Balancing TA Assignments with Research

Here are some thoughts from Prof. Tom Baehr-Jones (E.C.E Uni. Delaware). One of many valid view-points about making the most of being a TA.

“All of the funds and support we get from the university is justified in part by our ability to teach undergrad courses. So this is, plainly and simply, a must have.

“But I also want to stress for everyone how it can really be in your own self-interest to TA a course. Here are some of the many reasons:

  • Advance the cause of education and science
  • Get a resume item if you wish to be a professor someday
  • Get paid a bit more (pending us figuring out how to do this)
  • Help group meet a requirement that keeps us in business

“But maybe more importantly:

  • Meet new students, identify the best ones, get them excited about science, and then recruit them to work on your research project for free

“Do you find it boring to probe 1e6 devices for electrical resistivity? Well, if you play your cards right, you can recruit an undergrad to work on this project for you. If you find the right person, and frame the opportunity properly and train them correctly, they will be happy to do literally 100s of hours of work for you, at no cost, if it's part of a research agenda. They are lucky to have this opportunity. Believe me. I was an undergrad interested in science, but with no idea how to find my way into the world of research. I really wish I had the kind of opportunity that you guys can offer these incoming students.

“Being a TA is probably going to cost you 4-6 hours per week. What you can get in return in terms of time contributed from students can quickly make up for this - if you go into it with the right attitude. Of course if you show up and view the task as nothing more than a burdensome exercise, then don't expect to get anything back.

“A long time ago, I was a TA back at Caltech. Probably 60% of the class had a bad attitude, and complained bitterly at having to solve the differential equation:

dy/dx = -k * y

“IT IS NOT FAIR” shrieked the students majoring in engineering at Caltech. “CALCULUS WAS NOT A PREREQUISITE!!!!”

“Yes, it would have been easy to get cynical. But I kept faith in science, stayed positive, and tried to get my students excited in what I was doing. In addition to getting some great stories (like the time I nearly burned my hand off with molten quartz - do you know how well that story works in bars?), I got some students excited in science, who then wanted to work with me. One of these students was Michael Hochberg.

“Bottom line: if you go into doing this TA with the right attitude, I think you're going to find that even solely in terms of your self-interest in research or a startup, the whole activity quickly pays for itself.”

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