What is an Assistantship?

The question “What is an assistantship?” is particularly important to students planning to attend graduate school in many academic fields.

The majority of graduate students or others in professional degree programs need to work while they pursue their studies. Colleges and universities recognize this need, and they also recognize the role that research and teaching plays in academia. An assistantship is the answer that academic organizations have to provide financial support and offer teaching and research opportunities that help the school and student achieve mutual goals.

Teaching Assistantships

The TA or teaching assistant is one of the most familiar types of assistantships in universities. Undergraduate students taking large lecture courses will often be taught directly by TAs, while full professors, some of who may be internationally recognized scientists or researchers, provide lectures. TAs often grade student papers, proctor exams, or guide lab sections. Research by Nobel prize-winning Stanford physics professor Carl Wieman shows that TAs with the right kind of training in active learning strategies can provide the same, or better, learning outcomes for students, especially in the hard sciences.

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Lab Assistantships

Some universities refer to graduate students who receive appointments to work in science lab departments as lab assistants or Graduate Lab Assistants (GLA). Lab assistants are assigned a work schedule, typically no more than 50% time or 20 hours a week, and may or may not be asked to work on specific lab projects. They may also be asked to work with undergraduate students or lead assigned lab sections of undergraduate science classes.

Research Assistantships

Research assistants may sound similar to lab assistants, but the role differs. Most labs are conducted in the sciences, while research assistants may perform research in any discipline, from liberal arts to archaeology. Research assistants perform a vital role in many academic research programs, and are typically assigned to specific faculty members by their department or graduate program. These positions can carry prestige, as well as a monthly salary, stipend for housing and food, and opportunities for future academic appointments. Graduate research fellows are often recipients of grant funding provided from external sources.

General Graduate Assistantships

Some graduate assistants do not receive appointments to work in their specific field, for a specific instructor as a research assistant, or as a teaching assistant or associate in a specific department. Instead, they may be selected to perform other duties at the college. For example, they may provide administrative support to an academic office, such as a Dean or Provost, or they may be assistants to faculty or other academic government services.

Assistantships differ from Fellows or Fellowships primarily in the way they are compensated. The term “assistant” almost always indicates that the position is paid, whether through an hourly wage or a monthly stipend or salary amount. Most graduate student academic assistant positions, whether teaching, in a lab, or conducting research, are limited to no more than 20 hours a week. They are more than part-time jobs.

“What is an assistantship?” It is intended to provide both education and financial support leading to a graduate or professional degree.