7

Graduate admissions in an EECS field, either Ph.D or Masters. I know research experience is the most important but is having prior teaching experience also desirable?

I want to TA (it seems fun), but I'm debating on whether it will be worth it or not if it won't help me with either job prospects or graduate school.

4 Answers 4

5

Here's my opinion, based on being a faculty in a math department. When you apply to a graduate school, it's really a two-in-one application, i.e. there are two questions to be decided: will you be accepted or not; and if yes, then with or without financial support.

Having or not prior TA experience probably won't have any effect on your admission to the program. But getting financial support is a whole different story. If you have existing connections with a research professor in the department where you're applying, then he/she may be able to support you out of their research grants. Otherwise, especially for departments with a lot of service teaching — such as math or computer science, for example — having teaching potential can be decisive when it comes to awarding graduate assistantships. Of course, prior TA experience would be a huge plus for that.

4

As for your first question, usually teaching is not required for any of the two admissions, but it depends on the process at the particular institution after all.

As for your second question, all people are different and thus have different reasons. Do TA only if you exactly know why you are doing it (and not invest your time into something else). If fun is reason enough for you -- do it. I knew a couple of students with exactly the same motivation: they were happy.

0
4

I'm not sure how much of a difference prior teaching experience really makes for graduate school admissions, as it's not something we normally look for. It's certainly worth mentioning and will help for your career in the long-term to have had the teaching experience, whether or not you go into academia. (Somebody who is capable of teaching others is a valuable commodity!)

The only way a department would likely be looking for such experience is if it has to do a lot of "service" teaching, such as a math department. But even then it's more of a "plus" factor rather than an expectation.

I agree with Leon Meier that you should do it if you have a purpose for doing so.

4

I was a teaching assistant as an undergrad, and there are a few very direct ways this experience can help in work and admissions, a way in which it may or may not be helpful, and at least a few other effects that aren't on your list, but may be worth your consideration.

The most direct way this was helpful ended up being that the professor I was a TA for was great, supportive, and I learned a tremendous amount from him. I had the opportunity to work more with the professor than I would have otherwise, this gave him many interactions with me to base his evaluations on, and he ended up writing very supportive reference letters for me that helped me get a research internship, prestigious fellowship, and in graduate admissions as well. Good opportunities and experiences can snowball on themselves.

The second benefit was that I was a TA for statistics, and I greatly increased my depth of understanding of the subject through trying to teach it to others; this in turn aided my research as an undergraduate, improving my ability to gain meaningful research experience. This experience improved my CV, helped in writing of the personal statement, and helped me figure out what I actually wanted to go to graduate school for - all of which is helpful in admissions.

Now, on the "may or may not help" front, is just getting to list my teaching experience on my CV. No one particularly mentioned this was a big factor in any of my admission offers by itself, but no one mentioned that it was problematic. It seems to be viewed favorably, but it's rare and doesn't seem to be important to most people just by virtue of having done it.

The first side-effect you should consider is that it's an opportunity to take a real look at a piece of what it's like to teach and work with students, which is rather a big part of most academic lives. I was strongly evaluating whether or not I might like to be a professor at the time, and the positive experience helped alleviate a lot of concerns I had, so I could pursue graduate school with less worries about future job fit.

The second side-effect is that the experience of teaching allowed me to work with students across many backgrounds, including low socio-economic class, single parents, non-traditional students, and from historically under-represented populations. This experience allowed me to talk intelligently about "Broader Impacts", which happens to be a big deal if you are considering national fellowships like the NSF GRFP, and all three of my reviewers explicitly called out my experience in teaching and outreach as a major factor for positive reviews under this particular metric. It wasn't why I chose to be a TA in the first place - but it turned out to be an advantage of the experience that I had not anticipated, as this is a socially important issue in industry and academia.

Now, I will say there is one major downside that you have to consider: being a teaching assistant tends to take up a whole lot of time (20 hours a week of real, focused time is not unusual), emotional/mental energy, and takes up a lot of head-space for the whole semester. Also, most people dislike (or hate) grading, but it comes with the territory. Ultimately, this means all this time and energy has to come from somewhere. If you are just being more active and productive and this takes away from time you'd otherwise waste on things you don't really care about, great! Or if you use the time pressure to get better at time management and efficiency, even better. But if you let it drop your grades, wipe out your social life, disrupt your sleep, miss out on research or employment/internship opportunities, or otherwise drain you in unhealthy ways- well, then you probably won't appreciate the experience in the end. The person you are working with can make a huge difference on what you get out of the time, but that is very hard to predict in advance.

Overall, it's really hard to predict what you might get out of being a teaching assistant. I wanted to do it, did it, and am really glad I did - but YMMV, naturally. Think about the time you have, what you will need to say no to if you say yes to TA, and consider what you know about the person you TA for and the class (if you have any info on that at all). This will put you in the best position for making an informed choice, and best of luck to you!

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .