A graduate teaching assistant is a qualified graduate student who helps a professor conduct lab or study groups, grade papers, or prepare lectures. Sometimes graduate teaching assistants may preside over their own course, with simply some guidance from a professor. There is a stipend (financial assistance) that is provided for this type of part-time academic employment.
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A graduate teaching assistant may help a professor teach an especially large class, grade papers, run classroom related errands, and perform other menial tasks at the suggestion of their overseeing professor. At some schools, experienced graduate teaching assistants are given their own class to teach, and only meet with their assigned professor occasionally to discuss how things are going. The classes that they teach are usually introductory courses in their field of study. For example, a graduate student studying english literature will generally instruct or assist in instructing a freshman composition class, or a similar class within the field.
Graduate teaching assistants also sometimes help professors complete research. Assistants in the sciences may work preparing, setting up, and cleaning labs and scientific instruments. They may also work in university-sponsored tutoring centers, helping undergraduate students succeed. For example, a graduate student in physics may work at a university tutoring center assisting introductory physics students with understanding concepts that they find to be complex.
In order to be a graduate teaching assistant, one must already be enrolled in a graduate program, and apply for an assistantship. Not all students who apply are accepted. Many universities that do offer assistantships only offer a limited number; therefore the competition is steep. Those that are accepted will work as an assistant in addition to taking their own classes. Once a student graduates from his/her program, they will no longer be eligible to be a graduate teaching assistant.