What Is a Teaching Assistant? How to Become One

What exactly is a teaching assistant in college, and how do you become one? Learn more about what TAs do and the qualifications required.
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  • Teaching assistants can be undergraduate or graduate students.
  • Teaching assistants grade papers, hold conferences, and give course lectures.
  • Becoming a teaching assistant is rewarding and can help you build your resume.

A teaching assistant is often a graduate student who serves either as the teacher of record in a college course or as an academic assistant to a professor. Sometimes, they can be undergraduates.

Teaching assistants can work at colleges, universities, and professional schools. Their role can vary greatly from school to school. Some teaching assistants design and teach courses, while others are primarily responsible for grading assignments and fielding questions during office hours.

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What Does a Teaching Assistant (TA) Do?

Some colleges have introductory courses in a subject area instructed solely by teaching assistants. You may find them teaching your smaller classes, such as an introductory English course.

Composition and rhetoric, for example, is a writing-intensive course for which some universities cap the classes at 25 students and have TAs leading so students can get feedback from their instructor. Other times, TAs will support a professor who is the teacher of record.

This often occurs when courses have a large enrollment and are held in bigger classrooms or lecture halls. If a course meets for three sessions each week, the professor might lecture once a week, and the teaching assistant will lecture the remaining sessions.

Teaching assistants, in this case, do not have primary responsibility for teaching the course. They often take on the responsibilities of grading papers and answering questions about course material that students may have.

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Graduate vs. Undergraduate TA: What's the Difference?

When the majority of people think of teaching assistants, they are actually thinking of graduate teaching assistants. A graduate teaching assistant is a person who is enrolled at a university studying in a graduate program.

Most graduate teaching assistants are pursuing their doctoral degrees in that field. Acting as a graduate teaching assistant can demonstrate a specialization in your chosen field to a future employer and highlight leadership experience.

For some doctoral candidates who would like to become professors themselves, assuming this position will give them invaluable teaching experience that can help them stand out on their resumes.

An undergraduate teaching assistant is a person who is still earning a bachelor’s degree. They are generally in their junior or senior year of study. In their duties, they help a professor with one or more classes over a semester.

They attend the class the professor teaches, provide the enrolled students tutoring, and often respond to student emails answering questions about the course.

How Do I Become a Teaching Assistant (TA)? 4 Steps

If you're interested in becoming a teaching assistant, here are a few steps you will need to take to become a teaching assistant at your college.

1. Fulfill School Requirements

Students who wish to become teaching assistants need to meet their school’s individual requirements. For an undergraduate teaching assistantship, applicants are usually required to be a junior or a senior.

The school may also require that applicants have good grades in the classes they are interested in before teaching it. Because each school has its own requirements, it is best to reach out to your academic advisor to determine your school's individual requirements.

2. Apply for the TA Position

When you apply for the position, you need to know that there is going to be competition. Many schools will require you to submit your transcripts if you previously attended other schools. If you're a graduate student, they may request you submit your undergraduate transcripts.

Letters of recommendation are usually part of the application. It's best to select professors who are familiar with your academic background and experience working with others.

If you have prior teaching experience, recommendation letters from those who've seen your teaching methods would be ideal.

3. Prepare for the Interview

Most colleges require an interview prior to hiring you for a teaching assistant position, so be sure to prepare for this. Oftentimes they'll ask you questions about handling different problems or issues that may occur within the classroom.

Even if you don't have firsthand teaching experience, you can explain how you've felt as a student and how you wished your instructor would have handled the situation. This will demonstrate your ability to communicate and resolve problems on your own.

4. Attend Training

If you're selected to be a teaching assistant, most colleges have prerequisite training you'll need to attend. This training often occurs a few weeks before the start of the semester, though some colleges host a few throughout the year as well.

Training sessions are critical — they give you details on your job expectations and invaluable tips and tricks to be successful. Following these suggestions in your training can also ensure you're invited back to continue as a teaching assistant the following semester.

How Much Do Teaching Assistants (TAs) Make?

Undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants make a modest salary. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a full-time teaching assistant was $38,040 as of May 2021.

Teaching assistant salaries can vary depending on whether you're an undergraduate or graduate teaching assistant and the specific course load you're teaching.

Many graduate assistants only have the availability to TA part time due to the full-time course load they're taking. Part-time TAs average 2-3 sections a semester, reducing their salaries to about half of the median salary at many colleges.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teaching Assistants

What are the benefits of being a TA?

One of the greatest benefits of becoming a teaching assistant is that you can work on campus and build your resume for your chosen field while enrolled as a student.

You can demonstrate to future employers or graduate programs your work ethic, ability to communicate effectively, and ability to manage time appropriately.

Furthermore, becoming a TA can help you foster a strong relationship with the professor who may act as a mentor and be a helpful bridge into graduate school by assisting you with applications and securing recommendations.

Should I become a TA?

You should consider becoming a teaching assistant if you have a strong desire to help others master the course material. A teaching assistant should be fully vested in the success of their students.

Additionally, becoming a teaching assistant will help you gain a deeper understanding of the material you're presenting. This will benefit you in your future studies if you plan to attend graduate school in that field or want to pursue a teaching career.

What skills should a TA have?

A teaching assistant should have great organizational skills, good people skills, and excellent time management.

As a teaching assistant, you should be able to grade papers efficiently, communicate to your department and your students promptly, and present course material in an organized and easy-to-understand manner.

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