The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that roughly 110,000 graduate students will take on graduate teaching assistantship positions each school year. Some percentage of these students will spend that entire year complaining about the experience to anybody who will listen. Unfortunately, the Bureau doesn't publish any stats on this subset.
Anyway, here's the thing about being a TA. It's wonderful. It really is. It's just a great way to deepen your knowledge in your chosen discipline, to hone marketable skills for your future career, and to forge lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with professors and your fellow students alike.
As a TA, you will fall somewhere between educator and student on the educational spectrum (though admittedly much closer to the latter than the former). Being a TA brings with it a ton of opportunities, both academic and professional. We urge you to learn more about these opportunities in our piece about why Being a TA is Awesome.
And honestly, being a TA is great, but it can also really suck. If you've ever done the job, you know what we're talking about and we feel your pain. We know how enormous the time commitment is, how demanding your professor is, how much certain students bug the ever-loving crap out of you. Well, this list is for you, our compilation of reasons why it sucks to be a TA.
If you are considering being a TA, we don't mean to dissuade you. We just think you should know the risks first. If you aren't into the gig, I think most professors would just as soon advise you against applying in the first place. Consider this your litmus test.
1. Where's the Money, Lebowski?
If somebody informed you that working as a TA was your best path to fabulous wealth and a life of excess, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. According to Payscale, the average Teacher's Assistant will make roughly $11.67 per hour. Granted, that number refers to Teacher's Assistants at every level of education, including but not limited to university-level educations. But still, chances are, this gig isn't going to make you a ton of money. In fact, if you happen to be an undergraduate TA, you may not be paid for your time at all. Often, you'll swap your services as a TA for financial aid or course credits. Naturally, if you are working toward graduation, credits are almost as good as money. We're not saying being a TA isn't worth it. We're just suggesting that the promise of money shouldn't be your primary motivation. Most TAs will tell you that you'd better like what you do. It'll soften the blow every time you deposit your adorable little paycheck.
2. Who Invited the NARC?
Word of warning. You will be grading your own classmates. There is a possibility that you'll assign somebody a C- for a shoddy essay on Thursday, then run into them at a party on Friday. It happens. But the truth is, if you are a fair, transparent and communicative instructor and grader, you'll have no reason to feel awkward. That said, conflicts of interest are a real possibility. Seek to avoid them by preemptively reviewing a list of students who will be in your class. If one of them happens to be your roommate, or your pledge brother, or your psychic spiritual guide, it could constitute a personal conflict of interest. It's probably best to notify your professor. Arrangements can be made to move the student to another section or engage a third-party faculty member to grade their work. We're not saying you intend to do anything dishonest but you may not realize your own biases when it comes to personal relationships. Best to avoid that hornet's nest altogether.
3. Is There A Manager I Can Talk To?
Sometimes, you might get the feeling that your students don't think of you as a real professor. But you know what? The guy who played the Professor on Gilligan's Island wasn't a real professor either. He was just a handsome actor with an authoritative chin dimple. Everybody still respected him because he knew what he was talking about. Know your subject matter, make yourself an expert, and be prepared to be challenged. If, like Gilligan's professor, you are unflappable and informed, you will earn their respect.
4. Your Deadlines Don't Count As Much As My Real Professor's, Right?
Because you are a TA, there's a pretty good chance your students think of your time as being less valuable than that of a professor. I don't want to get into a whole thing about pay-grades, but I guess they aren't totally wrong. Still, your deadlines are legit. Lay down the law. Let them know that your time is valuable and your flexibility extends only to those who are respectful of this fact. Still, prepare yourself for a semester of last-minute extension requests and elaborate but ultimately uninteresting stories about crashing computers and downed internet routers. You can decide how you wish to handle missed deadlines, but consistency matters. You don't have to be a jerk, but don't be a pushover either.
5. You Can't Handle the Truth!
Students miss deadlines, oversleep for exams, and skip reading assignments. There will be excuses, backpedaling, and outright dishonesty. And the thing is, even when you know they're lying, there's not much you can say about it. You can decide how flexible and forgiving you want to be as the presiding educator but be assured that at some point, one of your students will insult your intelligence with a story that defies credibility. While you may not be able to call it as you see it without legal repercussions, there is no law against laughing at your students. Reserve your derisive chortling for the most entertaining tall tales.
6. Dude, Leave Me Alone!
Beware the student-stalker. For some students, the TA seems like the most accessible path to both the professor and the best possibility of a friendly grade. Prepare for your mailbox to be inundated. There's always one in every crowd, the student too anxious to wait for a reply email before sending a follow-up, the grade grubber that wants to verbally prosecute the case against your assignment of a “B,” the kid who shows up to your office hours every single week just become some high school guidance counselor once suggested this was a good path to professional networking. Yup, there will be one ambitious, well-meaning, probably way-too-tightly-wound student in your charge that will drive you absolutely bananas. Try to be supportive and remember your breathing exercises.
7. So Tired…So Very Tired
Let's be honest. You've already got your hands pretty full with your own stuff. You've got classes to attend, books to read, essays to write, and tests for which to cram. Throw all of your responsibilities as a TA on top of that. No, strike that. Throw all of your TA responsibilities in front of that stuff. Now you've got others who depend on your ability to hold regular office hours, prepare adequately for class time and grade work in a punctual fashion. Sometimes, this will mean putting your duties as a TA ahead of your ambitions as a student. Your education shouldn't suffer for it, but you will have to learn how to manage your time properly. If you are late grading a stack of quizzes, believe me, you will invoke the wrath of a thousand annoying emails and personal inquiries.
8. No Playing Hooky For You
As a student, you reserve the right to occasionally skip class. Maybe you simply have too much homework on your hands. Perhaps you had the opportunity to attend an event of importance to your future career. Maybe you just hit the snooze button one too many times and before you knew it, it was time to get up for lunch. Whatever your reasons, every student gets the occasional pass here or there. It's that kind of flexibility that makes college awesome. But as a TA, you surrender some of that flexibility. If you miss your own class once in a rare while, chances are nobody will notice. If you miss your TA session, you'll have 30 college kids asking where you are and deriding you mercilessly on social media. Trust me, you don't want to become a meme.
9. TA Labor Laws?
There's no such thing. I'm just going to say it like it is. On the educational totem, you are the low man (or woman). I'm not saying your professor is going to take advantage of the free labor (free insofar as he or she isn't paying for it). I'm not saying that's definitely going to happen. But it could, and there's really not too much you can do about it. Yes, being a TA is a valuable learning experience, but you may spend a whole lot of time simply learning humility. If your professor wants you to make copies, or reserve a book at a library three counties away, or pore through a ream of handouts highlighting every instance of the word “the,” you kind of have to do it. If your professor wants you to change their oil or prepare bagged launches for their school-age kids, they've probably gone too far. But as long as it falls within the realm of academics and instruction, there's not a ton of wiggle room. Don't make a habit of counting up those extra hours of work because you won't be getting paid overtime.
None of this is intended to suggest that becoming a TA isn't worth it. We just think it's a good idea for you to formulate some realistic expectations about the work. We wouldn't want to sugarcoat it. Being a TA is a ton of work and much of that work will be invested in effectively navigating the challenges above.
If you think you're up to the task, it could be a great stepping stone in both your education and your career.
But don't just take it from me. We'd love to hear some stories from the field. Any TAs out there who want to share challenges, victories, cautionary tales or horror stories from personal experience? Tell us all about it in the comments section!