I work for a college within a public university. My primary job is to advertise the college and its programs to a variety of target markets. One of my primary target markets is students…both current and potential. As such, I’m always trying to find ways to make our degree programs more attractive.
One of the most marketable aspects of our college is the fact that we offer a number of graduate assistantships to our students. These positions are quite common at colleges around the country. However, I find that many students don’t understand what, exactly, these positions entail or how to get them. I had no idea what they were until I started working for the college. So, here’s an insider’s look at how assistantships work and why you should do everything in your power to get one.
The Benefits of Graduate Assistantships
Graduate Assistantships are, without a doubt, one of the sweetest deals out there. For an average of 15-25 hours of work per week, a graduate assistant receives either a full or partial waver of all tuition for a semester. In addition, many graduate assistants also receive a monthly stipend. At Georgia State, policy states that this stipend can be no less than $5,000 per year ($2,000 each for Fall and Spring and $1,000 for summer). This means that graduate assistants at GSU usually make around $500/month on top of the tuition waver. This number can go much higher depending on the hours required, the difficulty of the work, the student’s program of study, and the departmental budget. Ph. D students usually receive the best stipends ($2,000+ a month).
Here are some numbers on assistantships. A graduate assistant that works 20 hours a week for the fall semester (17 weeks) works 340 hours total. A minimal assistantship at GSU would provide $2,000 in stipend + $3,840 in tuition waver (~$17/hr) for an in-state student and $2,000 in stipend + $14,400 in tuition waver (~$51.25/hr) for an out-of-state student.
Types of Assistantships
There are three basic types of graduate assistantships: Graduate Research Assistantships (GRAs), Graduate Teaching Assistantships (GTAs), and Graduate Administrative Assistantships (GAAs). GRAs are perhaps the best known type of assistantship. A GRA usually works under an individual professor assisting with his or her research. In the sciences, this often means working in a lab and writing part or all of a research paper. In the arts, it often means assisting with data collection through interviews, surveys, and trips to the library or writing part or all of a research paper. These positions are great for students looking to begin building a CV, as they can often lead to having one’s name on a published paper. However, they can often take up more than the “weekly allotment” of hours assigned, as papers and research tend to “broaden” over time.
GTAs, in contrast, help to instruct other students at the college. For more advanced students, this often means teaching a full course. For others, it means giving a lecture here and there or running a breakout group. Sometimes, it can mean simply grading essays so a professor doesn’t have to. Like GRAs, GTAs are great for building one’s CV. Teaching a subject often provides a deeper level of understanding of the subject matter to the student…aiding said student in his or her own program of study. These can also often take up more than the “weekly allotment” of hours assigned, as grading papers and tests by hand and preparing lectures can take a lot of time.
The final type of graduate assistant is a GAA. While not as well known and perhaps not as plentiful as GRAs or GTAs, GAA positions are great to have. The primary reason for this is that they basically have no boundaries on what they can entail. GAAs assist the faculty, staff, and administration of a college with its day-to-day operations. Responsibilities of a GAA can be as simple as helping to file papers or as complex as helping to code the college website. A GAA might create posters to put up around the college advertising events, or they might help to plan and run the events themselves. A GAA is basically a short-term part-time college staff member.
Graduate Assistants from the College’s View
Having worked for a college for a while, I can say that our college (and I imagine many others) is run with a “skeleton crew.” There are just enough faculty and staff to get nearly everything done that needs to be done roughly a week to a month after it should have been done. We are simply short-staffed…and don’t have the budget to be able to hire more full-time employees. For this reason, graduate assistants are excellent investments to help us get work done without a large expenditure. We have a 3″ binder’s worth of paperwork that we have to fill out whenever we make a new full-time hire. In comparison, hiring a graduate assistant requires a few sheets of paper and a couple of signatures. Also, in our case, the tuition waver does not cost the college anything, as all tuition goes to the university itself. A graduate assistant that works 20 hours a week for the fall semester (17 weeks – 340 hours total) will receive $2,000 + a tuition waver. From the college’s point of view, that’s only $5.88 an hour out-of-pocket. Given the minimal cost and great benefit to the college of hiring a graduate assistant, they are very attractive investments.
Many colleges have a line in their admissions application that asks if you would like to be considered for assistantships. Some colleges even have a full application process just for assistantships. In my experience, faculty members aren’t always as “on the ball” as one might expect them to be. They are usually incredibly busy with the courses they teach and the research they do. This means they often don’t respond to (or even read) emails from the college administration concerning things like requests for assistantships. This leads to a lot of missed deadlines. That said, the assistantships that are advertised to incoming students may have been requested weeks in advance and are often positions that have been in existence for a while. As these positions are advertised to and usually applied for by the entire incoming class (who isn’t going to put “yes” on that question?), they are often extremely competitive. Once these positions are gone, many students just “give up” on an assistantship opportunity.
How to Get a Graduate Assistantship
As previously mentioned, the graduate assistantships offered to incoming students are quite sparse and very competitive. Faculty and staff often don’t have the time or the desire to seek out graduate assistants on their own. However, there is a great benefit to a college to hire graduate assistants. That’s where you come in. You’re a college student. You have a plethora of time on your hands. You have no money. What better way for you to spend your time than trying to talk every faculty and staff member you can find into giving you an assistantship?
The first step is to make sure you’ve got an accurate and up-to-date resume or CV that focuses in on the type of assistantship you want. Next, visit your department’s website and identify the individuals that you’d be interested in working under. For GRAs and GTAs, those individuals are probably faculty members. For GAAs, you’re looking for the department staff or administration. If you have noticed a glaring weakness in your department’s level of service in a particular area (e.g. – website not updated in 2 years, takes 4 weeks to see an advisor), target those areas specifically. They are probably under-staffed. Next, send an email to that faculty or staff member informing them that you are a student in their department and would like to meet with them. While faculty and staff sometimes don’t read emails from one another, they will rarely ignore emails from students. If you receive an email back asking for a reason for the meeting, be honest! Tell them you’re interested in talking to them about a potential GRA/GTA/GAA position, attach your resume, and sell your qualifications. If you do get a meeting set up, then go to the scheduled meeting and do the same thing. Make sure to emphasize what the tuition waver would mean to you. That provides a personal connection and will help get them “on your side.”
If you find that the individual you contact is staunchly against giving you an assistantship, ask them if they know of anyone else in the department who might be interested. Follow up with any leads they provide. If you exhaust the leads within your department, then look laterally to other departments within your college and do the same. Our college prefers to hire our own students as graduate assistants. If you find nothing at the department level, then move up and begin looking at the college or dean’s office levels. If you find nothing there and are at a university, then contact faculty/staff within other colleges (by now you should be getting good at this). They just might have an opening for you.
I’d wager that most graduate students never even consider trying to “sell their services” in the form of an assistantship. There’s really little to no competition for you if you’re willing to put in the effort to try to find an assistantship. Even so, it won’t always work out. Budgets are tightening on an annual basis. However, our college tends to do what it can to hang on to competent graduate assistants, as they’re not always easy to find. So, the sooner you find a position, the better!