What is an Assistantship?

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Updated August 4, 2020

A graduate assistantship ("GA") is a great way for bright, ambitious scholars to strike several proverbial "birds" with a single metaphorical "stone." This is possible because students who work as graduate assistants enjoy singular access to multiple advantages. Besides being reliable sources of basic subsistence, GAs offer unparalleled opportunities to expand theoretical knowledge, develop practical skills, and build professional networks. All these fringe benefits add up to a phenomenal post-graduation payback.

What Is A Graduate Assistantship All About?

As the title implies, graduate assistantships entail employment in a supportive capacity while pursuing post-graduate education. The most common format for these academic-economic arrangements involves a grad student working under direct supervision of faculty member(s) at a college or university. Typical GA job duties include conducting relevant research for professors' scholarly publications, performing administrative and clerical tasks like typing and/or grading assignments, and helping coaches or housing directors manage athletic teams or dormitories.

What about GA Compensation?

Instead of annual salaries or hourly wages, GA positions pay a periodic fixed sum called a "stipend." PayScale, Inc. is a well-respected company that is widely recognized as the Web's biggest disseminator of real-time data on benefits and compensation throughout thousands of industries and occupations. Per PayScale, annual stipends for U.S. graduate assistants ranged between $13,472 and $40,712 with a median amount of $21,833.

Specific stipend amounts vary greatly and depend primarily on the student's institution, grade level, job duties, applicable academic discipline(s) involved, and geographical location. Thus, compensation for a microbiology PhD candidate attending a large university in a major metropolitan area will be greater than that of a student pursuing a masters degree in Liberal Arts at a small rural college.

Many GA positions also include health benefits and discounted tuition or student housing. Such pecuniary perquisites greatly reduce or even eliminate the economic strain of going to graduate school.

Major Caveats That May Cause Grave Concerns about GAs

Despite many mutual benefits for all concerned parties, GA's do have some drawbacks. Unlike conventional student financial assistance such as grants, scholarships, and loans, the IRS classifies GA stipends as regular income that is subject to federal, state, and local taxes. As educational institutions rarely deduct such withholdings, it the recipient's sole responsibility to reserve funds to meet these obligations. Finally, unlike conventional professional employment, typical maximum GA tenure is one academic year. Thus, GA stipends offer students little or no long-term economic security.

How to Find Graduate Assistantships

The best place to begin your GA quest is within your own academic program. Ask your current instructors about available GA openings. Also, peruse the offline and/or online job announcements that most colleges maintain to find GA job announcements. Be aware that most GA positions require written essays, letters, and/or applications to explain why you are the best candidate for the job. You may also have to provide academic transcripts and/or academic writing samples. Once you do land your long-coveted GA, be sure not to let your grades slip, as maintenance of a minimum grade-point-average is a standard condition of continued employment.

By far, the pros of graduate assistantships outweigh the cons. Cultivating helpful professional and academic contacts combined with drastically reduced pecuniary concerns make GAs well worth the investment of time and effort required to find, procure, and maintain them.

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