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To give a bit of context: I got accepted to UIUC for the Fall 2015 semester to start my graduate studies in Mechanical Engineering. I've been interested in Fluid Mechanics and Thermal Sciences as a field to specialize in for quite a while now. As such, I've been contacting many professors in that area to see if they have RA positions, but all have not been fruitful (no open slots). Having some sort of assistantship is the only way I can pay for tuition there without resorting to loans, which I really want to avoid since I was able to do so for my undergraduate studies. There are still professors I can contact in the area, but the number of options is dwindling. I've considered looking into the other departments in hopes of finding something before the Fall semester starts. I would like to "stick to my guns" on this because it is an area that I am actually interested in, but time is catching up with me quickly.

It says on the MechSE website that 85% of students receive funding this way, so it seems like I would have a good chance of getting something. Should I be worried that I don't have something definite at this time? Most of the professors have been able to respond quickly (less than a week sometimes), but some simply do not respond. I'm not sure of what to do except keep emailing professors and consider my other research options.

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    Is a TA a possibility? – Austin Henley May 15 '15 at 20:50
  • It can be. It was listed as one of the options on my application, but it seems like the vast majority go with RA. I have not asked anyone yet about being a TA, since the acceptance letter only mentioned opportunities regarding research. Though I have considered it, I put TA as my lowest priority since I would prefer to do research. – user65 May 15 '15 at 23:36
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    You would have to do research regardless of whether or not your research is through an RA position. I would just apply for a TA position for the fall quarter and spend the quarter finding an adviser who is a good fit. It will be much easier to do it in person and you probably won't get much research done in your first quarter anyway. – somerandomdude May 16 '15 at 7:23
  • That is a good point. Even though I am in the country, it is still a long drive away from where I live. I'd much rather be able to do all of this in person. Thank you for your advice, I will do that if I can't find anything else. – user65 May 18 '15 at 16:08
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There may be general assistantships available outside your department that could serve as a stop-gap until you can get within-department funding. The first year of my PhD I got funding working under a Dean in the School of Graduate studies. I also was a library GA during my master's. While funding specific to your degree is ideal of course, there are some fringe-benefits to some of these other positions. The library position allowed me to do my own work for 15 of my allotted 20 hours, and the Grad Studies position gave me a ton of insight into the inner-workings of administration that I may not have gotten otherwise.

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A graduate research assistantship (GRA) is a wonderful way to get experience, free tuition and a stipend. If one is not available in your department then you can also get them from other departments or through faculty who work in extension or at a research station. I've even heard of inter-university assistantships.

While I personally had an in-department GRA, I knew several people who did this and lost no respect, experience, or money doing so. Sometimes they actually got better experience than they would've within the department.

Other options include being a Teaching Assistantship (TA) in your department or elsewhere. This usually has the same benefits of a GRA, but with a smaller stipend and perhaps slightly less beneficial experience if you're not planning to teach.

A third option is to be a Resident Assistant (RA), which is a grad student who usually lives in an undergraduate dorm and has some counseling and supervisory responsibilities. I had a peer in grad school who was an RA and I was often envious of her comparatively fun and easy work (not to mention that she got free housing!).

Finally, don't forget that you could always explore co-operative education (a "co-op"). This is especially attractive if you plan to work in the same company or industry where you find a co-op and the actual hours worked in this type of position are probably less likely to exceed the theoretical 20 hours per week of an assistantship.

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