist with program assessments, accreditation, and other academic activities. They plan and organize special events, participate in marketing and recruitment, assist with program development, and guide undergraduate organizations and help with public relations.
  2. Graduate Teaching Assistants
    Graduate Teaching Assistantships are typically awarded at the Master’s or Doctoral level. These assistants are required to work under the mentorship of a faculty member. A graduate teaching assistant’s roles and responsibilities vary, depending on the program, the department, and the university. However, assistants are generally expected to grade class assignments, assist the professor with teaching materials and learning resources, sometimes run an undergraduate laboratory, lead recitation, help or tutor undergraduate students and make presentations as part of a regular class. These are only some of the duties of a Graduate Teaching Assistant. Additional, specific, or other duties could very well be part of the assistantship.
  3. Graduate Research Assistants
    A Graduate Research Assistantship is usually tied up with a research or scholarly project of the faculty mentor. Such a project need not necessarily relate to the student’s project, dissertation or thesis and may be qualitative or quantitative. The roles and responsibilities of a Graduate Research Assistant largely depend on the nature of the research project. They could include examining supporting documents, assisting with literary reviews and design of the project, collecting and organizing research data, and assisting with the actual research.

Difference between Assistantships and Fellowships

The term ‘Fellowship’ is a respected one for the student fraternity, and its exact meaning can vary depending on its scope, offering, and specifics. Fellowships are generally given through monetary benefits in the form of Scholarships at the graduate or postgraduate level. Graduates or pursuing students typically receive additional training in their field and are funded for research, often through stipends. A Fellowship allows students to devote themselves completely towards research or an internship without worrying about external employment to raise additional funds for their education. A Fellowship’s scope is unlimited because it gives the student the freedom to indulge in active, actual, and practical fieldwork, research, experimentation, and study. There is seldom routine work done by way of documentation, assessment, or administration related to the program and/or the university, and demands no real assistance to be offered to faculty members.

An Assistantship, or a Graduate Assistantship, similarly brings with it tuition waivers and a stipend, but the work done is largely related to discharging the department or university’s duties. Assisting the faculty members, the department, undergraduate students, or the university as a whole is what assistantship is all about. Limited in scope, assistantships generally revolve around routine tasks and duties that ensure a program or department’s smooth functioning.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Graduate Assistantships

Depending on the Program, University, financial requirements, and availability of time, Graduate Assistantships can either be an advantage or a disadvantage. The table below lists out some of the advantages and disadvantages Graduate Assistantships carry with them:

Gain Practical Experience Hands-on and practical field experience provides a fillip to coursework and study.Commitment of Time Committing to a work schedule while studying at the same time could be a hard balancing act. Holidays and breaks may have to be sacrificed at times.
Connect & Network with Field Experts Connecting and networking with seniors, industry experts, and faculty members brings invaluable exposure.Lack of Autonomy Working beyond the specific area of interest may be called for, which may sometimes prove counterproductive.
Learn from other Students Learning from peers – young and old, deepens understanding of the subject and opens up the mind to ideas, theories and possibilities.Rote Work It can get boring with routine and rote work such as computing grades, preparing labs, and documentation.
Fund Education Tuition Waivers and monetary compensations help cover the whole/part of the program fee or cover living expenses and perhaps even reduce debt (from student loans).Modest Pay Compared to (part-time) employment, the stipend may not be enticing enough and may not suffice to cover debts, fees, or living expenses entirely.
Convenience Working at the university is far more convenient than working outside of campus, providing almost instant and direct access to the vast resources a University has to offer. 
Reputation & Status The various roles and responsibilities and actual knowledge and experience gained will always look impressive on a Resume. 

Duration of Graduate Assistantships

The length or duration of a Graduate Assistantship depends largely on the university being applied to. The term of the contract for a Graduate Assistantship can be valid anywhere from 10 weeks to 36 weeks or more and maybe full-time or part-time.

Full-time Graduate Assistants have to put in 20 hours per week typically. This 20-hour Graduate Assistantship coupled with class attendance and study is considered a full-time contract. As such, a tight schedule can be hard to cope with; many Universities require the Graduate Assistant to satisfactorily fulfill their responsibilities to the Institution without conflict by outside employment.

Half-time Graduate Assistants are typically required to put in 10 hours per week. The half-time Graduate Assistantship generally caters to the special needs of departments and working students. Here too, a Graduate Assistant is expected to fulfill their responsibilities to the university without any conflict from outside employment, but this can be ignored under normal circumstances.

At the end of each contractual term, a student may reapply for Graduate Assistantship, but it must be noted that renewal is usually neither automatic nor guaranteed. Always check the university’s guidelines for schedules, benefits, application requirements, terms, renewals, and exact information eligibility.

Top 5 tips when applying for Graduate Assistantships

Although the application for a Graduate Assistantship is straightforward, some tips could enhance one’s chances of being engaged for the post. Here are a few:

  1. Understand the Program and its Requirements
    Before even considering a Graduate Assistantship, a student must always assess the program they will take up entails. If the course is demanding and will eat up a substantial amount of time to study for, it is perhaps prudent not to apply for Graduate Assistantship. After all, balancing studies and work is not at all an easy task.
  2. Learn about the assistantship
    Explore the various Graduate Assistantships on offer by the university and go through the listed duties, responsibilities, and other important information such as the department in question and its faculty members. See what benefits are on offer – stipend, waivers, perks, etc., and discern if being a Graduate Assistant is a good idea or not.
  3. Speak with Peers
    Speaking with past or present Graduate Assistants is an excellent way to understand the nuances and practical difficulties of an assistantship. This information will certainly not present itself in a document or on a website. A real insight into a graduate assistant’s duties will establish a better understanding of the job and its ‘hidden’ occupational hazards if they can be termed so.
  4. Build up on Professional Relationships
    Most Universities will ask for professional references when applying for a Graduate Assistantship. Since there is a fair chance that the undergraduate program may not be a shining example of field knowledge or hands-on experience, it is always a good idea to build a strong relationship with faculty members and mentors. References are very powerful in any application to assistantship because professors who refer the candidate often emphasize their study habits, work ethics, ability to succeed, preparedness, and more. All of this adds substantial weight and credibility to the candidature.
  5. Evince value
    Many students seek a Graduate Assistantship, and this unavoidable competition to bag the prestigious post can be rather a challenge. Aside from the usual transcripts that may be required, showcasing one’s past employment, skills, and education leading up to graduate school, is recommended. Adding volunteer work, internships, special projects worked on, and even any undergraduate research will add heft to the application and provide an edge over other candidates. All in all, professors should see how the applicant can bring in or add value and help advance their research, department, or the university, making them the ‘natural choice’ over other applicants in the fray.

FAQs about Graduate Assistantships

Frequently Asked Questions

How to get a graduate assistantship?

A Graduate Assistantship may be applied at a University that the student is enrolling. Typically, the application process begins at least a semester before the start of the assistantship. The Application procedure varies by university, but its requirements are largely the same.

Do graduate assistantships cover tuition?

How to ask for a graduate assistantship?

How much do graduate assistants make?

Why do you want to be a graduate assistant?

Where are assistantships available?

What are the responsibilities of a Graduate Assistant?

How many hours must a Graduate Assistant work each week?

Additional Resources for Graduate Assistantships

It is always safer and better for a Student to consider a Graduate Assistantship at least a few months before applying for one, and use this time for research and preparation. There are not too many Graduate Assistantships resources, so seeking help from professors and mentors is always a good idea. However, here are a few resources one could use to gain further insight into Graduate Assistantships:

  • Colorado State University (CSU): CSU provides many assistantship resources and policies. Students can get an understanding of policy for graduate assistantships and see these work in universities. It is important to note that these resources and policies are CSU specific.
  • Best Practices – There are many best practices that students can follow to land graduate assistantships. And the Chronicle of Higher Education has provided them here.
  • Resume for Graduate School – Here is a resource from Online Masters Colleges (OMC) that helps students land a graduate assistantship.
  • Other forms of financial aid: This resource shows how students can fund their graduate school.
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