The PH SPOT Essential Guide:
A step-by-step manual for finding, applying to, and thriving in research and teaching assistant roles during graduate school

Are you a masters or doctoral student looking for guidance on how to secure that research or teaching assistant role? Looking for a convenient way to be employed while completing your degree? We know you’ve got lots of questions on how to land an employment opportunity as a student at your institution. So, we reached out to Meghan Haffey, MPH, DrPH(c) to give us her take on how she was able to work in multiple research and teaching assistant roles during her time as both a masters and doctoral student, and now as a doctoral candidate. She’ll even give us an inside look on how one of her roles landed her an awesome project to use for her dissertation!

On this page, you’ll find information on:

  • What is a graduate research assistant (GRA)? What is a graduate assistant (GA)? What about a teaching assistant (TA)? 
  • Why would I become a GRA/TA? How do I decide which I should do?
  • How do I find out about GRA and TA opportunities? 
  • How can I be selected for a GRA or TA opportunity?
  • Did your GRA role help you with your dissertation?

Part 1: What is a graduate research assistant (GRA)? What is a graduate assistant (GA)? What about a teaching assistant (TA)? 

A graduate research assistant (GRA) is a student enrolled in the graduate school who is employed to assist one or more faculty members in their research. For example, a GRA might assist faculty in a literature review, create existing research project materials, conduct data analyses, or help with transcribing/coding of qualitative text. Typically, GRAs support existing research projects that the faculty is already working on or planning to work on soon. You may also hear this position referred to interchangeably as a “research assistant” (RA). However, at my institution, there is a distinction where GRA is specifically a student position, while RA is a staff position. So, while you’re enrolled as a student, you can be a GRA on one or more projects, and if you wish to continue working on a project after you graduate, you can be transitioned to a full-time RA staff position. For the purpose of this post, it’s important to keep in mind that the tips related to securing a GRA position during your program are the same for securing a RA position after you graduate.

A teaching assistant (TA) is a student enrolled in graduate school who helps the professor with anything related to the course, from leading in supplemental lectures to grading assignments. TAs are also responsible for being available to students as needed to answer questions outside of class, by either staying after class to answer questions or holding office hours. Depending on the professor and the level of the course, TAs can have a little to full work load. TAs usually work between 10-20 hours a week during the Fall and Spring semesters, and the expectations of a TA are usually based on the professor. You typically apply to be a TA for a course if you’ve completed the course and performed well. I always encourage students to be a TA for a professor they have a good relationship with and can see themselves working well with in the classroom setting. 

During my time in graduate school, I’ve been both a TA and a GRA. In some semesters, I was employed as both. If your time allows for it, you can have multiple positions in the same semester. At my institution, student employment was broken down by percentage time. One semester, I was a GRA for 75% time and a TA for 25% time. Another semester, I was a GRA for 50% time and a TA for 50% time. There were also semesters that I preferred to not be employed for 100% time because I had a particularly heavy course load. Be sure to discuss taking on a GRA and/or a TA position with your advisor to determine if you can handle the workload with your course load that semester. 

Something important to note: Typically, these types of positions are paid. However, there may be some instances where faculty are looking for unpaid research support on a project. In this case, the student may be acknowledged via a publication and/or gaining experience that can help further their career. It is up to you to decide whether it is worthwhile to pursue this role as an unpaid opportunity.

Part 2: Why would I become a GRA/TA? How do I decide which I should do?

When thinking about which role is right for you, it’s important to consider how the position will compliment your degree experience. For example, a masters student may have different motivators for securing one of these roles compared to a doctoral student. Some reasons why students are employed in one or more of these roles are: (1) to secure a flexible and convenient income source with benefits while being a student; (2) to enrich or supplement the training experience; (3) to fulfill a requirement if it’s a condition of acceptance into the program; and/or (4) to seek out opportunities for thesis or dissertation work. A driving factor for continuing to have one or more of these positions during my graduate school experience was that I needed to maintain at least 50% employment to be eligible for insurance and to keep my benefits. If I dropped below 50% during any semester, I would have to pay for student insurance. It was easier for me to stay employed at 50% or more every semester to keep my insurance, and to continue working with faculty on projects and in courses that I really enjoy.

During my masters degree, I leaned more towards TA positions because I planned to finish the degree in less than 2 years since I was enrolled full time all the way through my MPH. TA positions during my MPH program ended up being more flexible and convenient with my schedule, and gave me more time to think about what research projects I’d be interested in being a GRA on during my doctorate degree. When I continued into my doctorate degree at the same institution, I was more established in my institution and had good relationships with many of the faculty members. These relationships made securing both TA and GRA positions much easier because faculty members would recommend me to one another if an opportunity came up that they knew I’d be interested in. During your time as a graduate student, it is important to continue networking with faculty and furthering those relationships prior to working with them, especially if you plan to work with them on a project as important as your thesis or dissertation.

It’s also important to note here that not all programs will require you to work in one or more of these positions. It may be perfectly acceptable in your institution to look for positions outside of your institution instead. Be sure to check your institution’s work-related requirements before agreeing to any position.

Part 3: How do I find out about GRA and TA opportunities? How do I know if a position is right for me?

The most important thing to remember when looking for GRA and TA opportunities is to be assertive and actively look for the available positions. Use your established relationships with faculty to network and seek out available positions because they will not necessarily come to you passively. Faculty like to set apart the students who actively seek out available positions from those who expect them to “fall in their lap” – if you show interest and are able to meet with the faculty member who posted the position, you’ll have a much greater chance of landing the role.

Additionally, each institution has a different way of letting students know what positions are available. You may not always see a formal job posting for a GRA or TA role. Sometimes, these roles are filled simply by the student having the conversation with the faculty member and expressing interest in working with them. You’ll find that word of mouth recruiting goes a long way in graduate school to fill these roles, whether that be finding out what roles are available from other students or from faculty directly. It’s important to continue reaching out to faculty with your research and teaching interests so they can keep you in mind if an opportunity does come up in the future. 

If you’re completely unsure of where to start finding out about GRA and TA positions, start with talking to your faculty advisor. Set up a meeting to discuss your goals in the program, and where you’d like to see yourself contributing to faculty efforts in the classroom and/or on research projects. Also, stay updated by reading the student newsletter, speaking with someone from Student Services, checking the institution’s job search engine, or even cold-emailing faculty if you see they have similar interests as you. If you do decide to reach out via a cold-email, be clear in what your ask is (i.e., that you are interested in learning about any paid opportunities to support their research or course) and briefly outline some relevant skills you would bring to their team (e.g., past experience conducting literature reviews, etc.). The worst that can happen is they say “no”, but you’d be surprised how many times they say “yes”, especially if you already have a good relationship with them.

Part 4: How can I be selected for a GRA or TA opportunity?

Once you know what GRA and/or TA roles you’re interested in, your next step is to apply if there’s a formal job posting. If there isn’t a formal job posting, reach out to the faculty member you’re interested in working with and let them know! Tell them why you’d be a good fit for the GRA or TA position, and that you’re excited to work with them. Rapport with faculty is key here, especially since these positions are often filled informally (i.e. may not have a formal interview / application process). It’s also important to maintain a good relationship with the faculty you work with because it’s common to continue to have the same position for multiple semesters if the funding allows for it, or if the course is taught more than once each year. 

In my experience, a professor who I worked for as a TA enjoyed working with me so much that each time the course was offered during my time in the program, he held the position for me to have if I wanted it. This ended up being very convenient for me because I could anticipate my percentage workload in future semesters where that course was offered. It also made it so I knew I was guaranteed employment in that semester if that course was offered for me to TA. The same idea applies to GRA positions – as long as the project has funding, you’re guaranteed to have your GRA position throughout your time at school. Once you find the GRA and/or TA roles you enjoy, you usually end up being set for employment for the rest of your degree!

Part 5: Did your GRA role help you with your dissertation?

Yes! One of the benefits of having one (or multiple) GRA roles is that you’re already established in existing faculty research projects. This is huge, especially if you’re interested in the same research topic as the one your current project is exploring. In my experience, I’m working as a GRA on a community-based COVID-19 testing and vaccination project with many UTHealth faculty members. Because we’re collecting so much valuable data in this NIH-funded project (and because they want to publish as many papers as possible from findings from this project), I was granted permission to use parts of the data for my dissertation research. This created an opportunity for me to use secondary data, which is always going to be more convenient than having to do primary data collection all by myself. If you’re wanting to complete your dissertation quickly, my biggest piece of advice is to get established on an existing (and thus already funded) research project as a GRA, and see if you can get permission to use some of their data for your dissertation. Most of the time, they’ll say yes because it means they’ll get another paper published from their research that they don’t even have to write!

Part 6: Closing thoughts 

In conclusion, holding a GRA or TA position can be very valuable. In my experience, it ended up being an excellent dissertation opportunity. For others, it can be a cool publication opportunity. The most important question to ask yourself when deciding if a GRA or TA position is right for you is, “how can this role enhance my graduate school experience?” This can also be a question you bring to your faculty advisor to get even more advice and guidance. Every opportunity you take in your program sets you up for success in the field after you graduate, and as an MPH, almost DrPH in public health, I strongly recommend becoming a GRA and/or TA during your time in graduate school. You never know – your position may even set you up for success with your dissertation!

If you’re interested in hearing more about Meghan’s experiences as a GRA and TA, please check out her recent podcast episode on the topic. You can also listen to her past podcast episode on her journey and experiences pursuing a DrPH degree.


About the author

Share your story

Are you a passionate and dedicated individual with a vision for helping advance public health professionals and their careers around the world? Do you want to share real advice and personal stories on our blog?


A simple template to get you started.

We will also add you to our Public Health community so that you can receive more awesome stuff from us. If you’re not enjoying them, you can unsubscribe instantly.