If you are a college student thinking about graduate school, consider the paths taken by many of your professors. Many of them did not pay for graduate school, and received a stipend that enabled them to focus on their studies for the several years leading to their degrees. They were teaching assistants, or TA’s.
How did they do this? Is it a path you can follow?
This advice is particularly aimed at women undergraduates, but it works for men, too. In my limited experience, women undergraduates are more likely to see grad school as a series of discrete steps—first get a master’s degree, then perhaps go on for a Ph.D. OK, but that means they are more likely to pay for the master’s degree themselves, and that path is slower, harder, and less likely to result in being a TA. I don’t know what role this plays in my discipline (Political Science) having only about a quarter of its university faculty being women, but I suspect it is a big part. Check with your own discipline to examine the numbers. Remember, if you are a minority in your field of interest, you need to look out for your own interests—the field may not be organized to do so.
The basic outline is this: Graduate schools employ teaching assistants, graduate students who receive payment in the form of a stipend and “tuition remission,” which means the students do not pay for school. In return the students spend about 20 hours per week attending the classes in which they assist, leading discussion sections, grading papers and exams—and, in their last years, perhaps even teaching their own courses. All of this work is very good training for an academic career, and encourages the development of skills for other jobs as well.
Some schools offer very few assistantships for first year graduate students, and dangle an offer for possible support in the second and subsequent years. Few offer assistantships for more than four years, although students who do very will probably be able to find support. I had the good fortune to win a scholarship that had no specific duties during my third years of grad school. My ‘job’ was to collect bibliographies from my mentors and read a book a day. I still have the notes to some of those books. If I finished by , the rest of the day was mine to enjoy. Son #1 was born that year, so I got to spend a lot of time around the house and watch him grow. Big, dense books would take until , or sometimes another day. To have such problems…. If I could do that year again, I would.
Applying for a Ph.D. program does not mean you will get a Ph.D. In my experience about half of entering grad students will not complete their degree. Lots of them leave after getting the master’s degree, some because the Department declines to continue the assistantship. If right now you only see yourself getting a master’s degree, apply for the Ph.D. program, and make up your mind within the first year or two. There is no shame in leaving something you might have left anyway, and the University understands there is a less than 100% completion rate. If that happens, you can take your master’s degree, debt free, to your next adventure in life.
OK, if grad school can be like that, how does one sign up? There is the rub. There are a limited number of these positions. Most of them exist because of an arrangement between big universities and their professors. The professors can teach large numbers of students without having to spend a lot of time with each of them. The teaching assistant does that. In the most prestigious universities an undergraduate student may have most classes taught by teaching assistants, and undergraduate students may never see the big name professors. The departments that employ these professors produce good numbers, and so their budgets are large. It is a good deal for the professors who get to spend more time on their own projects, and it is a decent deal for those people who get the teaching assistant positions. (The undergraduates may not have such a great deal.)
To qualify for a teaching assistantship, you have to be one of the better students that apply for a graduate program. You know how to do that: keep a high GPA (3.65 or so, try to earn that cum laude or better), have decent test scores (such as on the GRE), and, the part perhaps you have neglected, get to know some of your professors so that you can get good letters of recommendation. I probably got my assistantship because one professor decided he would talk to me, a mere sophomore, now and then. I would read the books he recommended, tell him what I thought of them, and ask for more. I did well in the classes of several professors, but doing well in a class is different from a professor deciding you are one of the ones he or she will talk to. That one professor wrote a great letter to someone he knew at the University that offered the assistantship. I never saw the letter, but my main mentor in graduate school said it was the reason the Department wanted me.
How do you get your professors to take that interest in you? Read the things your favorite professors have written. Ask them about the books they have found most influential on their thinking. Read it all carefully, and talk it over with others. Search for something that you find really interesting. It is my guess that you won’t be able to fake it. When you think you understand a particular piece, or see how it leads to other questions, go back to the professor who gave you the reference, and have a talk about it. Ask for a suggested next step. And earnestly dig into it.
This, of course, just means you should be the best student you possibly can be.
When thinking about where to apply for grad school, beware of top ten lists of the finest universities in your field of interest. Everyone else has the list, and perhaps the grad school experience is not the greatest at those places. Contact grad students at your schools of interest. Chances are you can get a couple to talk to you. Usually you can find contacts through department web pages. Ask what they think about the work, the advice they are getting, the preparation and training they receive, the climate in their department, the works. Ask several people who have recent experience for other schools you should add to the list of places you apply. Perhaps you can find someone recently hired in at a nearby university.