Pros and Cons of Landing a Graduate Assistantship

College students are overwhelmed with a mountain of debt from student loans and the cost of going to college. Many consider graduate school programs completely out of reach because they cannot afford to increase their debt with no real means to pay for it. But, what if graduate school was free and you also got paid to be there? Landing a graduate assistantship is probably one of the best ways to finance your graduate school education.

Why Do You Want to Be a Graduate Assistant?

Graduate assistantship jobs, and yes they are technically jobs, are an avenue for you to make it through graduate school almost completely debt free. Landing a graduate assistantship typically means you receive a tuition waiver (or partial wavier depending on the program), healthcare coverage, and a stipend of some kind. Other more well funded or high demand graduate assistantship programs will even offer housing and meal allowances.
The benefits of being a graduate assistant go far beyond the tuition, stipend, and other benefits you receive. The department or program sponsoring the assistantship, in turn, get a hungry student to advance their research. Grad assistants are required to provide research help, develop new methodologies, and collaborate with peer-reviewed report writing as part of receiving financial assistance. In some cases, teaching responsibilities are also expected by graduate students. From the student perspective, the benefits of being a graduate assistant also include obtaining additional experience directly related to your field. Additional research and opportunities to apply your skills ultimately help you find a job after graduate school and be successful.

How Hard is it to Get a Graduate Assistantship?

The difficulty in landing a graduate assistantship ​varies greatly. It varies by the program, the university, and available research dollars. In liberal arts programs, most graduate assistantships are in the form of teaching assistants. These less research focused graduate programs use teaching assistants to help with instruction instead of research. The STEM fields of study have many more graduate assistantship jobs focused on research help and teaching assistance with labs.
Not every graduate program has openings for graduate assistantships. Openings vary by funding and an available administrator or professor sponsors. When positions are available, they tend to be advertised on university job boards, professor’s research websites, and/or on websites for professional societies in the field. Many are highly competitive because of the reasons mentioned above (tuition assistance and increased skills development). These positions are again much like a job. Make sure your resume for applying to a graduate assistantship is well developed and error free. The best graduate assistant programs expect professional writing, a clean and concise resume, and the ability to interview well. Also, extracurricular activities and experiences are helpful to stand out from the rest of the applicants. For instance, volunteer activities and being able to speak another language are powerful resume boosters to secure a graduate assistantship. Although not impossible, landing a graduate assistantship in any field at any university is high competitive.

Pros of Graduate Assistant Jobs

Here are the five advantages of landing a graduate assistantship.
  • Getting Paid – The number one advantage of a graduate assistantship is you get paid. It is very much like a job. You receive a graduate assistantship stipend and potentially other fringe benefits, which help you justify pursuing graduate studies.
  • More Experience – In most cases, you can use the graduate assistantship program as a key experience element going forward in life after graduate school. For example, skills can be directly applied to problems and tasks and this applied knowledge and newly developed skill set can be used for your future career.
  • Advanced Education Without More Debt – Besides the graduate assistantship stipend, programs provide tuition reimbursement that either pays for your graduate school entirely or for a large part of it.
  • Networking Opportunities – Graduate programs open doors to alumni and business leaders in your field. Often research you are part of is cutting edge and businesses quickly hire you after graduation. The connections you build through networking help you succeed faster in the real world.
  • Autonomy – Graduate assistantships are mostly unstructured. There is not a set schedule for working other than if you have to teach a lab or monitor a research project during specific times. This allows you more freedom to do work when you work best and take advantage of the college atmosphere for a few more years.

Cons of Graduate Assistantship Programs

Graduate assistantships are not always shining lights. Here are several disadvantages to being enrolled in one of these programs.
  • Less Earning Years – For those jobs that require a graduate degree, you have little choice when it comes to deciding to go to graduate school. However, graduate school is a big time commitment. It is less years you could be out earning a salary and building your retirement savings.
  • Working While Learning – Graduate school is much harder than you undergrad program. There are more difficult classes, bigger papers, and tougher exams that all have to be navigated successfully while performing your graduate assistantship duties. Unlike a real job, these duties are often unstructured and thrown at you last minute with short deadlines. This can pose a challenge for most people while trying to make good grades.
Let’s be honest, landing a graduate assistantship is challenging and highly competitive. But clearly the effort comes with reward. The pros heavily out weight the cons when you are considering whether or not to explore graduate assistantship jobs.
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