Graduate Teaching Assistant: Job Description, Pay

Graduate Teaching Assistant: Job Description, Pay
Robbie Bruens October 4, 2012

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Graduate teaching assistants are indispensable to our system of higher education. With millions of undergraduate students enrolled in colleges and universities, the demand for college-level instruction far outstrips the number of professors at any given time.

Graduate teaching assistants fill this gap by serving as primary instructors for undergraduates in many college courses. While giving undergraduates closer instructional attention than tenured professors have time to provide, graduate teaching assistants also gain valuable teaching experience on the long road to professorship.

Our guide will give you a sense of what it takes to become a graduate teaching assistant, including the required education, likely income, and pros and cons of this kind of work. Browse through the article or use the following links to skip forward to what you’re looking for:

> Graduate teaching assistant job description
> Who makes a good graduate teaching assistant?

The road to professorship
> Graduate teaching assistants
> Adjunct professors
> Tenured and tenure-track professors

Professional development
> Continuing education

Related careers
> Jobs beyond teaching

Best of the web
> Sites and Twitter handles to follow

At-a-glance: graduate teaching assistants

  Graduate teaching assistant Adjunct professor Tenured professor
Education Must be enrolled in graduate degree program Master’s degree at minimum, doctorate preferred Doctorate
Estimated annual income $30,810 (BLS)
$22,383 (
$18,501 (
$24,000 to $36,000 (Recruiter)
$31,357 (
$27,843 (
$34,000 (
$20,000 to $25,000 (NPR)
$72,470 (BLS)
$114,134 (
$84,422 (
$84,966 to $159,427 (

Graduate teaching assistant job description

A graduate teaching assistant is a graduate student enrolled in a university who also teaches undergraduate students at that university.

As students, graduate teaching assistants take courses and pursue their studies in a specialized academic field. They also help professors teach undergraduate courses.

Professors often present lectures to hundreds of undergraduates in a single course. Graduate teaching assistants provide more personalized instruction to smaller groups of undergraduates in subsections of the course.

The most important day-to-day duties of a graduate teaching assistant include:

  • Teaching the assigned curriculum in one- to three-hour classroom sessions
  • Leading class discussions and answering student questions
  • Evaluating student essays, projects, labs, tests and other assessments
  • Maintaining records on student progress/grades

Who makes a good graduate teaching assistant?

Someone who is:

  • Inquisitive, creative and curious
  • Sociable and easy to talk to
  • Passionate about connecting with students
  • Patient and resourceful
  • Organized and careful about time management
  • Devoted to learning
  • Attentive to details
  • A lover of reading
  • Service-oriented
  • Able to laugh and have a sense of humor
  • Thoughtful about interacting with people from diverse backgrounds
  • Excellent at oral and written communication
  • Highly knowledgeable about their subject area
  • Pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate in a field related to the subject they teach

Interested in becoming a graduate teaching assistant?

Check out this video to get a better sense of what it’s like to be a graduate teaching assistant.

The road to professorship

Many graduate teaching assistants hope to eventually become tenured professors in their academic specialties. Let’s take a look at this career path in more detail, starting with a more in-depth look at graduate teaching assistants, followed by an examination of adjunct professors, and ending with a description of tenured and tenure-track professorships.

Graduate teaching assistants

Graduate teaching assistants make up a significant percentage of instructors at four-year universities. They teach courses part time, as they are also current graduate students.
Continue reading to learn more about graduate teaching assistants

What graduate teaching assistants do

Graduate teaching assistants work with the faculty in their departments in colleges and universities. Though they often cover subsections of larger courses taught by professors, they may get the opportunity to teach courses on their own. They tend to work on a contract basis, teaching undergraduates while pursuing graduate degrees.

The main challenge for graduate teaching assistants is balancing teaching with the pursuit of a graduate degree. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent way to gain teaching experience and develop relationships with professors who will be integral to the success of your career in academia.

A graduate teaching assistant may work 20 hours a week or more on teaching. Job duties are similar to those of a professor:

  • Teaching undergraduate courses
  • Leading discussions in the classroom
  • Answering student questions
  • Creating lesson plans and materials
  • Giving exams and grading papers

Much of the rest of the graduate teaching assistant’s time is devoted to earning a master’s degree or doctorate. This includes taking graduate courses in your specialized academic field, conducting your own research and working as a research assistant for tenured faculty members.

Education and certification requirements

To be a graduate teaching assistant, you must first complete a bachelor’s degree and then enroll in a graduate program. You will be an enrolled graduate student working towards either a master’s degree or a doctorate for the entire time you are a graduate teaching assistant.

Income projections

Graduate teaching assistants receive a small salary, but a significant part of their compensation is the tuition or fee waiver that makes the cost of their graduate education much less expensive.

Here are four estimates of annual salaries for graduate teaching assistants:

  • BLS: $30,810 (median)
  •  $18,501 (median)
  • $22,383 (average)
  • NPR: $24,000 to $36,000 (range)

Pros and cons of being a graduate teaching assistant

As you consider becoming a graduate teaching assistant, think through the pros and cons of the job.


  • Teach part time, with the rest of your time available to focus on studies
  • Teach students who are dynamic, enthusiastic and eager for opportunities
  • Help students find direction and focus, which can have an immediate and lifelong impact
  • Opportunity to find intellectual and academic direction
  • Connect with professors who can serve as mentors and long-term career contacts


  • Low pay when compared to other jobs that require a bachelor’s degree
  • Must juggle work as a teacher with responsibilities as a student and researcher
  • Job is low status and temporary

Adjunct professors

Adjunct professors represent a majority of the instructors at U.S. colleges and universities. They frequently teach at colleges and universities on a part-time or temporary basis.

Continue reading to learn more about adjunct faculty

What adjunct professors do

Adjunct professors teach courses as graduate teaching assistants do, but they are not necessarily enrolled in school while teaching. In many cases, they conduct research in their field of academic inquiry while they carry out their teaching duties. Many teach introductory courses that students are required to take, or remedial courses to bring students up to a college-level skill set.

The most common duties of adjunct professors include:

  • Educating students in a specialized academic field
  • Creating a course syllabus that meets department and college standards
  • Working with colleagues to improve course curriculum
  • Staying current on important changes and/or discoveries in the field they teach
  • Planning and presenting lectures
  • Leading in-class discussions
  • Answering relevant questions from students during or after class
  • Advising students on how to succeed in class
  • Grading papers, labs, quizzes and exams
  • Assigning grades to students based on participation, performance in class, assignments and examinations

Many people become adjunct professors while searching for tenure-track professorships. Therefore, some adjunct professors will eventually move on to another job that will give them the opportunity to eventually join tenured faculty. Others may remain adjunct professors for years with little hope of further advancement.

Educational and certification requirements

At minimum, adjunct professors must have a master’s degree in a field closely related to the subject they will be teaching. Many adjunct professors are expected to have a doctorate, or be working toward one.

Salary projections

Income for adjunct professors can vary widely, depending on location, the discipline they teach, education level, teaching experience and research background. Here are four estimates of annual income for adjunct professors:

  •  $31,357 (median)
  • $34,000 (average)
  • $27,843 (average)
  • NPR: $20,000 to $25,000 (range)

Unlike full-time faculty, adjunct teachers do not always work as year-round salaried employees. In many cases, they work as temporary contractors and are paid by the course. To get a better sense of how this works, take a look at these estimates of pay per course for adjunct instructors at community colleges:

  • AAUP:  $1,800 to $2,700 per course
  • NPR: $3,500 per course, $7,000 per semester
  • Houston Chronicle: $2,000 and $5,000 per course

Adjunct professors rarely receive benefits like health insurance or pensions. And adjunct professors do not have tenure, which is an assurance of long-term job security and academic freedom.

Pros and cons of being an adjunct professor

As you think about what it takes to be an adjunct professor, think through the pros and cons of the job.


  • Teach students who are dynamic, enthusiastic and eager for opportunities
  • Help students find direction and focus, which can have an immediate and lifelong impact
  • Provide a great education to many first-generation college students, often from immigrant families
  • Get some income and stability while working toward earning tenure and joining the permanent faculty
  • Flexible hours and opportunities to take time off
  • A good job to balance with another part-time job


  • Lower pay than full-time faculty
  • Unlikely to receive benefits
  • Little job security
  • Rarely eligible for private office space

Tenured and tenure-track professors

Tenured professors are full members of the permanent faculty at colleges and universities.
Continue reading to learn more about tenured and tenure-track professors

What tenured and tenure-track professors do

Tenured professors usually earn an annual salary, health insurance and a pension. Tenure also guarantees long-term job security and academic freedom. Before becoming a tenured professor, you must first be hired as a tenure-track professor. It often takes five or six years for a tenure-track professor to earn tenure, and tenure-track professors are by no means guaranteed to eventually earn tenure.

Job security and academic freedom are two of the most important differences between tenured and tenure-track professors. In addition, tenured professors serve on the faculty senate of their university or college. Tenure-track professors must focus on publishing highly significant research in their academic field to earn tenure.

Tenured and tenure-track professors teach courses in their academic fields to graduate and undergraduate students. They also carry out research in specialized areas and publish their findings in journals, reviews and books.

Education and certification requirements

Earning a tenure-track position at a university or four-year college can be an enormous undertaking. At minimum, you will have to complete a doctorate that demonstrates your commitment to research and inquiry in your academic field. Getting a tenure-track faculty position at a college or university also requires that you publish original research and earn the respect and admiration of your colleagues.

As a tenure-track professor, you’ll gain tenure only after a rigorous multiyear period of examination by your peers. You must publish highly significant research in your academic field to eventually be elected by the other faculty members to join them as a tenured faculty member.

Income projections

Tenure-track and tenured professors at colleges and universities earn significantly more than adjunct professors and graduate teaching assistants. Here are a handful of annual salary estimates for professors:

  • BLS: $72,470
  • $84,422
  • $114,134
  • $84,966 to $159,427

There are also a number of websites and databases dedicated to tracking the salaries of professors that can provide more detailed information broken down by discipline and other criteria. To access this detailed information, check out the following sources:

Pros and cons of being a tenure-track or tenured professor

Consider both the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a professor at a four-year college or university.


  • Full benefits for health insurance and retirement security
  • Tenure-track positions give you an opportunity for long-term job security
  • Ample opportunities for research and grant funding
  • Publish your findings in prestigious journals and books
  • Get to teach students with a passion for learning and achievement
  • Highest-status position in the academic world
  • May be able to take on a leadership role at a college or university
  • Plenty of time off for vacation or a second career


  • Can be frustrating to work within bureaucratic institutions like universities
  • Academia can be highly competitive, with a “publish-or-perish” norm
  • Many years of advanced education are required
  • No guarantee of tenure
  • Lower pay than many high-status positions in the for-profit business world

Professional development for graduate teaching assistants

There are many ways to pursue professional development as a graduate teaching assistant.  You can join a professional association like the FACCC and the American Association of Adjunct Education or a union like the United Steelworkers, who are among the organized labor groups bringing collective bargaining to adjunct and graduate assistant teachers.

Graduate degree programs

If you want to become a graduate teaching assistant, you will need to enroll in a graduate degree program usually from an accredited university that offers a master’s or doctorate. By enrolling in a master’s or doctorate program, you will find graduate teaching assistant jobs available to help teach undergraduates at the university.

Jobs available to graduate teaching assistants beyond teaching

With additional education or certification, graduate teaching assistants may become teachers, librarians, instructional coordinators, assistant principals, principals or an educational administrator at a college or university.

High school teacher: Graduate teaching assistants often become high school teachers and vice versa. A bachelor’s degree is required to become a high school teacher, as is a teaching credential. A master’s degree will mean a higher salary as a high school teacher.

Librarian: A master’s degree in library science (MLS) is generally required for employment. Some states also require librarians to pass a standardized test.

Instructional coordinator: Instructional coordinators generally need to complete a master’s degree related to a subject like curriculum and instruction, and they may be required to have a teaching or education administrator license.

School principal: Graduate teaching assistants wishing to become a school principal should seriously consider earning a master’s degree in an education-related field. Most states also require public school principals to be licensed as school administrators.

Education administrator: Depending upon the position, either a bachelor’s or master’s degree may be required. For a higher-level position such as dean or president, a master’s degree or doctorate in educational leadership may be required.

Best of the web: our favorite graduate teaching assistant blogs, websites and Twitter handles

The web makes it easy for us to stay connected to prominent graduate teaching assistants. Here is a list of our favorite websites and Twitter handles, in no particular order.

Favorite graduate teaching assistant websites and blogs

Favorite graduate teaching assistant Twitter handles

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