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I wish to know how the Graduate Admissions Committees for top Universities in the USA decide about awarding Teaching Assistantship to a prospective student. If one had preferred both 'RAship' and 'TAship' in his/her application, does that mean he/she must first be eliminated from the RAship race and then awarded TAship as a consolation?

Also, if being a Research Assistant requires a stellar undergraduate research record, publications and so on, what are the factors which would have been considered for awarding the Teaching Assistantship?

To be very specific, if the student is from a country like India or China, would his English-speaking skills and academic competence be re-reviewed?

If so, please help me understand how these two factors transform from mere selection criteria to those for awarding Financial Assistance.

The Universities, I received assistant-ship from are among the best in my field of interest in Computer Science. Also, their CS departments are known to be well-funded and generously award their students with assistant-ships and scholarships every year.

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    What country is the target university in? – Bill Barth Feb 17 '15 at 18:03
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    I would think it is very dependent on the specific department and university. Many moons ago when I was a grad student, my department supported the 1st year grad students as RAs, assigned them as TAs the second year (to get teaching experience), and then you had your advisor support you the rest of the way as an RA. Even students with external scholarships served as TAs at some point. Somewhere else it may all depend on the number of classes that need TAs... – Jon Custer Feb 17 '15 at 20:01
  • @JonCuster, thanks for the reply. Was wondering if I the question is headed to be downvoted with the decreasing comments per views ratio. – envy_intelligence Feb 17 '15 at 20:06
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In the US, TAships and RAships are generally assigned by the department. There may be a rule about first year students (ours was that 1st year students could not be assigned TAships). You should also not assume that the division is made by a committee. RAships can be grant-related, or funded by generic department funds. The PI would usually make the decision if a student is considered especially appropriate for the project (unless the PI has a lousy department that doesn't give him/her much autonomy). Depending on the level of democratic sentiment, either the chair decides on the allocation, an admissions / funding committee does, or the whole department faculty does. TAships are also subject to university rules, if any, or department policy, about language competence, so it may be impossible to grant an incoming student a TAship if their English isn't certified for oral proficiency.

Generally speaking, an RAship is better than a TAship from the student's perspective, but the department might either have a particular need for a TA (prehaps in a specific area) in that year, or it might be advantageous to have a year's teaching out of the way so that in your second year you can do something else. I would say that you should not over-interpret either outcome, if you checked the "both" box. "Prefer" means prefer.

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  • So,I have been told that the assistantship can change till the semester starts in a few months from now. I am only wondering if I should write to Professors or respond enthusiastically to a PI's mails so that I can give a shot at getting an RAship. – envy_intelligence Feb 17 '15 at 20:21
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    I recommend that you express your enthusiasm over the prospects for an RAship on whatever that project is, to the PI or other relevant faculty. since it sounds like that's what you would really prefer. – user6726 Feb 17 '15 at 21:22
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Here's the way I read one STEM department in the US that I have some insight into, but I'm also reading this through third-party comments and the experience of a few students I know, so take it with a grain of salt. RAs go to professors who have grant funding or startup funding to support them. If a student is admittable, but no professor puts their hand up to say they want to support them on an RA, then they may or not be actually admitted depending on how many TA slots are available and how the committee feels about them otherwise. There may be a handful of department-level or privately-funded RA fellowships available for really great students. Some students may be admitted with no funding, though I think this is unlikely for students explicitly applying for PhDs (more below).

I know of two separate cases where a student was rejected when no professor was willing to stick their hand up and offer them an RA during the committee meeting. In one of those cases, the student was admitted the subsequent year after publishing a few great papers and making a few contacts. The other student decided to do his PhD at another nearby school. I don't know what drives this difference between TA and RA admissions in this particular department, but it seemed clear that if you have someone who wants to work with you, you can surmount many admission obstacles, assuming they have funding. Not having a champion can also scuttle your chances. I think that some really top notch students must be "claimed" by professors based on their applications only, that is without prior contact with the prof, but I can't prove that and don't know how it works.

My strong impression, but more speculatively, is that some students are admitted to the master's program with no funding hoping to score a TAship along the way or impress a professor in one of their early courses and land an RA. After that, being admitted already, they will try to upgrade themselves to a PhD student along the way. I think a lot of the TA positions go to these students. This latter impression is based on the huge number of requests for RA positions I get in a non-academic research organization every year from MS students with no apparent funding.

Now with all that being said, students coming to this department with master's degrees already in hand appear to be at a disadvantage unless they have very strong CVs or prior contact with a prof that wants to work with them. That was the case with the two students I mentioned before.

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    For the record, I don't think my answer is definitive, @envy_intelligence, but it's your check mark to give. – Bill Barth Feb 18 '15 at 3:31
  • I probably think it is my fault to have put up such a "controversial question". I am getting a feeling that people may not want to comment on such issues and I respect their choices. However, I do appreciate the fact that you gave 2 examples, which helped me understand the importance of the funding. Thanks again! – envy_intelligence Feb 18 '15 at 4:32
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    @envy_intelligence, I don't think there's anything controversial in your question, but I do think it varies a lot from department to department as well as university to university. It would be a lot of work for everyone to provide their own unique perspective. – Bill Barth Feb 18 '15 at 19:21

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