I am a first year PhD student intending to work in convex optimization and its applications. I don't have an advisor yet, so I am still TA-ing. I had a long talk with a very helpful senior grad student in this field at my university today, and he recommended that I focus on taking lots of classes and learning a lot of mathematics for the first couple of years while working on small class projects and reading lots of papers in different areas, as opposed to trying to find an RA. He said having an RA means one is forced to work on one problem, and that doesn't let you explore on your own.

This is a totally new perspective to me. Until now I felt very ashamed of not having an RA, as I thought it reflected professors' lack of confidence in my capability as a researcher. Now maybe I am starting to see this as an opportunity to explore. However, I want to know other people's thoughts on this too; is it wise to spend the first two years just studying? He said that this would make life very easy for me about three years down the line when I am actually attacking problems. But I am just scared that this would be too late.

Do people in theoretical fields typically do this? Or do they learn on the fly? I don't want to be left behind and have regrets after two years at having taken things too slow now.

  • 8
    Sometimes senior graduate students give terrible advice. What do you want to achieve in graduate school? Usually the goal is to perform as much research as possible. In that case, get an adviser, seek an RA, and start doing publishable research. Otherwise your PhD will take three years longer than it needed to. This is why many PhD programs expel students who do not have advisers. Mar 9 '16 at 8:59

In my field (Engineering) being an RA at the beginning is actually important. You get to work on 1-2 problems, publish 2-3 journal articles and couple of conference papers. This will help you in the long run, since publishing, establishing your name and getting citations needs a long time. The earlier you publish, the better you chances of getting higher number of papers and citations (will help when applying for academia jobs or even immigration in some cases). TAing will help too (but let's as an assistant professor, having a good research background almost wins over having a good teaching exp. Since as a TA, you do not really get to have the full teaching exp. (search committees know that!!). This is my 0.02!!

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    I really like this answer. You are right, getting publications and establishing one's name as a researcher does take time. I am back to being stressed about this, but I guess that's better than being under the delusion that all is well the way it is. Thanks a lot for your response!
    – user42273
    Mar 9 '16 at 19:11
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    I strongly disagree with this answer. Doing research is important. Being an RA is not.
    – JeffE
    Mar 10 '16 at 3:51

There are two separate issues here, and it is important to keep them separate.

  • You absolutely need to get involved in research as soon as possible. The entire point of a PhD is to do research. It's important to get into the practice of doing research from the very beginning of your PhD program, if not sooner. Do not wait until you're done with classes. Do not wait until you've read another book, or five more papers. Do not wait until you have an advisor. Start now. Yes, your inexperience does mean that there are problems you aren't prepared to work on; work on something else.

  • It is not necessary and it may not even be desirable to have an assistantship to support your research. First, you work in a research area that does not require specialized equipment or a laboratory; your research only requires time. You can acquire that time either by acquiring a research assistantship or by signing up for research/independent study/thesis credits. If you can't do the former, do the latter; arrange your classes accordingly. Second, accepting a research assistantship may constrain you to work on one of your advisor's research projects, but you need to develop your own independent research agenda. It's your PhD. You need to hunt it down and kill it.

In short: You absolutely need to be doing research now. Being an RA is of secondary importance.

(My students and I are theoretical computer scientists.)

  • Thank you. I have follow-up questions on both your points: (meta question- hitting enter saves this as a reply, how do I prevent that?) 1) So when you say start research despite lack of a 'complete' math background, does it mean read papers, understand them as best as possible and try to extend them? 2) Developing my own research agenda: is this also done by reading papers and figuring out what I like?
    – user42273
    Mar 11 '16 at 3:30

Regardless of being a TA or RA, you will have duties you are expected to perform and at the same time you can explore ideas and learn. Those aren't mutually exclusive, but which one will give you more time to do so? RA.

Being a TA means you have duties such as grading, proctoring, tutoring, and lecturing which may not lead to you learning anything or make progress on projects. It is a good opportunity to meet other students, professors, and see how classes are ran though.

Being an RA means you won't have those tasks and can devote all of your time to a project and exploring other ideas.

From what I have read, in various science fields, it is recommended to TA for a few semesters but then be an RA. Being a TA won't help you progress in your PhD.

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    which may not lead to you learning anything — If you're not learning anything from teaching, you're doing it wrong.
    – JeffE
    Mar 10 '16 at 3:50
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    @JeffE Good point, but I don't know many TAs that actually teach. All I had the opportunity to do was grade when I TAed a discrete mathematics course. Mar 10 '16 at 4:19

I had to TA through most of my PhD. Call it Stockholm syndrome, but I enjoyed it, and often found it more fun than my research. Teaching is a good change of pace, and keeps you more active, since you are doing a wider variety of things, and have to be at certain places at certain times. You get more social interaction, both with students and other TAs, and if you TA introductory classes you can really bond with the large number of TAs on your team. It kind of felt like being part of a student organization, except I got paid, and we hosted midterms instead of parties.

If all you do is research, it is easier to get depressed when your research doesn't work, and it's easier to never talk to people.


If you go for a PhD, you want to go into research. To get to do research as part of your duties, and get paid for it, is the ideal match. Sure, you should also teach (it'll probably be part of your duties later on), but your evaluation of that as a professor will be more in the line of "OK if no very serious complaints" and move on to the next item.


Some of the guys who posted earlier don't understand that when you are a funded PhD student (i.e., most international students in Engineering including myself!), you can get to choose to be an RA or TA (in some cases), however most of the time this is determined by your adviser and how his/her and the Dept.'s funding is allocated.

For instance, in my case of being an RA, I got more free time to explore research and publish more since I didn't lose any time grading or TAing. But, still even when I was a TA, I still made the time needed to continue my progress and maintain the same number of publications/year. Keep in my mind that some advisers tend to go a lil easier on students with TA since they understand that you need more time to do your own research. I work with a rockstar adviser and he has told me from day one that if you want to be successful, you'll need to find time and stay HUNGRY for more! If you can do 1 paper/semester, next semester you better work twice as hard to get 2 papers done.

I'm still a PhD student (Civil Eng.) and have a high number of publications and citations. To be honest, my adviser has always asked me to be an RA since my record is really good. He gets to travel a lot and I keep the research mill running. He is very supportive and always there to answer my questions.

I see merit for TAing too. You get to directly interact with students and learn how to structure notes and lectures. Get some motivation and learn to improve your teaching skills. But if your TA is pure grading, then that is a very sad job!!

Keep in mind, when you apply for Academia, your research record and not your TA record is what matters the most!!!

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