Tips for TAing
I just finished my second and final semester TAing computational systems biology at Georgia Tech. I had fun and I think I did well.
Here I’ll share some thoughts and tips for new TAs.
Pros and cons of TAing
Teaching is time-consuming but deepens your understanding of the topic and improves communication skills. If you want to stay in academia or education, TAing is good (and sometimes the only) practice for the future.
You usually1 get a small pay raise via a “teaching fellowship”.
Grading problem sets and exams feels like a waste of time and talent, but until education catches up with technology, someone must do it. At least you save your professor some time.
I enjoyed hosting small group sessions, holding office hours, and lecturing. You have some agency over your scope, so discuss that interest with your professor.
Choosing a course to TA
TAing for your advisor seems optimal. You already have a working relationship, and you already should or will have a background in the field.
Regardless of who you TA for, choose a course in which you are proficient, or are willing to put in time to learn much about. The students deserve a competent TA and the course will consume less of your time if you’ve already taken (and aced) the course.
Expertise aside, choose a course and a professor you like.
If you have the option, co-TA with a colleague you trust2.
Communicating with students
Clarity is key. You are now a source of authority to the students.
Students like when you explain concepts using analogies. They also like concrete examples to solidify abstract concepts.
Simplify but do not dumb down. There is a difference.
Be authentic and real. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so and don’t bullshit. Find the answer and follow up later.
Be consistent. Grade everyone the same way. No favors - be professional.
Reply quickly to emails, and be precise with your language.
Set boundaries on your time. Be firm about the time and place of your office hours, but make yourself more available prior to exams. In other words, match supply and demand.
I asked students to schedule office hours with me ahead of time via email. Articulating their question beforehand forced them to think, and sometimes would eliminate the need to meet. If the need to meet remained, it allowed me to prepare so we used our time productively.
However, asking students to schedule office hours has a downside, as they may feel you are less accessible.
Split up the work fairly among co-TAs and rotate responsibilities.
Set your own deadlines when possible, and always meet them.
Regrades are annoying, but you must fix your mistakes. TAs owe their students fair and correct grading.
That said, don’t let students nitpick for points (usually premeds). Your time is better spent with students who suffered more substantial grading mistakes, or students with a genuine interest in the course material.
My program requires all PhD students to TA for two semesters. We are not paid and have little flexibility over which course we TA. I could not even TA my advisor’s course because it was listed uder CS. My instructors were great, but clearly this TA setup is suboptimal. Your teaching experience will vary by institution. ↩
I did not conspire to co-TA my courses with a close colleague. But I was lucky to work with co-TAs who went above and beyond for our team and our students. ↩