Best Practices for Advising Graduate Assistants

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

September 27, 2012

Sitting around my in-laws' dinner table, I mentioned that I was excited about my new graduate assistant. "So he's going to end up doing all the work?," snarked my unimpressed father-in-law. He's often mentioned how his professors used their assistants as easy-outs for avoiding the work of engaging students, crafting lectures, and grading papers.

We've all heard the complaint, and we all know there is a hint of truth to it. Graduate assistants can be a cheap form of labor. Professors can abuse their access to those eager workers. That (and rightly so) can lead to graduate assistants protesting, striking, or fighting for the right to unionize for better wages and working conditions.

Whether graduate assistants are employees or students, and whether they should earn higher wages are important questions with uncertain answers. What is certain, for me at least, is that if having a job in this academic market is virtually a miracle, then having a graduate assistant is a privilege and not a right—and one I should take seriously.

When I employ a graduate assistant, I see it as an opportunity not only to get some help with my research and classroom organization but also to prepare this person for the academic world, if that is their chosen path. I also see it as my opportunity to provide some financial assistance to someone who will one day, I hope, return the favor to his or her future assistant.

It is foremost a chance for me to be a mentor.

In my first graduate-assistant position, I worked for a young professor who did his best to be the dutiful mentor. He provided advice and opportunities that he felt would help prepare me for the future, and they did. I learned a great deal from him, though in time I began to look back at that mentoring relationship as somewhat disorganized. My next assistantship was with a professor whose disinterest in mentoring was overshadowed only by his narrow personal ambition.

As a result of those experiences, I committed myself to practicing a golden rule: "Do unto my graduate assistants as I would have had my professors do unto me."

I see my supervisory job as preparing them for their future work in academe (or elsewhere) and providing an enjoyable experience that they will actually want to share with their assistants in the future. I certainly haven't perfected the process, but for those who are interested in comparing notes, here are four best practices that I follow in overseeing graduate assistants.

Assign work commensurate with their experience. Then plan to progressively develop their competency and confidence. The first time I served as a graduate teaching assistant, I was immediately thrown in a sea of rubric-less grading, and barely kept afloat. I understood that the professor had confidence in my work, but since this was my first time grading, I was overwhelmed. Could I recognize an A? Was I unjustly assigning a D to some poor, unsuspecting student?

What I needed—and got, after asking for it—was a crash course on grading. The professor, however, didn't appear to follow up too thoroughly on my scoring. As far as I know, I simply entered the marks into his grade book and returned the papers. Did the students get what they deserved? Did I really learn how to grade?

When I work with a graduate student today, I discuss my expectations about grading, provide rubrics for papers, and pay attention to his wariness. I have my teaching assistant grade only a few papers initially. Then I review those papers' grades to discover where the TA needs help improving and to make sure my students are getting the grades they deserve. Over time I increase the grading load as I see my assistant learning and growing. That also increases my confidence in my teaching assistant's skills and the outcome of his or her work, lessening the amount of oversight required.

I take the same approach with all of the work my assistants do. They are not simply helping me, they are getting assignments, even if they are not always aware of it. For example, research they do for me begins at their level, which I can assess only by talking with them and reading a sample of their written work. I then up the ante, requiring a particular set of specialized databases or difficult primary-source research.

I also look for their greatest weaknesses and strengths and coordinate the work accordingly. If my assistant is an excellent scholar but not a "people person," I work to help her with her social skills. One cannot teach well if there is little patience for student personality clashes.

Never throw assistants in the deep end of the academic waters without a life jacket. They may survive, but they may never become skilled swimmers.

Make sure that the level of work is equal to the payoff. While the temptation may be to send a graduate assistant off to crack the whip while we disappear to do research and write, we need to take the extra step to help them understand how valuable their assistantships may be for their future.

Each term, make sure your assistants know up front what you plan to help them accomplish, and ask them what they hope to learn from the process. Tell them what experience you'd like to see them gain, how it will help their work in the future, and what it can do to help them land a future job. Explain how each new responsibility will contribute to their competency and specialization.

In other words, don't leave them guessing. A clear understanding of why you're asking them to tackle certain tasks not only aids their academic development but will help define their approach to their own graduate assistants down the road.

Focus their assignments on skills they can use. Whether it is grading, research, or teaching classes, make sure that whatever your assistant does for you is currency for their vitae.

Few students know what a vitae should look like, so before I have them write one—an early assignment I give all of my graduate assistants—I provide mine as an example. With every new experience they develop in our work, I remind them to add it to their CV. From time to time we look over the details together. Did they remember to add that research experience? What was the name of the lecture and course they taught last term?

I divide my teaching time between teaching traditional and online courses. The online ones present an additional opportunity for TA's to gain experience. While many of my colleagues grumble about the world of online education, and probably most of us would love to teach only in traditional formats, the truth is that online education is not going away any more than the computer is. Experience with Blackboard and other online tools can make a CV more attractive to a future employer and helps to prepare the future instructor for the inevitable.

If you have a chance to provide students with opportunities to gain publishing, specialized research, or lecturing experience, do so. Don't hesitate to recommend conferences where they might deliver papers—or anything else CV-worthy. Don't assume that your assistants intuitively know what is good for their careers. Make clear recommendations and help them where you can.

Be honest about the difficulties they face on the academic job market. We need students in seats to keep our jobs, so the temptation may be to plug them into the system and fudge the numbers when it comes to the promise of actual tenure-track employment. Let your graduate assistants (and your undergraduates) know that the tenure-track market is in a rough patch (if that is true for your field).

Take the time to explain their options outside of teaching. Depending on their field of study and experience, there may be postdoctoral research positions available as well as options in the publishing world, higher-education administration, university libraries, or nonprofit foundations. Encourage creative thinking (consulting and entrepreneurship) and emphasize the need to stay connected to their field. If they set up automated search agents at academic and philanthropic job sites for positions they may be interested in (in teaching or other employment sectors), they can keep track of how many openings they see, the qualifications required, and the trends. Such simple tactics can go a long way to educate your assistants on what they need to do to be competitive.

Do what you can to help them improve their odds. Make sure that they are in the right program for their goals. Make yourself available as a reference after graduation, and don't be shy about connecting them with opportunities you hear about. If they have a good experience with you they will stick around, and when they are alums, they will point other good graduate assistants in your direction.

The job-market news may not be pretty, but those who have accepted the challenge know that the life of the academic can be rewarding. Even if we do not rake in the big salaries, we have the honor of transforming future generations, contributing to important world conversations, and occasionally (committee work excepted!) experiencing the life of the mind.

Having a "best practices" policy for your work as a supervising professor is the first step toward securing that reward for yourself and for the assistants you are guiding.

Brandon G. Withrow is an assistant professor of the history of Christianity and religious studies at the Winebrenner Theological Seminary, and director of its master's program in theological studies.