Graduate Student Assistants: Lessons Learned

When I first began my academic career, I was a teaching instructor responsible for teaching four classes each semester and advising 200+ students.  I wanted to eventually seek a tenure-track position so I maintained an active research program.  During that time, I was solely responsibility for my research and teaching and did not have graduate student help.  When I transitioned to a tenure-track position, I was given my first GA.  While excited to work with my GA and embark on a new role as mentor, I was somewhat lost and found it difficult to ‘share the load’.  How could I give my work to a graduate student when I was used to doing it all myself?

Needless to say, my lone wolf experience has made working with GAs a struggle for me to this day.  Each semester I am challenged with determining responsibilities for my GA, although it has gotten easier over time.  I have learned a lot over many semesters working with GAs, who run the gamut from outstanding to…less than outstanding.  These experiences have allowed me to focus more on the needs of the GA than my own.  I recognize the importance of the GA/supervisor relationship, which makes it easier for me to rely on outside help.

While I do not profess to be an award-winning GA mentor or feel I am breaking any new ground, I thought I would share some best practices that have helped me in my evolving relationships with my GAs:

Have realistic expectations and play to their strengths.  During our first meeting of the semester, I ask my GAs what they would like to get out of this experience. Most are very polite and report being satisfied with any research experience or the desire to do a good job.  But I have found that some have specific expectations (e.g., populations, data, teaching) of a GA position.  Especially those planning to pursue a doctoral program and career in academia.  While I can’t grant every request, I have found it helpful to establish realistic expectations from the very beginning.  For those students whose research interests are entirely different than my own, collaboration with other colleagues has proved beneficial.

Allow your GAs to take ownership of their assignments.  Students have commented how important this is both in class and in their GA positions.  They want to make the work they do work for them.  Which makes sense, because we are training future colleagues who will need this experience moving forward.  I have found that those students who are able to identify with the work and see themselves as part of a research team do much better as GAs.  They connect with the work and take pride in what they are doing.

Give them deadlines and stick to them.  My supervisory style started out with giving my GAs a list of semester assignments during the first two weeks of their contracted period with me.  I would follow up throughout the semester, but noticed that students had difficulty getting things to me in an appropriate time. I then began creating prioritized lists with both review and final deadlines which resulted in timely completion of assignments, with many submitted early.   Students report that having deadlines helps them to stay on task and organize their responsibilities each day.  They also request reminders and check-ins which leads to my next practice…

Meet frequently to track their progress, using praise when needed. This generation of students appears to work well with structure and direction.  All of the students that I work with (as a thesis chair or GA supervisor) are given the choice of how often they want to meet with me.  I figure that they best know what level of support they need from me.  99% of them ask to schedule in advance weekly or biweekly meetings that last throughout the semester.  While we communicate via email and online conferencing, students still request face-to-face meetings to discuss GA work and progress.  In addition, being a graduate student can often be a thank-less job.  I have found that using praise helps keep them motivated and engaged, especially when it comes to things they might not find interesting like entering and transcribing data or using theory.

Encourage their professional development. In the beginning, I struggled with the choice between teaching my GAs to do something new or to just do it myself.  Time is often an issue in academia and many of us do not have wiggle room for teaching remedial statistics or lessons on how to write a literature review.  To alleviate this issue, I refer my students to resources on campus especially if I notice they need additional training in order to work with me.  For example, if a student has little to no knowledge of the statistical software that I use, there is the office of faculty excellence which provides training all year round.  There are also writing centers, speech centers, and librarians who have been very helpful.  In fact, I require most of my GAs to attend at least one of these sessions.  We cannot guarantee that our GAs will have certain knowledge before they work with us, but we can help them get this knowledge without sacrificing our own valuable time.

I hope that those reading this have found it helpful in some way.  For those that do not struggle with delegating responsibilities, please comment with the techniques you use in your work with GAs.

Image credit: Hamza Butt CC BY 2.0