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Most of the questions about teaching assistantship portray TA'ing as a waste of time that only damages research. Although I am not TA'ing this year I consider applying for a TA position next year, because I feel I kind of missing it and it actually helps me to focus on my research.

Are there any clear benefits of TA'ing for one's studies and research?

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Of course, it depends on how much teaching you would be doing, and how many hours a week it would take you, but generally, I would consider the following pros/cons points:

Pros:

  • Teaching might allow you to meet other people than those you are doing research with, and interaction with different people can be useful in terms of research (for instance, you can find a nice collaboration idea with a prof or another TA).
  • Teaching brings more immediate rewards (positive and negative) than research. When I was doing my PhD, I was also teaching (about 60 hours per year), and sometimes, when I was stuck with some research problems, it was a nice feeling to interact with students and to feel "productive".
  • Teaching is a good training to clearly explain ideas and concepts, which an important skill to write good papers.
  • Teaching provides you a different activity aside from research, and can help you focus (as you said yourself).
  • Teaching is good on a CV, and if you consider applying at some point to a lectureship/professorship position, then having done some teaching during your PhD can allow you to do some more research-oriented postdocs after (and thus get potentially more papers), so it's somehow a good time investment to do it when you're not expected to produce a huge amount of papers.

Cons:

  • Teaching takes some time, especially if you are teaching in a field where you are not an expert.
  • The downside of the immediate rewards is that sometimes, you can get frustrated because of the teaching, and that can have an impact on your research production.

In conclusion, I would say that being a TA has really clear and acknowledged benefits, as long as it does not take too much time on the research activity (I would say no more than a day per week during the official periods of teaching).

  • 8
    Actually on the second of those "Cons" I would say more often it's the other way around: the downside of immediate rewards to Teaching is precisely that they are immediate. The rewards associated with your PhD, on the other hand, are distant and the process associated with it is stressful, full of negative feedback, and invites procrastination. So many TAs learn to prefer the immediate rewards of teaching grateful students, and can also—truthfully—feel they are "working" by spending a lot of time prepping for class, etc. But ultimately in such cases it's a kind of displacement activity. – Kieran Mar 3 '12 at 12:56
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I would definitely say that teaching helps you to understand better your teaching subject. Learning something is very different than learning something so that you are able to explain it to others.

As Einstein said it.

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.

When I teach, I see different viewpoints while I am explaining. When you see, students do not understand your example, you are forced to think about it. A question force you to see other parts of subject. These things always help me to understand my subject better.

But you should be picky about your subjects. A subject which is completely different from your research topic is not suitable. But a subject which is helpful to your research subject will be better for you. For example I am studying Machine Learning, a lot of courses are offered which will be helpful in this topic.

  • Statistics
  • Optimization
  • Data Mining
  • ....

But in the same token, web programming may not be helpful.

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The idea that teaching is something that invariably and inexorably damages ones research and study prospects to be entirely opposed to my actual experience.

Some teaching experiences are nothing but time sinks that devour otherwise productive periods and leave you no closer to having finished, or produced interesting work. But the same can be said for some research experiences.

There are some definitive pros I found to teaching. First, it provided a second pass at material I thought I "knew", but now had to know inside and out. That was eye opening, to say the least. It afforded me more time to interact with the professor who was teaching the class, and gave me a framework where I was immersed in a topic - said immersion ended up in me adapting some things about my dissertation to a particular class topic I now knew really well.

It also teaches you to teach, and while generally an undervalued skill in academia compared to research, it's both something you should probably know, and does train you for some research oriented problems - how to give a new grad student in your lab a rundown of the topic, how to answer questions off the cuff during talks. How to give talks meant to convey information instead of a summary of results.

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