What is an Assistantship?

As the average sticker price for earning a graduate degree continues to rise to nearly $30,000 at public universities and $40,000 at private colleges each year, many students pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree decide to supplement their funding with an assistantship. Graduate assistantships are defined as a form of paid academic employment in which students receive tuition reimbursement for the tasks they perform for faculty members, departments, or entire colleges. In exchange for the working around 20 hours per week in their chosen field, graduate assistants typically will receive a small stipend along with having the costs of tuition, room, and board paid in full. If you are considering attending graduate school and have no idea how on Earth you will afford it, read on to learn more about how assistantships can pay off.

Assistantships vs. Fellowships

Most graduate schools will offer both assistantships and fellowships to their students, but it is important to understand the key differences that distinguish these two often confused programs. First of all, fellowships are similar to scholarships in that they are granted to cover student costs, such as tuition, academic fees, housing, textbooks, and other essential supplies. Fellowships are generally sponsored by associations to provide money in exchange for short-term professional development opportunities lasting anywhere from a few months to a couple years in a specific field setting. On the other hand, graduate assistantships offer tuition coverage only for work completed on-campus like a work study program. Assistantships are also considered a salary and will not count as a financial aid award as fellowships do.

Responsibilities for Graduate Assistants

Working as a graduate assistant comes with a wide range of responsibilities that the student will be expected to perform for their funding. Teaching assistantships are available for students who are interested in working directly with undergraduates and professors to teach some lower-division courses. In most cases, teaching assistants are responsible for collaborating with other faculty members in the department, grading assignments, running study groups, maintaining office hours to meet with students, and filling in as a class teacher when needed. Research assistantships are also common to provide graduate students with the opportunity to work under the supervision of a professor to conduct research studies, analyze results, and publish findings.

Applying for an Assistantship

While there are some large universities offering so many assistantships that graduate students are virtually guaranteed a position, competition for becoming a graduate assistant can be extremely competitive at small to medium-sized colleges. After contacting your department about assistantships available, you will likely need to undergo a standard application process, certify that you will maintain a certain GPA, and complete at least one face-to-face interview. In most cases, graduate assistants will need to be highly motivated, possess strong time management skills, display appropriate communication abilities, and be organized enough to complete their work on top of what is already a busy academic schedule.

Not only are assistantships an excellent way for graduate students to significantly reduce the cost of earning an advanced degree, but they also provide a valuable entry into a resume for gaining experience in their chosen field of interest before graduation. If you are interested in completing a graduate assistantship, it is suggested that you follow these tips for seeking assistantships and start early to apply for openings well before starting your program.

Related: The University Fellowship Explained

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