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Ph.D. TA Requirements

When should I TA?

PhD students typically TA once in their second year and once in their third year, but you can request to TA at other points in your program. You should consult with your advisor.  You just have to make sure that you complete two assignments before you graduate.

How much do I get paid?

In semesters where you TA, your tuition and stipend are covered by your advisor and/or your external support (e.g., a fellowship). Completing two TA assignments is a requirement of the PhD program

Can I choose when or which class I want to TA?

If you would like to request a specific TA assignment, email Chris Hertz (chertz@andrew.cmu.edu).  You should notify him early in the summer if you would like to TA in the fall semester, and early in the fall semester if you would like to TA in the spring.  Obviously, because of availability, you might not get your requested position, but you should notify Chris if your advisor has requested that you TA a specific class.  If you do not request a specific TA assignment, one may be chosen for you by the department.  Chris will typically check with you first to see if the assignment will fit your schedule.  As usual, it’s best to work with your advisor on the choice of TA assignments and timing.

What is it like to take the exam?

If English is not your first language (i.e. you submitted TOEFL scores), before you’re allowed to TA, you must either receive a grade of 28 on the speaking section of the TOEFL or pass the International Teaching Assistant (ITA) test.  Even if English is your first language, you should stop by the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC).

If you take the ITA exam, there are four grades that you can receive: Not Qualified, Restricted II, Restricted I, and Pass (you can see more information about these levels here).  You will need to receive a score of Restricted I or Pass in order to TA for MECHE.  It is possible to take the exam more then once, but you will have to receive permission from the ICC before you can retest.  Since TAing is a requirement for MECHE PhDs, you will need to take the ITA exam until you pass (although in certain cases, exceptions can be made).

The exam tests your ability to comfortably and clearly discuss scientific topics to people outside of your field.  In the first part of your exam, the examiners (who are not scientists or engineers) may ask you to casually talk about your research, but you are free to change the subject (e.g. to a course) if you do not feel confident.  In part two, you will have to explain your research in greater detail using a marker and a board.  They may pretend that they do not understand you to see how you respond.  If this happens, do NOT repeat yourself; try rephrasing your response.  They look for things like fluency, pronunciation, and intonation.  

You will receive your score as well as suggestions for improvement directly after taking the exam.  Over the past ten years, 47% of students receive a Pass, 16% receive a Restricted I, 28% receive a Restricted II, and 9% receive a Not Qualified.  For more information on preparing for the test, you can attend some of the ICC seminars or check out their website.

What if I don’t know the subject?  What if I don’t remember anything from undergrad?

Don’t worry!  Often TAs are just one week ahead of their students in the material.  You will usually be provided with the course materials and answer keys from the previous year, and you’ll be able to ask the professor for help before you relay the information onto the students.  If you’re TAing an undergraduate class, you may notice that by the time you hit grad school, you’re simply better at learning engineering concepts than the sophomores and juniors.  A lot of MECHE grad students at CMU come from diverse backgrounds and may not possess a complete mechanical engineering foundation, but they still are able to effectively teach a wide number of students a full class of material.

How can I make sure I’m a good TA?

“The opportunity to provide instruction to students as a teaching assistant (TA) is a very rewarding experience. Being a TA allows you to practice oral presentation skills, become a better learner while gaining more insight into your class’s subject matter, and form new bonds with both students and professors. However, it is also important to note that this experience can be particularly time consuming and taxing, depending on the scope of the class and your personal schedules and obligations. With this in mind, here are some tips which I hope will make your experience as a TA as fulfilling as possible.

  1. Form a relationship with your professor: Learning about their interests, research, commitments, style of teaching etc., will help to increase your personal network, while providing you with a goldmine of knowledge and experience. In addition, forming a bond will make your professor feel more approachable, and more likely to promptly respond to questions or concerns.

  2. Be prepared: Ultimately your professor will set the tone for what is expected of you as a TA. Use this knowledge to prepare accordingly. This means keeping track of deadlines (grades, projects, exams, etc.), having lesson plans for recitation, being ready to answer questions at office hours, and so on and so forth.

  3. Get to know your students: Be open with your students. Learn their names. Let them know what makes you tick, and learn about what they are passionate about. If you have the opportunity, support them in their endeavors, whether that be sporting events, drama shows, orchestra, etc. This makes students a lot more receptive in class, and more willing to engage in discussion and/or ask questions.

  4. Be interactive: Students can be really shy about answering or asking questions. So don’t be afraid to spice things up by turning problem solving into a game, calling on people to answer questions from theirs seats or at the board, or most importantly asking individual students if they have any questions.

  5. Be open to criticism: Find out from both your students and the professor what you can do better to improve your skills as an instructor. If the situation arises, be ready to admit and correct mistakes.

  6. Don’t let Office Hours get you down: Most of the time no on shows up to office hours, so you’ll have to entertain yourself while you wait. Sometimes holding office hours in the same space as a friend who is TAing another class can help make the experience more enjoyable.

  7. Technology is your friend: Get to know tools like Piazza and Blackboard. These tools will simplify and improve communication regarding assignments, exams, projects, and grades, between the TAs, professors, and students.

  8. Be Positive: Encourage your students to learn and do their best. Don’t be afraid to toss out jokes or go off topic for a bit. Surprise them with snacks every once in a while. Ultimately, take this experience in stride and have fun!” 

You can also email Chris for information on who has previously TAed the class if you need materials or guidance.  If you want to improve your teaching skills, keep an eye out for Eberly Center classes and resources (check out this advice pamphlet!).  Starting Fall 2017, there will be a formal training program, which will be required of students beginning in their first semester TAing.  

What is the time commitment like for a TA?

The TA time commitment is nominally 12 hours / week (i.e., it is a 12-unit course).  However, the actual time commitment depends on your assigned role.  Since requirements may include office hours, recitations, review sessions, lab supervision, grading, responding to student emails, and more, the weekly time commitment can vary from a few hours to more than ten.