My Ph.D. advisor and I are trying to decide whether I should take his class this Fall or be the TA for it (I have not had this class before).

My question is, shouldn't one have already mastered the class material inside-out to become a TA? It appears that my advisor expects me to "learn as I go." Is this usual?

Second question, how is the workload between the two? I'm thinking to be the TA, I will have to be a step ahead of the game and rather than doing the assignments, I will be designing the assignments (which requires more understanding). Which would you prefer based on what circumstances?

  • 2
    Talk carefully with your advisor and/or previous TAs for your advisor about what's involved in this. You're unlikely to be designing assignments unless it's an entirely new class. You may have to prepare section material/reviews, but that should not be too bad if you have prior TAs' materials and/or the class follows a textbook with exercises (and perhaps pre-made slides). Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 20:18
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    Not sure how usual it is -- but it happened to me, and I wasn't given a choice. A more senior grad student met with me once a week and I sort of survived to tell the tale. In that case it was particularly tough because the material was kind of out in left field. Anyway,there are other factors to consider, such as, will you need to know this material thoroughly anyway for your own development; how busy will you be with other responsibilities; will you just be grading or will you be expected to hold office hours; will the professor provide you with an official Solution to use in your grading. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 1:43
  • Wow thanks, @aparente001 those are indeed crucial factors to consider. Is it the norm to piggyback on another senior student's previous material? I could probably ask around... About the time investment, I know being TA is only 1 unit versus 4 units as a student... is that something to keep in mind? Thanks
    – oikos99
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 3:20
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    @oikos99 - Sorry, I don't know what the norm is there either; she didn't give me material, she explained things, and gave me a helpful reality check ("yes, the way this professor teaches this is rather out in left field, it's not just you"). She was an angel. Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 3:39
  • Note, as a professor you will sometimes be asked to teach a class you haven't taken before: depending on the class, it may or may not be much more work than preparing for a class you have taken before.
    – Kimball
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 13:43

1 Answer 1


Some classes are more about the skills than the material. For example, I was once a TA for astronomy 1, despite never having taken astronomy -- but I knew the math, physics, problem solving, etc., and so the actual "content" was trivial for me to pick up. I do not know what this class may be, but if you are a grad student in CS and this is an undergraduate CS class, it may be similar in that you already know how the "big ideas" and how to program, so it will be trivial to learn the course-specific content.

Being a TA can be more efficient. I assume the alternative is (a) TAing a different course, where you would learn nothing, and (b) taking this as a class, which would require doing the learning and the homework. Combining these into one activity could save nearly 50% of your effort.

Of course, you do have an ethical obligation to your students to be informed. Your graduate-level experience in this field combined with reading ahead will put you head and shoulders above freshman/sophomore students, even if you're not an expert in this particular course material. Conversely, if this is an honors course for senior CS students (for example), then it does seem unlikely that you would be able to offer them much guidance.

  • thanks for the response. although I can't be both TA and a student concurrently, I think you have a good point about picking up the material faster. :)
    – oikos99
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 23:48
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    Glad to be helpful. Though, I'm not sure what "I can't be both TA and a student concurrently" is referring to -- I certainly never suggested that you should TA for a class that you are enrolled in!
    – cag51
    Commented Mar 31, 2018 at 23:55
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    I would add that, in my experience, you get a deeper knowledge of the material when you have to explain it to others.
    – Miguel
    Commented Apr 1, 2018 at 6:56

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