Thursday, March 06, 2014

Time is of the Essence

Some recent e-mails from grad-student readers have concerned the issue of time management and being a teaching assistant (TA) vs. a research assistant (RA). If you are aiming for an academic career, particularly at a teaching-focused institution, is it better to be a TA and get teaching experience or is better to be an RA and get a solid research/publication record so you are more likely to get interviews?

My best answer is 'both', if you have that option -- some TA and some RA/fellowship mix seems ideal so that you have a good balance of teaching experience and focused research time.

In real life, there if of course no one answer, not even a wishy-washy one like 'both'.

Over the decades, starting when I was a grad student, I have seen many people who are overall more productive when they are teaching assistants and therefore theoretically have less time for research. For some, the 'structure' that being a TA imposes on the day/week makes it easier to be motivated to do research in the interstices, whereas being an RA -- with endless time to devote to research -- can be intimidating, resulting in not-much getting done.

Others only get work done when they are an RA. They don't focus on anything but teaching when they are a TA, even if technically the TA is a 'half time' position. You might not know if you fit one of these descriptions until you have been been a TA and an RA for a term or three.

Many people are somewhere between these extremes, of course, and I suppose someone could morph from one to the other (and back?) with time and circumstance.

Some of my grad-readers wonder: Do these traits persist post-graduation or can they be restricted to the grad-school environment for an individual? For example, if you have trouble balancing teaching and research (and other things) as a grad student, are you doomed, or will you figure it out later in a different environment if given the opportunity?

I think overall I would be guardedly optimistic about the chance for learning time management skills with time, as need and life situations (career, family, cats) require.

There is no point generalizing, though; specific experiences (please leave a comment) would be much more relevant and interesting.


Alex said...

This is an important point:
Over the decades, starting when I was a grad student, I have seen many people who are overall more productive when they are teaching assistants and therefore theoretically have less time for research. For some, the 'structure' that being a TA imposes on the day/week makes it easier to be motivated to do research in the interstices, whereas being an RA -- with endless time to devote to research -- can be intimidating, resulting in not-much getting done.

Too often, the topic of productivity draws too many absolutist statements, or too many "If you just stick to [speaker's preferred system] you will be fine." In reality, productivity can be a very individual thing.

So, I have no general pronouncement on which approach is better, but I will offer this related tip:

Sometimes you don't really know what you should do until you stop doing something and see if you miss it. If you soon find yourself missing it, and thinking about what you'll do if you can do it again, and planning out ways to do it better, then you should probably work towards a career that involves it. If, OTOH, when you stop doing something you stop thinking about it, or occasionally think about it nostalgically but mostly think about other things, maybe your new path is a better one.

xykademiqz said...

I've always been a person who does more with more structure, even now as a professor. I had a kid in grad school, and the set daycare hours that I could rely on to work helped me maximize productivity, so I published more than the peers who could technically spend 24/7 working. I also subbed for my heavy-traveler advisor quite frequently. Now, as a professor, I think the structure of teaching and meetings helps break up my days and makes me more efficient at doing research. As for junior grad students, I try to keep them as 100% RAs, because they have a lot of coursework to give them structure and I want hem to focus on research as much as they can in the rest of their time. For senior grad students, I have seen that many have issues with procrastination coupled with frustration when all they do is research. I actually recommend that they teach in their 3rd and 4th year at least a little bit, it gives them experience and breaks up their days, giving them a bit of reprieve from their research woes (also, a second or a third small, doable research project on the side helps as well). In my experience, partial TA + RA works well for a vast majority of grad students, they gain experience for their CVs and they really like interacting with undergrads. (I think the issue with TA-ing is often the load: if you just lead a discussion and have some office hours and no grading, which would be a partial TA, that's one thing. If on top of that you have three lab sessions and a ton of grading for a full TA, that's really another.)

NightOwl said...

I have done every combination of this available in grad school due to our funding structure, and here's how it worked out:

Year 1 - RA only, no TAing, just classes and research - compared to working full time as a busy lab manager this was a little bit too unstructured for me. I felt lost and overwhelmed a lot.

Year 2 - TA +classes + research - this on the other hand was a bit too much. I had a demanding TA assignment and a course with lots of work one semester and it was my toughest semester of grad school.

Year 3-now (4th year): TAing with no classes is a nice balance. Since I've had lighter TA assignments this year, I have been able to take on a leadership role in student government and still have time to get stuff done.

Typically in my program 5th years do research only but I've asked to be funded as a TA in part because it will break up my schedule (and in part for health insurance reasons).

Anonymous said...

In my experience, my TA requirements were <20 hours per week, especially when I TA-ed a class more than once. So, it gave me a lot more time to get other things done.
With an RA, I wonder if a distinction should be made between someone who is doing research that is related to or part of the thesis vs. unrelated.

Anonymous said...

At my university the rule for all PhD students is 20% TAing, 20% coursework and 60% teaching. It isn't really to the funding; the rule is the same no matter how the students are funded. The argument is that time management skills are a major requirement for an academic career (or indeed any career that requires a PhD), and therefore and important part of PhD education.

Anonymous said...

oops, that should have been 60% research...need to proofread the comment before submitting

Anonymous said...

The grad program I attended gave students their first semester TA/RA-free, which was really great while getting acclimatized. If it's possible to get that first semester free, it's a gift.

Anonymous said...

I taught through grad school and found that I liked being able to switch between research and teaching, when one got frustrating I could step back and work on the other. Sometimes a change is as good as a break. I think all the teaching I did was good practice for being faculty. I'm at an R1 but I still need to juggle teaching and research (particularly since I'm new so everything is a new prep). One thing in this though is that I'm a field biologist though and didn't have to teach during the summer so my busiest research season could be focused on research.

EliRabett said...

When Eli was a young bunny, he had an interesting deal. In addition to his fellowship (NASA and then NDEA), the department kicked in an additional 20% for teaching one lab class. The extra load was not a problem, the money was useful.

This split approach appears to have disappeared. It had much to recommend it.

Anonymous said...

At my university/in my discipline, all the grad students (who aren't on fellowships) will start as TAs in the most time- & labour-intensive courses. In subsequent years they either will teach the more advanced courses that require less time, or they will get RAships.

I will say that TAing in my first year alongside classes, research and coursework has been an *incredibly* steep learning curve in time-management. I can't put off any task for more than a week, because otherwise the backlog will become impossible to clear. You first semester of TAing will take more time than the expected 15-20 hours...but that will drop dramatically in semester 2.

Personally though I think that more RAships than TAships are better. If you are working in a lab-based science than an afternoon teaching pre-meds how to use a measuring cylinder really saps away research time (you can't run that purification now because it won't be finished before you must rush out the door to teach, you are burned out after arguing over grades and need another 45 min to decompress afterwards before you head back in to lab).

Get a mixture of both, but if you have a choice then request to TA early in your PhD program, and RA later.

Anonymous said...

This comment isn't totally relevant to the main topic, but I thought the problem with doing too much TAing as opposed to RAing is that you risk getting labeled as someone who isn't as serious about research. That's fine if you are looking for a tenure-track job in a place like mine, but I'd need to see actual data to believe that having several semesters of TAing on your CV helps you get a more research-intensive position. But, I may be too out of touch or two cynical on this issue.

Female Science Professor said...

An actual datum is that I was a TA or lab-organizer-person every single term of my graduate program. I was never an RA. This was not my preference but it turned out to be a useful experience.

Anonymous said...

That should have been "too" cynical up there; sorry for the homophonic moment. I was a TA in all but one year of grad school, and I wish I would have had a chance to have worked on some different projects and thus maybe had more publications. The one year of RA was a campus research fellowship where I worked on my diss project.

Anonymous said...

I was also a TA almost my entire PhD. I think it made me much better at time management and knowing how to maximize my time in the lab. One goal I tried to set for myself was always have one day (or more) per week that was completely free of teaching responsibilities so I could work on longer experiments or things that required more intense thought/concentration.

Now that I'm a post-doc and I'm only doing research I feel like have so much more time to read the literature or look for future project ideas, instead of lesson planning or grading during my breaks in experiments like I did in grad school.

EliRabett said...

Is TAing your entire time in grad school a sign that you picked the wrong mentor??

What are the responsibilities of an adviser to support their students?

Anonymous said...

I am a phd student close to graduation, and used to be a TA. I TAed in the first two years of my phd and switched to be a RA. I had also been put back to the TA pool once, because my department is short of TA. My advisor told me that his ideal phd career includes TA for the first two years and RA for the rest time (which explains why I am following this path).

As for research productivity, I think it depends on the coursework requirement of your phd program. According to my program, students are expected to spend 1-2 years taking a set of core courses, and I found being a TA in this phase is the best. I was learning and teaching, and switching between these two roles helped a lot. After finishing most of the coursework, I started to focus on my research projects as a RA and realized I could no longer use the excuse of being a TA when my progress was really slow :p But I've enjoyed the flexibility given by a RA job. During the semester I switched to TA, I found teaching really time consuming. I had expected to teach one of the courses that I taught before, but I was given an advanced course and had to prepare for the course materials for this one-time switching (which means I might not re-use the materials in the future). I still learned from this teaching experience, but I am glad to be back as a RA.

Anonymous said...

I feel very fortunate that I was both a TA and a RA over my grad school tenure. The TA positions showed me that I love teaching and wanted to make it my career. TA'ing also taught me to be comfortable in front of others, improved my communication skills, and gave me a deeper and broader background in the basics of my science. On the other hand, having a RA for the last two years of my PhD gave me the precious time needed to really delve into my research and get some papers written before I finished my degree.

I have friend who received a PhD after having only had an RA. He was unprepared for teaching in his academic job and has struggled with it ever since.

Sometimes, as a grad student, you cannot choose what type of funding you get. In that case, make the most of whatever it is!