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How to Become a Graduate Assistant

December 04, 2020 · 5 minute read

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How to Become a Graduate Assistant

Graduate school can be expensive. Students who find ways to fund a higher degree often face the additional costs of living expenses and textbooks, perhaps have less time to work around their studies, and may be juggling undergrad student debt.

A graduate assistantship can buoy finances and boost connections. More students are taking on a larger amount of debt for master’s programs (student loan debt has reached $1.7 trillion in total, according to the Federal Reserve), it might be tempting to write off the entire pursuit as an expensive gamble, if it were not for the fact that a graduate degree is often about more than money.

Graduate school can provide students with skills, knowledge, a network, and a wider set of career opportunities. Even if students don’t leverage the new degree into a foothold in the related field, it could increase an employee’s value in the future—regardless of where they might land.

It can be hard to assess whether a graduate degree is worth the money spent on it until a professional position is obtained after finishing the degree. A good way to mitigate some of the costs associated with a graduate degree may be to consider becoming a graduate assistant at a university while pursuing an advanced degree.

Realize that not every program will have openings. If they do, the best programs expect professional writing, a concise resume, professional writing, and good interview skills. If you can’t become a graduate assistant immediately, consider these ideas to help pay for grad school.

Applying is usually straightforward: Submit an assistantship application to the graduate school, tell your graduate coordinator of your interest, and contact the office or lab you’re interested in working in.

What Is a Graduate Assistant?

Graduate assistants are college and university students in graduate or professional schools who assist departments or professors in a research or administrative capacity. Students may be paired with professors actively engaged in research or work that might complement a graduate student’s career goals or current focus.

The positions often benefit both the university and the student. The university is able to fill positions that would be more costly if filled by a traditional employee. The student typically receives a monthly stipend or a fixed sum of money to help offset expenses. Some programs may also offer class credit for these jobs.

Things to Consider

Overall, graduate assistant programs are meant to offer a bit more value to potential students, and to defray at least a portion of the costs associated with pursuing a graduate degree.

When combined with scholarships, grants, and other financial awards, becoming a graduate assistant can make the costs of grad school less of a bottleneck. Some schools also offer tuition waivers—for some or all tuition—for qualifying graduate assistants.

Varying criteria determine who may receive a tuition waiver as a graduate assistant, so it would be advisable to do finer-combed research at institutions you’re considering, but waivers are commonly extended to individuals who are employed by the school already, those who have financial or other hardships, veterans (or the spouse or dependent of a veteran), and foster children.

Many of these types of programs are state-funded, and how they’re deployed may depend on the school, so further pros and cons may surface as you do your research.

An unstated strike against hoping to become a graduate assistant who also receives a tuition waiver is that it’s highly dependent on individuals and their circumstances, which means if you don’t fit the description, you likely won’t be eligible.

Even though there are both full and partial waivers, the competition for them can be significant. If your educational goals are on a firm timeline, pursuing a waiver might delay your plans—or wind up never being awarded. The best way to find out more about tuition waivers and how they intermingle with graduate assistant programs is to visit a college’s website or call the department that is the focus of your studies.

In some cases, applicants are automatically considered for waivers—but it would be a bummer to find out you didn’t get a waiver because you didn’t submit the required application.

Another potential negative is that a stipend counts as taxable income, though it isn’t considered wages, so you won’t pay Medicare or Social Security taxes on it.

At Cornell University Graduate School, for example, its financial support website states:

“At the graduate level, all fellowship and assistantship stipends are considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service and by New York State.” So while assistantships do bring in some extra money, Uncle Sam also takes his portion.

As for tuition waivers, graduate assistants can exclude up to $5,250 worth of educational assistance benefits from their income each year, according to the IRS.

But it also means that they can’t use any of the tax-free education expenses as the basis for any other deduction or credit, including the lifetime learning credit. Any amount of the waiver exceeding $5,250 is deemed taxable income.

If you’re considering becoming a graduate assistant, know that many universities suggest people with such positions do not also seek outside employment.

It’s a common policy intended to protect a graduate student’s limited bandwidth—being a full-time student with an assistantship can feel like two full-time jobs, which means any other part-time job would by definition get a remaining third of your energy for a significant portion of your week. Which would leave even the most high-functioning among us, most likely, to be little more than stress zombies.

If you do find that you need to juggle a job and full-time studies, you might benefit from tips to balance work and school without losing your sanity. And remember that where you’re looking at going to school will also dictate how far a stipend can stretch. An assistantship can typically help cover more expenses in the Midwest as opposed to, say, California.

If the potential positives outweigh the potential negatives of becoming a graduate assistant, it might be worthwhile to read up on finding scholarships for grad school and how to pay for grad school.

Graduate school is a big, expensive, life-changing decision, so if it seems like there’s a plausible path after spending time with those articles, ask yourself some key questions before applying to graduate school.

Hint: If doing a little bit of homework is a turn-off, graduate school may not be for you!

How to Become a Graduate Assistant

How you go about becoming a graduate assistant will depend on the program and school. Acceptance letters often include at least some initial information pointing students toward any financial aid or assistantship the program might be offering.

That said, it isn’t difficult to find out more about positions available at different schools. Assistantships are typically posted on university websites and job boards, websites of professional societies in the field, and professors’ websites. They also may be advertised by the college through social media.

An easy way to find them can be to search online for the name of your intended school and the phrase “graduate assistant.”

Such a search for the University of Southern California yielded three positions with the residential education staff “designed to add practical experience alongside graduate students’ coursework and prepare them for an entry-level, full-time position in student affairs.” That search also offered insights from employer-review sites like Glassdoor and Indeed.

Requirements for applying will vary, so it won’t hurt to see what’s described online at schools you’re considering to get a sense of what is commonly expected—and then calling the department to confirm the details published online.

Stipends and/or tuition waivers can certainly smooth the path, but gaps in grad school costs can be bridged further with scholarships, grants, and federal or private student loans.

Graduate and professional students can apply for federal Direct PLUS Loans. Eligibility is not based on financial need, but a credit check is required.

Graduate and professional students may also apply for Direct Unsubsidized Loans; again, eligibility is not based on financial need.

Because graduate students face some of the highest federal student loan interest rates, and loan origination fees, they may want to look into private graduate school loans and compare offers. SoFi® private student loans have competitive rates, flexible repayment plans, and no origination fees, late fees, or insufficient-funds fees.

The Takeaway

Becoming a graduate assistant can be a good way to close gaps in the costs of graduate school, gain experience in your field of interest, and boost networking. The positions often benefit both the college and the student.

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