Higher Education > Advanced Advice

The Working Student

Combining work and school offers benefits beyond just earning your keep.

By Teresa L. Dillinger, Ph.D.

Whether you're attending grad school right out of college or returning to campus after being out in the work world, you've probably reached a point in your life where it's up to you to pay for your education and living expenses. Even with scholarships, grants and loans, you'll probably still need to come up with enough money to cover gas, electric and phone bills—not to mention movies, pizza and Doc Martens.

Which is why landing a job as a teaching or research assistant while in graduate school allows you to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone—it pays your bills while allowing you to gain valuable work and school experience. Fortunately, most universities offer this part-time work as part of their financial package for incoming graduate students.

And there are several other ways to combine work and school without taking away from your ultimate goal-an advanced degree. But whether you decide to work on campus or off, it's important that you manage your time effectively to get the most out of the experience.

Teaching 101

Working as a teaching assistant is expected of most graduate students. In fact, many departments require that you assist in the teaching of a minimum number of classes, both for your own experience and to help department faculty with their teaching loads.

Although tasks vary from department to department and class to class, you can generally expect to be responsible for grading exams and papers, leading discussion or laboratory sections and meeting with students to help them with questions about the class.

Being a teaching assistant can be a very rewarding experience. While sharing your knowledge of a subject with undergrad students, you'll have the opportunity to polish your communication skills, as well as enhance your mastery of the subject. After all, you can't teach a subject unless you have a firm grasp of the topic, and there's nothing like a lab or discussion section with a group of students for learning the material.

For those pursuing academic careers, the experience of a teaching assistantship is invaluable. In most disciplines, it is impossible to obtain a position as a professor without some teaching background—which for most students means a teaching assistantship.

The time commitment, like the level of responsibility, can vary considerably for each teaching assistantship. And since working as a teaching assistant takes time away from completing the degree requirements, it is not uncommon for students in engineering and the sciences to prefer to work as research assistants for the majority of their graduate school tenure.

Research Assistant Positions

Most graduate students in the sciences, whether ultimately interested in a career in academia or industry, are delighted to receive a research assistantship. And for good reason—the majority of graduate student research positions in the sciences allow you to earn money while conducting your own research and working toward your degree.

This is in marked contrast to the humanities and social sciences, where teaching is the mainstay of support for most students since funding is comparatively sparse for research positions. Even when research positions are available in the social sciences and humanities, they are almost always for work on someone else's research project.

For science majors, the research assistantship provides a fast track to completing your degree because it does not take time away from your studies—instead it allows you to work on your degree requirements while creating a source of income. For most students this is indeed the best of all possible worlds.

This doesn't diminish the value of teaching assistantships in terms of experience or satisfaction, but it does explain the tendency for students in the sciences to gravitate toward research assistantships as their major source of funding.

Other Work Opportunities

An often overlooked employment opportunity is the internship. Many graduate students mistakenly believe that internships are only for undergraduate students—not so. Many employers are eager to hire interns seeking advanced degrees. And for the student, an internship offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to tryout a position that you may be considering. In addition, internships can provide grad students with networking contacts and can even lead to full-time employment once you've completed your education. Because internships are usually for a limited time period, it is unlikely that you can count on them to fund your entire education. However, every student should consider doing at least one because of the many benefits internships provide.

Finally, some students embark upon their graduate career with a job already in hand. Often these students are pursuing an advanced degree as a way to ascend the corporate ladder with their current employer.

For others, their employer may be funding their schooling for the benefit of the company. Going to graduate school under these circumstances usually requires especially careful time management given the demands of work, school and home.

Strategies for Success

Regardless of your source of employment, time management is one of the keys to successfully completing graduate school. So how can you maximize your time?

  • Set aside specific blocks of time for writing and research just as you would for any job. Be firm about not accepting other commitments that would infringe upon this time.
  • If you are a teaching assistant, practice careful time management in order to keep up with your own courses and research while meeting the responsibilities for the classes you teach.
  • Once you begin writing your dissertation or thesis, you may find it requires even more self-discipline to block out the necessary time periods to write—try to avoid distractions.
  • Work with your major professor to set firm deadlines for completing pieces of the larger task (e.g., completion of data collection, writing the first paper). Stick to your deadlines.
  • Avoid the temptation to continue additional research in the lab or research group that isn't necessary for completing your degree. This takes some diplomacy since some advisors may encourage you to continue gathering data or working on the lab's project even after you've gathered enough information for your thesis or dissertation. Knowing when to say no will help you finish in a timely manner.
  • Finally, have the next important step waiting for you—your career. It's important to line up a position before you finish graduate school. You'll find it's easier to finish school in a timely manner when you know you are about to embark on the next exciting stage of your career but harder to use time wisely when there appears to be no final deadline. However, don't start your new position until you are finished with graduate school. Many students who do this, often with the best of intentions, never find time to complete their degree once they are catapulted into the working world.

Teresa L. Dillinger, Ph.D., is a professional development coordinator with the Office of Graduate Studies and a coordinator of career services for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars with the Internship and Career Center at the University of California, Davis.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice