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Is TA'ing as horrible as I am imagining?


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Hello all. I am a prospective graduate student starting in the fall. While deciding on a school, one deciding factor is the requirement to be a TA. Most of my schools don't require it or it is optional, but at one school I am considering, it's required. I have spent over a year tutoring students, but they were all students in my major and cared somewhat about the subject and their class grade. I will be teaching a lab class to non-majors, who may or may not have an interest in science or even doing well in the course. I don't feel as if I will be a good instructor or enforcer, and am worried I will be so nervous that they will see through me. I don't want to rule out an otherwise good fit because the TA requirement has me worried. During the interview I asked the students if they had any problems with TA'ing. Obviously there were some concerns, but they all said that it wasn't as bad as they thought, and some even liked it. I felt better, but was also skeptical that they were holding back just because the whole point of the weekend is to convince me to attend, not to scare me away! Any outside opinions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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I think you should try to observe a current TA teaching a course that you would likely end up teaching.  That will give you an idea of what you might have to do as a TA, how to set up your lessons, etc.  If TA'ing is not for you, it is okay to admit it and go somewhere else.  If you are willing to give it a try, make sure you know what you're walking into; undergrads NEED labs that are taught by TA's who want to be there.  In undergrad some years ago, i had the unfortunate experience of a lab taught by someone "made" to do it and they were absolutely terrible and I learned nothing, despite my willingness and desire to learn (it was economics). 

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I think you should try to observe a current TA teaching a course that you would likely end up teaching.  That will give you an idea of what you might have to do as a TA, how to set up your lessons, etc.  If TA'ing is not for you, it is okay to admit it and go somewhere else.  If you are willing to give it a try, make sure you know what you're walking into; undergrads NEED labs that are taught by TA's who want to be there.  In undergrad some years ago, i had the unfortunate experience of a lab taught by someone "made" to do it and they were absolutely terrible and I learned nothing, despite my willingness and desire to learn (it was economics). 

 

This is an excellent idea! Thank you! I will contact a graduate student and try to set this up. I know how you feel. My very first undergraduate biology course, not just the lab, was taught by a guy who was either a graduate student or a new grad in chemistry and not biology. While he knew the material, he was not the best teacher. I excelled in AP biology in high school, but struggled in his chemically based biology class, and ended up having to take the course over with an actual biologist.

Edited by ion_exchanger
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I love TAing. I've had good and bad experiences, everyone will, but overall- I think it's an important and valuable experience for graduate students.

 

Also, if you think you may want to go into teaching later, it's a must for the experience...but it may also shape your decision/opinion of teaching.

 

As mentioned above, sit in on a lab and even a lecture! It's helpful! Also, your school may have a Center for Learning and Teaching that offers courses/workshops/seminars on teaching higher education. If your school does have it, I would recommend talking to them- they are amazing!

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I agree with Dal PhDer, it is a great way to get your feet wet if you are considering teaching in the future. One thing I'd like to add as a pro for TAing is that it gives you a different perspective on your own work. Being able to explain what you do (or something related to what you do) to a non-expert is a really good skill to have, and it is not always easy. Scientists will always have to prove why their work is relevant to the larger community and I think communication is becoming more and more important.

 

I remember being nervous when I first came to grad school. Not only had I never TAed before but English is not my native language and it was my first year in the US. There were ups and downs but once you get into the grind, it isn't that bad. Sure, not all students care about the class but the people that are genuinely 

interested more than make up for the ones who aren't. This semester, I am back to TAing after a year of RAship. I would lie if I said that getting up at 6 am two days a week is fun (never got up before 10 last year) but I can honestly say that if it hasn't made me a better researcher, it definitely has made me a better person.

 

So don't let the prospect of TAing stop you from going to a good program.

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 One thing I'd like to add as a pro for TAing is that it gives you a different perspective on your own work.

 

Two giant thumbs up in 'yes yes yes!' 

 

I TA a research methods class where students need to write a full proposal with a question, lit review, methods, etc....reading 90 proposals each semester for the last 3 years has helped MY writing SOOO much. Peer review is an excellent way to learn, so TAing is just as valuable to learning for students as any other class!

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I liked TAing and I will probably always talk about it. I came into the course hesitant to TA believing that I was underqualified and that it might be a waste of my time. I was proven wrong within a month.

 

Sure, some of the students get whiny and are stubborn or are trying to find an "easy A." But after a few sessions, they don't be annoyances anymore. Some of them actually get re-engaged in the work when they realize you mean to help them, not do their work, or give out free A's or become their friend (Though I did end up befriending some of my students :D), but to legitly help them. Teaching to non-majors is tough, but as long as you make it a class that doesn't put down the non-majors, it's doable. My colleague TA'd for a nonmajors and started out by saying "Since you aren't even majoring in this, I'm sure you won't understand it, but let's try to get through it." and had a rough semester -- and for good reason. So don't do that haha.

 

Also TAing is an interesting challenge. Trying to explain the material to students who don't get it the first time really makes you brush up on your basics. Concepts that  you understand from the get-go may be the concepts that your students cannot understand. So now you're gonna have to rethink and approach it from a different point of understanding and explanations -- which will only help you in the long run as a researcher. I mean, if an experiment fails, you go back and try to approach your project in another way, right? Learning how to shift your mind will be a boon in the future. 

 

I definitely recommend contacting the previous TA. My friends in biology all created our own little makeshift TA hang-out, so I'm sure your fellow cohorts in the program will lend you moral support, so don't worry about "going at it alone." If you are thinking about how to beat your nervous feelings, maybe practice it with them, something like that. Also, I think you overestimate fellow students, half the time, my students didn't realize I was nervous (I was teaching to some people 5 years older than me) because they were concerned with understanding the class and getting a good grade xD

 

So don't count it again a program if they make you do a TA. See it as a plus thing. Plus it never hurts if you're even seeking that elusive tenure track faculty position in the far future :P

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Thanks for the replies everyone. I would basically be teaching an introductory lab class, where I would teach things like how to use a microscope, how to streak plates, etc. There is a class that is required for all TA's to take, so that helps as well. I do not have any plans to go into teaching, I would I agreee with all the points of being able to explain a subject shows mastery of that subject.

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Thanks for the replies everyone. I would basically be teaching an introductory lab class, where I would teach things like how to use a microscope, how to streak plates, etc. There is a class that is required for all TA's to take, so that helps as well. I do not have any plans to go into teaching, I would I agreee with all the points of being able to explain a subject shows mastery of that subject.

 

That sounds like the class I TA. I teach an introductory physiology lab for nonscience majors... I thought that I would hate it, but I actually love it. There will be a student every once in a while that drives you crazy, but the others make up for it. One of the most amazing things as a TA is when you see the students finally make the connections and get excited about the labs. I don't mind staying until the end of class when they are actually interested in exploring the frog or are asking me questions about the rats and mice.

 

These are undergrads just out of high school... so there are going to be those that try to walk all over you and will cause issues, but as long as you make your expectations clear at the beginning and stick to them, you will not have many issues.

 

Even if you won't be teaching later in life, they're right that this will help you show mastery of the subject. I've given presentations to the faculty and other students in my department, which is fairly easy. It can be much more difficult to simplify the subject for high school and freshman undergrads once you've progressed to graduate level classes; you have to simplify things so much and be so concise with the information that you give the students that it really requires a ton of background knowledge.

I don't know if you're going into industry or not, but there will be times when you have to talk to non-science people or the general public about what you do. This experience is really going to help you be able to converse with them about your research and what you do. Honestly, I couldn't talk to my grandparents about my research until after I'd TAd for a couple semesters. Now it is so much easier for me to adjust my explanations depending on my audience.

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With the first semester of grad school, I would be dealing with TA'ing, rotation in a research lab, as well as classes. Another concern I had with TA'ing is the amount of work and time that is required, it seems overwhelming when I hear about it. I know it can be done, since all the graduate students were required to go through it, but it seems exhausting.

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If you are concerned about this, can you fix your schedule so you have less courses to take the semester you TA? Or could you ask if you could TA the second semester? Perhaps there's a graduate advisor who can answer these questions.

 

When I TA'd I was scheduled for 15 hours of work per week. I definitely went over that limit some weels, due to the nature of the course, and I believe that prepping for labs may take longer, but I can't really say since I didn't TA a lab, I only know people who did. It can be exhausting, but some of that can be ameliorated if you schedule your time well/ prepare for potential crazy times during the semester. What I did was get a huge calendar and sort of plan which weeks I know TAing will take more time (if the students have quizzes/tests/major project or presentations coming up, they will demand more time, and grading all those take a lot of time after) and tried to plan out my schedule. This can only be done after you receive the syllabus of all courses, so this might not help you yet. 

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With the first semester of grad school, I would be dealing with TA'ing, rotation in a research lab, as well as classes. Another concern I had with TA'ing is the amount of work and time that is required, it seems overwhelming when I hear about it. I know it can be done, since all the graduate students were required to go through it, but it seems exhausting.

 

VBD is right; you may be able to adjust your coursework. However, I took a full course load, did rotations, and TA'd a lab section with no problems. VBD mentioned something very important, and that is time management. It depends on you as a student, but I had a set time to do my grading and a set time to do lab setup, so I wasn't spending forever preparing for the lab. Most of the time, there will be a course coordinator that already has the labs designed and you will just need to set up and run the class. For me, this takes less than 30 minutes. Grading/prepping for my lecture takes roughly 2-3 hours of my week once you do the first couple of classes. Even if you can't adjust your coursework, it is doable.

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First of all, if you want a career in academia, you are going to have to teach students.  Most likely undergraduates, unless you are in a graduate-only field.  With that said, you might as well get some experience doing it.

 

In every class (with the exception of a few small, focused seminars) there are going to be some completely unfocused and uninterested students; some ridiculously well-prepared and awesome students; and a whole lot of people in the middle.  TAing helps you learn how to deal with those kinds of students and how to manage your time and interest in teaching with your research responsibilities.  Everybody sucks at first; practice makes perfect and you get better.  And sometimes, you have a bad semester and the students do realize it.  You learn how to get over that and not really care that much; if you're doing your best but you're just swamped or not very good at the material (or, sometimes, the professor is making you look bad because THEY are really disorganized)…whatever, it happens.

 

Me, I'm kind of meh on TAing.  I like working with and mentoring undergraduates, and I think I would like teaching my own independent courses.  But my experiences with professors have just been so variable, and even when the professor is really awesome, I still have only had "meh" to negative experiences TAing.  But it's because you do all the grunt work, right?  The professor designs the lectures and the syllabus and determines the direction of the class.  You get to do all the dirty stuff they don't want to do - grading (UGH), manging the course website and/or electronic learning resources, overseeing the paper/group project/special project, meeting with students in office hours, answering student emails, etc.  I've had professors forward emails to me from students that would have literally taken them about 30 seconds to answer.

 

I won't lie; it's also very time-consuming.  I remember losing a semester because I was TAing two lab sections of statistics, which was a very time-intensive assignment (the professor basically just showed up to lecture, so we three TAs were responsible for designing, teaching, and grading the lab sections, designing the homework assignments and grading them, designing the exams and putting together review sessions.  I learned a lot from that experience, though).  Statistics is also just one of those classes that most of the majors in my field hate and that they need a LOT of help with.  You have to become very good at managing your time and not spending too much time on TA responsibilities.

 

However, I wouldn't turn down a program just because it requires TAing if the school is otherwise a good fit.

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Ask me if I like TAing after the weekend. 90 midterms to mark...20 short answer, 2 essay, and one math problem....oy.

 

I completed agree with juilletmercredi: TAing is VERY time consuming! ...but it's a nice mix from the regular work I do!

 

 
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I have absolutely no plans to go into academia. I will not change my mind. This is why the TA requirement annoys me, if I wanted to teach, I wouldn't be worried about it. This requirement is just one of the reasons why this school is lower on my list, making the school less of a fit. I have a lot of plans and ideas of what I want to do in graduate school with my research and want to focus on that. I am leaning towards the institutions that do not require it. I appreciate the responses.

Edited by ion_exchanger
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I have absolutely no plans to go into academia. I will not change my mind. This is why the TA requirement annoys me, if I wanted to teach, I wouldn't be worried about it. This requirement is just one of the reasons why this school is lower on my list, making the school less of a fit. I have a lot of plans and ideas of what I want to do in graduate school with my research and want to focus on that. I am leaning towards the institutions that do not require it. I appreciate the responses.

 

At my school, if you're awarded an RA'ship (research assistantship), you're not able to hold a TA position. I might check into the possibility at the school that taking an RA would exempt you from being a TA.

 

However, it's still good experience and will provide you skills that are useful outside of teaching. Managing a class and the various demands, personalities, and responsibilities provides you with skills that'll help you manage a lab, team, etc. in the future. It might be a requirement you don't enjoy, but it'll probably provide you with some skills- plus it's extra money!

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I enjoy TAing, though you do get students who try and argue, and in at least one case, I had a student who reviewed an exam and tried to change their scantron form.  The entire thing lead to their expulsion from the university.

 

Otherwise though, its great.

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I'm hearing from others that it's a great experience. Even though I would like to pass, the schools that don't require it have the option for you to do it, with perks! So I like that route better. I will check into if this school can use an RA'ship as a replacement, but the students that I have talked to said there's pretty much no way of getting out of it.

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I have absolutely no plans to go into academia. I will not change my mind.

 

I thought the exact same thing when I started my PhD program.  5 years later, I want to be a professor at a school where I can balance my research and teaching.  You may not change your mind, but you can't say for certain that you won't, so I wouldn't rule out a school that otherwise fits well simply because of the TA requirement.

 

Even if you do hold tight and don't change your mind at all, TAing does have some benefits:

 

-Work closely with professors in a different capacity.  I have a professor who absolutely loves me because she says I was the best TA she ever had.

-Really learn the basics of your field in a way you never have before.

-Strengthen your public speaking skills.

-Interact with the next generation of the field, and have some influence on some of their career decisions.

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  • 1 month later...

I thought the exact same thing when I started my PhD program.  5 years later, I want to be a professor at a school where I can balance my research and teaching.  You may not change your mind, but you can't say for certain that you won't, so I wouldn't rule out a school that otherwise fits well simply because of the TA requirement.

 

Even if you do hold tight and don't change your mind at all, TAing does have some benefits:

 

-Work closely with professors in a different capacity.  I have a professor who absolutely loves me because she says I was the best TA she ever had.

-Really learn the basics of your field in a way you never have before.

-Strengthen your public speaking skills.

-Interact with the next generation of the field, and have some influence on some of their career decisions.

 

They do say that the best way to learn something is to teach it.

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I don't have any teaching experience personally, but I like helping people by explaining things, especially what solutions I found to a given problem. Sometimes, I realize while I'm explaining something to someone that I missed something and all of sudden everything clicks (I don't know if that makes sense to people).

 

I don't know if I would definitely try, but ideally I would like to prepare myself to it thoroughly, and see other TA's in action just to get an idea of it.

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  • 2 weeks later...
I thought the exact same thing when I started my PhD program.  5 years later, I want to be a professor at a school where I can balance my research and teaching.  You may not change your mind, but you can't say for certain that you won't, so I wouldn't rule out a school that otherwise fits well simply because of the TA requirement.   Even if you do hold tight and don't change your mind at all, TAing does have some benefits:   -Work closely with professors in a different capacity.  I have a professor who absolutely loves me because she says I was the best TA she ever had. -Really learn the basics of your field in a way you never have before. -Strengthen your public speaking skills. -Interact with the next generation of the field, and have some influence on some of their career decisions.
I'd like to point out that these benefits aren't guaranteed. I've definitely TA-ed for a professor who outlined to me that he was too busy, I could do whatever I wanted with the class (even do poorly), and that I should only contact him if there was significant trouble. Perhaps you solidify your basic knowledge and public speaking skills (the latter not so much for me), but gaining these skills is NOT where the majority of your time will be spent. Unless you enjoy teaching or wa, I believe the majority of your TA time will not be beneficial to you. As a one time experience, I feel TAing was alright. But don't lock your next few years into something you might dislike, IMO.
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