In this post, I outline my favorite alternative to taking out loans for graduate school–finding work as a research or teaching assistant. This post is part 3 of the Make Money in Graduate School Series about options for funding your way through grad school.
When I began grad school in 2010, I took out loans to pay for my first year. Soon, I learned about an incredibly powerful way to fund a graduate education–working as a research or teaching assistant. Especially if you are attending a large research university, this is arguably the best way to fund your way through grad school. You might be guaranteed a position as part of your initial offer from your university, or you might have to seek out opportunities from your advisor and other faculty in your department. Be persistent and get creative, because the benefits are fantastic, both professionally and financially.
Professional Benefits of Being a Research Assistant
Research assistants–sometimes called project assistants–work on a research grant with their advisor or other faculty in their research area. Depending on the project, you might end up helping with research design and implementation, data collection and analysis, or dissemination, which includes presenting at conferences and publishing. Other tasks can include doing background research, preparing materials for your institution’s human subjects review board, recruiting research participants, supervising undergraduate students, and keeping the project data organized and secure. Many research projects extend over many years and have several distinct phases.
Research methods and procedures vary widely by field, so the work you do as a research assistant in a microbiology lab will be very different from the work you do on a project conducting conversation analysis in early childhood education settings. You want to seek a project that aligns with your research interests, because the experience you get working on the project will affect how you craft your own research moving forward, and will determine what jobs you are most qualified for in the next phase of your career. Always think critically about the future value of your current experiences.
Professional Benefits of Being a Teaching Assistant
Teaching assistants, called TAs for short, help teach university courses. These are often popular classes that large numbers of undergraduate students enroll in. Depending on the class, you might largely assist the main instructor of the class, or you might have more responsibility running your own discussion sections or labs with little external oversight. Common responsibilities for teaching assistants include issuing exams, meeting with and mentoring students, preparing lectures, maintaining grades, and leading discussion sections.
The norms for TAs vary widely by university, department, and professor. Being a teaching assistant for a large chemistry lecture class with smaller lab sections will be very different than working as a TA for a small sociology seminar. Ideally, you will be able to TA for classes that are similar to the ones you want to teach someday. If there are specific classes you are interested in, be sure to communicate that to the instructors so you can get on their radar as a future TA. Showing interest and initiative early on can pay off big later on.
I worked as both a research assistant and teaching assistant in grad school. This enabled me to work on some neat projects–like a study of the literacy practices of teenage World of Warcraft players–and lead discussion sections for several classes, including a class on Videogames and Learning. For me, these opportunities were especially rewarding because I was interested in the topics, which closely align with the work I want to do in my own academic career. The skills I acquired as a research assistant prepared me for my current full-time research job as a postdoc. And the classes I was a TA for provided me with ideas and inspirations for classes I hope to teach in the future.
The benefits of research and teaching assistant positions extend beyond just getting great experience, however. For grad students, the financial benefits can make a significant difference with how much additional money you need to borrow (if any), and your quality of life during school. Here are some of the biggest perks:
If you work a certain number of hours each week, most universities will offer remission of your tuition. This is a substantial financial benefit, particularly for out-of-state and international students, but really for anyone. You can save thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars over the course of an academic year. Find out what percentage of your time you need to be employed for (its likely either 33 or 50 percent) and make sure your employment percentage meets, or exceeds, that threshold. If not, consider looking for an additional position or different gig.
Working as a research or teaching assistant often provides you access to health insurance benefits. This takes care of another major cost, particularly if you can’t be on your parents’ insurance and don’t have a partner who is able to put you on their health plan. Some universities offer year-round insurance, and others will require you to pay extra during the fall and spring semester to ensure you are covered throughout the summer. Consult your university’s website or HR staff to confirm the details.
Finally, you’ll get paid for the work you do as a teaching or research assistant. Because most of these positions range from 25 percent to 75 percent of your time, your monthly paycheck might not be very substantial. The expectation is that your time is split between working for the university as a research or teaching assistant, and working as a student of the university, either taking coursework or working on your dissertation.
Covering all your costs of living on a research or teaching assistant salary can be difficult, but many people manage to do it. Except for my first year, I managed to do so and am incredibly happy that I did. My total student loan balance is significantly smaller than it would have been otherwise. To get by, you might consider saving on your rent by living with a roommate, saving on transportation and parking by biking or taking a bus to campus, or adopting other practices that help you to live on a slimmer budget.
Other people choose to subsidize their lifestyles with student loans. If your situation absolutely requires you to do so in order to care for your family or survive, then you might have to do this. However, I strongly suggest that if you are able to get by on your research or teaching assistant salary, you should. Living on student loans for years at a time adds up quickly. When you graduate and have a mountain of debt to pay off, you will likely wish you had lived a more frugal lifestyle in your student years.
If you are unable to, or uninterested in, a position as a research or teaching assistant, stay tuned for more options in the Make Money in Graduate School Series. I will cover options such as using your academic skills for tutoring and freelance work, and finding side jobs that help you pay the bills while feeling balanced and happy.