33

If you already have funding, is TA-ing (i.e. being a teaching assistant) worth the opportunity cost of doing more research? What are the relevant considerations?

I've always heard that focusing on research is a better use of time for boosting one's CV for applying for competitive and research-focused faculty positions, and that they really don't care very much about teaching experience. But recently, I've heard a lot of people saying the opposite.

I'm sure it depends on the field somewhat. I'm in machine learning, some characteristics of the field which seem relevant are:

  • It is fast-paced and highly collaborative.
  • Professors often act more as project managers and don't do as much research.
  • Successful grad students often publish several papers a year.

In particular, I'm curious about how it looks on a CV, not about other benefits (e.g. learning useful skills)

  • 4
    There is no such thing as 'faculty positions' in general - U. Michigan and Alma College will look for different things on a CV. – Alexander Woo Aug 8 at 22:13
  • 14
    Thinking you can do more research with twice the time is like thinking two women can produce a baby in 4.5 months. – Per Alexandersson Aug 9 at 11:05
  • 5
    @AlexanderWoo It's also highly location-dependent. I guess the advice to only do research comes from US institutions. In Europe you are making your TT job search considerably harder if you have no teaching experience. YMMV. – xLeitix Aug 9 at 13:26
  • 2
    @PerAlexandersson Efficient researchers work on more than project at a time, which is not the case for pregnancies. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 9 at 17:08
  • 3
    @ElizabethHenning that's true of course, but the brain needs to rest a bit, and TAing is a great way to keep the basics fresh. I never get the good research insights while researching - it happens in the shower or at the gym. – Per Alexandersson Aug 9 at 17:25
37

Most people who TA don't have an option as it is what pays the bills and allows them to study. It is less valuable if you can pay your own way.

But it isn't entirely without value. I once held a full fellowship for study (multi year), but it still required that I spend one of those years doing the equivalent of a TA. The feeling was that it is valuable experience for any academic, even at an R1 university. And, FWIW, I actually made more progress after the fellowship ended and I was a "lowly" TA.

But not everyone winds up at an R1 and elsewhere, teaching is more highly valued. And a variety of skills on a CV is, IMO, an advantage, though others may disagree.

Additionally, having something to do other than your research is a useful way to let your mind rest and integrate ideas, which is a key part of learning. And a variety of experiences can be valuable in keeping yourself flexible for the future. And "more" research doesn't necessarily equate to "better" research.

Most doctoral students get along quite well having some duties, such as a TA position, in addition to their research.

But whether it is worth the opportunity cost or not is a completely personal thing. Maybe yes, maybe no. Think about your own needs and resources.

  • 27
    And when this comes up I always feel like mentioning Feynman's own experience, where he found teaching was an essential part of his mental balance and he'd expect to burn out and get no research done if that was all he had on his plate. – zibadawa timmy Aug 8 at 21:00
  • 2
    Meeting the variety of students is also an inspiration - some make the day, and teaching experience, so worthwhile... – Solar Mike Aug 8 at 21:02
  • 3
    I think that whether you find instructional duties relaxing or draining depends both on your personality and the duties. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 8 at 21:11
  • 14
    Another potential benefit: I gained a far deeper understanding of mathematical fundamentals when I was a TA and consequently expected to explain them to other people... – avid Aug 9 at 5:55
  • Doing research (not just "study") should pay the bills just as well. The fact that, in most (but not all) universities, it pays less, or pays sometimes - is a problem that needs to be resolved. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Aug 9 at 6:55
28

Absolutely yes. If you have teaching experience on your CV, you can claim that you're good at presenting, you know how to mentor juniors, you have worked with people from other cultures, you are able to work in groups towards a common goal (if you didn't teach alone, which you probably don't as a TA), you know how to manage disputes, and so on. Plus you probably get a lot of examples that you can use to illustrate your skills in an interview.

Of course it's possible the job you're going into don't care about these things, but I can practically guarantee that if you ever need to apply for an industrial job, these things will matter.

For these reasons I'd have TA'ed for free even if my department didn't pay me.

  • 6
    "you know how to mentor juniors"? Normally a TA doesn't mentor juniors but is themselves a junior being mentored. Mostly the same holds for resolving disputes. Which is not to say you can't claim those things on your CV... as long as they cannot check. – darij grinberg Aug 9 at 5:55
  • 1
    All the skills you mention should also be used in research, at least in my field. This diminishes the value of TA experience. I know there are some fields where research is largely solitary. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 9 at 8:26
  • 11
    @darijgrinberg A TA is still more senior than the people they're teaching and, as a recent graduate, is perfectly placed to give advice on undergrad matters. If you've TAed and never given your students any kind of advice that could reasonably be described as (minor) mentorship, I'd say you were probably doing it wrong. – David Richerby Aug 9 at 12:25
  • 2
    @DavidRicherby: I don't remember students ever asking me for advice in my TA days (though I may as well have forgotten). Either way, advice is cheap and rarely impacts evaluations, so in the best case the people reading your applications will know that you have been asked for advice, not whether you have given it and how good it was. – darij grinberg Aug 9 at 12:41
  • 2
    @darijgrinberg teaching itself is mentoring - you are causing someone unfamiliar with the material to understand it. As for resolving disputes, it's common to run into grading disputes as a TA, which you would need to resolve (hopefully by convincing the student that your grading is accurate). – Allure Aug 9 at 13:52
9

Generally if you can't get the R1 job you expect, the "backup plan" in academia is to move down the rankings, which will increasingly want teaching. This means they will probe you about your teaching experience and preparedness, and at some point places will start asking you to deliver a class to students (which needs to be more than just a one-way lecture of content).

Many answers already address this alternative plan. But fields like CS and statistics have a more common alternative career in industry, with very good reason. So you should consider which direction do you want to have as your backup. In your field it may currently be very easy to get tenure somewhere if you play your cards right. Or you could earn a stupid amount of money, which may be an opportunity you don't see again for a generation. In which case you should look at the TA'ing "cost" as time you could have spent finishing your doctorate up, rather than doing yet more research.

As for the R1's, I'd say the trend is all about funding, far more than teaching.

5

Being a TA during a PhD is not beneficial. The downsides are:

  • A longer PhD at low pay
  • Reduced research output

The advantages are:

  • Building teaching experience. However, since almost everyone has it, TA experience is not meaningful on the job market. You need to have experience teaching entire courses to be competitive.
  • You will learn to teach better. However, most universities are not bothering to properly train their TAs. Investigate what training opportunities your university has.
  • You might enjoy it.

My overall advice would be to seek out opportunities to teach an entire course instead of being TA.

Now, if you have the opportunity to be a TA before you get your PhD, that might help you get into a better PhD program. This could be a much better deal.

  • 2
    Actually, some folks with the TA title do actually teach their own courses. I did. Sometimes you work a more traditional role until you get the experience and they can trust you with a course. But the pay is still low in that situation. But my experience was that higher paid jobs weren't open to students. – Buffy Aug 8 at 23:44
  • 13
    since almost everyone has it ... in which case, if you don't have it, it becomes an active disadvantage. – Allure Aug 9 at 4:06
  • 2
    Why would a department let a student just teach a course without first seeing what they can do as a TA? – Ink blot Aug 9 at 5:32
  • 2
    However, in all the places I've TA'ed at, as well as those places I've taught at and those places I was an undergraduate student at, one needed prior "partial teaching experience" before being handed the reigns of a class by yourself to teach (e.g. prior experience with recitation sections), or prior teaching experience somewhere else (e.g. a high school teacher leaving school teaching to obtain a Ph.D.), which is essentially what you're saying, except in my experience the term "TA" was used more broadly. – Dave L Renfro Aug 9 at 7:54
  • 1
    @AnonymousPhysicist it's not completely comparable though - a PhD supersedes a high school diploma, once you have a PhD the value of your high school education, Bachelor's, and even Masters degree drops a lot. – Allure Aug 9 at 13:44
4

In answer to your very limited question, in evaluating CVs for competitive research focused faculty positions, no one cares if there is a teaching line on your CV. But to the extent that your teaching statement/philosphy is part of your CV, then being able to point to your teaching experience in your teaching statement matters a lot. The vast majority of competitive research focused faculty positions require your to submit a teaching statement/philosophy. While most search committees for competitive research focused faculty positions don't really care about the teaching statement as long as you don't make a fool of yourself, not being able to highlight personal teaching experience is a sure fire way to write a crappy teaching philosophy.

  • Sure, but in that case the bar for what counts as highlightable personal teaching experience is pretty low. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 9 at 17:11
  • @ElizabethHenning yes, the bar is pretty low, but there is a bar. – StrongBad Aug 9 at 18:08
  • “in evaluating CVs for competitive research focused faculty positions, no one cares if there is a teaching line on your CV” — Maybe there are a few positions where that’s true, but at least in my field (maths), that’s only the absolute extreme top of the job market. Most jobs that would be described as “competitive research-focused faculty positions” still carry some teaching expectation, and having no teaching experience at all on the CV would (at least in places I know) be viewed as a non-negligible shortcoming. – PLL Aug 9 at 22:39
2

TAing is great, but it's a law of diminishing returns.

If you have never been a TA, or have only done so once, you may well want to do so again. Having something concrete to point to when the discussion turns to teaching will help your CV. Others point out that TAing will have many benefits besides your CV, though your question specifically excludes such considerations.

On the other hand, if you have already been a TA a few times, your CV will gain very little from additional TA experience. Being the instructor of record would be more significant for your CV. Getting additional high-quality publications would be even better. Though extra time will not linearly correlate to more publications, it certainly won't hurt (that's why pre-tenure faculty at R1s usually try to negotiate teaching release).

0

I know you said that you are only asking this in relation to the CV appearance, not in terms of skills learned, but the two are fairly interchangeable (depending on where you are applying) Being a teaching assistant teaches you different things from what additional research would.

  • It teaches you more about a subject. It is easy to think "oh yeah I know SQL/ intro to microbiology/ microeconomics/ whatever", but you will likely have forgotten much of the theory and niche applications of whatever course it is. Teaching it forces you to revise the subject and gain a greater appreciation of it.

  • Being a TA gives you experience of how to relay ideas to others. It goes without saying that this can have vast real world applicability.

  • Being a TA can give insight on how to be personable, how not to alienate others, how to engage effectively. This is separate from just coherently explaining an idea (like above), it is doing so in a way that does not sound patronising. This is one of the areas, in my domain, where I see most TAs commonly fall down.

  • TA work usually involves corrections. This can give you a clear insight what areas inexperienced people in this domain repeatedly fall down in. If something is unintuitive for your students, it is probably unintuitive in the real world too (even if they shouldn't you may see the same mistakes crop up in industry).

  • More advanced TA positions may involve management, even perhaps to the extent of developing assignments and course material. This level of responsibility has clear benefit in terms of work experience. As a side note it will also give you insight into how people think, and what can be demanded of subordinates (junior TAs) and of students.

Of course this all presupposes that one learns from the experience.

-2

You don't ever come out and say it, but the subtext of your question seems to be that you have zero interest in teaching. At most there is a hint that you might see teaching as a distasteful requirement associated with some future research job. I could be wrong. Maybe you do have some interest in teaching, but then I would imagine that somewhere in your question you would mention the obvious upsides of being a TA -- such as enjoying it for its own sake, becoming better at teaching, and being excited about helping other people learn.

So your question seems sort of like, "I have no interest in becoming a neurosurgeon, so is an internship in neurosurgery worth the opportunity cost?" People don't generally become apprentices in professions that don't interest them and that they have no intention of pursuing.

Continuing the analogy, someone who needs a spinal tumor removed probably doesn't want their surgeon to be an apprentice who thinks blood is yukky and has no interest in a neurosurgery career -- and undergrads likewise deserve to have teaching assistants who genuinely care about teaching.

If the idea is that you might be able to pad your resume with material that falsely makes it appear as though you would be a good teacher, then I would suggest that faking competence and dedication isn't a good path to take in one's professional life, and in any case will not fool a hiring committee that actually cares about teaching.

  • 1
    It is in fact possible to genuinely care about teaching while simultaneously recognizing that it might be a better long-term decision to concentrate on research while in grad school. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 11 at 16:23
  • What you say couldn't be further from the truth, as those who know me can attest :) In fact, I was primarily asking this question to help guide others in their future career decisions ;) – capybaralet Aug 12 at 18:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.