Hooray, GA! Fund Your Studies with a Graduate Assistantship

Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate College

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Paying for Grad School is a Headache, But It Doesn’t Have to Be 

If you find graduate school to be a financial stressor, you are certainly not alone. Many of our graduate programs are too demanding to accommodate full-time work so it can be hard to maintain a steady income during our studies. That’s not even accounting for the additional burdens that tuition, fees, textbooks, parking permits, and more can impose on our wallets. A 2022 Nature Magazine survey of over 3,200 master’s and PhD students from across the world found that more than 85% of respondents reported serious concerns about having enough money to pay for rent and food. While loans can offer some relief, many students still hold debt from their undergraduate degrees and are hesitant to increase their borrowing. What's more, federal graduate loans have higher interest rates than undergraduate options; more and more graduate student borrowers, especially those on income driven repayment plans, are becoming trapped in cycles of negative amortization, meaning that even as they are making payments their overall balance is growing because they are not paying to cover their loan’s interest. For more on the graduate student loan debt crisis, read this important report by the Center for American Progress. 

This may sound bleak, but fortunately there are other options. Enter the Graduate Assistantship! GA positions can offer an alternative to (or at the very least a means of reducing) loan borrowing and debt. In general, at UC there are three types of assistantships: teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistantships (RAs), and administrative assistantships. TAs and RAs are typically administered and overseen intra-departmentally; i.e., a program like psychology or engineering might hire one of their own master’s or doctoral students to fulfill duties such as grading and teaching or to perform research under a faculty member. These departments will fund the position with a set biweekly salary and, typically, a tuition scholarship. Other financial benefits may include the Graduate Student Health Insurance (GSHI) Award , which covers 75% of UC single student health insurance premiums (hours and pay criteria apply; visit this page to learn more).  Administrative assistantships involve employment in an academic or nonacademic department within UC, such as the LGBTQ Center, the Graduate College Office, the Office of the Ombuds, Student Conduct Board, and much more. Tuition funding is typically a bit murkier with administrative assistantships; while some departments including the Graduate College offer tuition scholarships themselves, other departments require that a student reach out to their home college (CECH, A&S, etc.) for funding—more on this below.  

Sounds Great! How Do I Get One?  

Graduate Assistantships vary widely from college to college and even program to program. Some departmental TA and RA positions may have their own separate application processes and may not advertise widely, so it is advisable to be proactive in reaching out to your school’s program coordinator well in advance to inquire about GA opportunities, according to Graduate College Program Director Megan Tischner. “If you're looking for opportunities within your college or program, ask your program representative for more information on what opportunities are available, the criteria for these opportunities, and if there's anything you need to do to be considered for any open positions. Not every program has GA positions to offer, though.” Don’t lose hope if your program doesn’t have any GA opportunities available, however, since you may be able to find one in a nonacademic department. Most of these administrative GA positions (and some RA/TA positions) are advertised via Handshake—search the keywords “graduate assistant” for best results. Also, keep an eye on the weekly GradCurrents newsletter for up-to-date listings! 

As for timing to apply, it varies. “You can start your search at any time,” says Megan Tischner, “But I tend to see an uptick in postings around the start of fall semester (for the current academic year) and late in spring (for the upcoming academic year).” As you embark on your search, you will begin to form a clearer picture of the types of positions are most prevalent in your department and which ones you may qualify for. In some departments, RA/TA positions are reserved for doctoral students, so master’s students may be limited to administrative GA positions, but this is definitely not true across the board. “I see the biggest difference in GA positions is due to the program, rather than the degree level,” explains Megan Tischner. “For example, some programs have a lot more TA positions, while others have very few TA opportunities, but many RA opportunities! Administrative assistantships are much more common in centers and offices. For example, the Graduate College employs multiple GAs to support projects and programming. When I hire for an open GA position in this office, I'm trying to find the best fit for the job, knowing that an excellent candidate could come from any program or degree.”  

On maximizing your chances for these competitive opportunities, Megan Tischner advises: “If you are applying for a GA position outside of your program, then your application materials are key! Make sure you follow the application instructions carefully. If a cover letter is requested or required, take advantage of that! Use your cover letter to pitch why you would be a great fit for the specific job. Also, before you submit your application, get someone to review your resume and cover letter. The Bearcat Promise Career Studio and the Academic Writing Center are both great resources! The Bearcat Promise Career Studio can also help you prepare for an interview.” 

Of course, there are many exceptions to these general trends in GA availability and there is no harm in applying as widely as you can for any combination or RA, TA, and administrative GA positions both inside and outside of your academic department! Currently, consider applying for the Graduate College’s recently announced administrative GA role in Professional Development, which is actively hiring and offering a tuition scholarship.  

If you manage to secure a GA offer, first take a minute congratulate yourself! Then, figure out exactly what you’re getting into. “Should you be offered a GA position, read the offer letter carefully before you accept,” says Megan Tischner. “Do you know what your biweekly pay will be? Does the offer include a tuition scholarship, and if so, how much? What are the appointment dates? Can the position be renewed for next academic year? Do you fully understand what will be expected from you in terms of duties? Where will you work from, and who will supervise you? It's OK to ask questions before you sign and return the offer letter!”

How is a Graduate Assistantship Different Than a Student Worker Position? 

Great question! In general, graduate assistantships are more structured than an hourly student worker position and often come with higher levels of responsibility. GA-ships are salaried, offered on an annual basis (one academic year at a time, although many will renew based on satisfactory performance), and have stricter criteria but also offer additional benefits. All graduate assistants must be full-time students and registered for at least 12 credits, must be an active student in good academic standing, and must possess a GPA of 3.0 or above, criteria that do not exist for student workers. Conversely, student workers are typically hired on a semesterly basis, earn an hourly wage, and must clock in and out. Graduate Assistantships often come with tuition scholarships where student worker positions do not, and full appointment GA-ships qualify students for the GSHI award to cover a large portion of their UC student health insurance premiums. Graduate Assistantship positions are typically more competitive than student worker positions. Confusingly, some "teaching assistant” positions are hourly student worker roles and others are graduate assistantships which typically come with extra responsibilities; reach out to the job poster if clarification is needed.  

One important note: graduate assistantships are subject to the “174 rule,” which includes the provision that once students attempt 174 credit hours at UC, they are no longer eligible for general university funding, neither stipend nor scholarship. The 174 rule is a complex rule with multiple provisions, so if you have any questions about your eligibility under this rule, please talk to your program director or program staff member.  

The Graduate Tuition Scholarship 

In the same way that all squares are rectangles but not all rectangles are squares, all GA-ships come with a stipend (minimum $16.48 per hour for master’s students, $21.63 per hour for doctoral students), but not all GA-ships come with tuition scholarships. Tuition scholarships are almost always offered with full appointment teaching and research assistantships, but less commonly with administrative assistantships, although the Graduate College is actively advocating for expanded funding especially amongst students with higher levels of financial need. “At the end of December, the Graduate College gave extra scholarships to different colleges across the university to disperse to underserved students,” says Dr. Rose Marie Ward, Graduate College Dean and Vice Provost. “Students might consider reaching out to the program to see if they qualify or if there are funds available.”

As explained above, sometimes students’ academic programs will be able to offer GA tuition scholarships for students’ administrative GA appointments in an external or nonacademic office that doesn’t provide scholarships themselves, but this will require asking the program coordinator well in advance as funding is often quite limited. Students applying for administrative GA positions should feel empowered to inquire about tuition scholarship availability from the hiring department during the interview process and reach out to their academic program to inquire about alternative funding if the hiring department is unable to offer it. Even students who already hold a GA position might be able to secure scholarship funding for the next academic year if their position is renewed and funding is available. This proactivity and self-advocacy may (quite literally) pay off! 

It should be noted that tuition scholarships typically only cover base tuition and not fees. Therefore, students should expect to receive a bill each semester, even if they are recipient of a GA tuition scholarship. The tuition scholarship offer letter will explicitly state which fees are and are not covered, and the exact amounts.  

Stay Tuned: Exciting Changes Are Coming 

The Graduate College has identified the expansion of funding and graduate education affordability as a priority in our rapidly changing educational landscape. “The Graduate College is invested in a holistic approach to student support,” explains Dean Ward. “We are in the process of completing a comprehensive scholarship and assistantship review. Based on this review, we are making recommendations for changes to funding levels.” 

Other improvements are in the works as well. “The Graduate College is in ongoing talks about expanding graduate housing opportunities. In addition, we have been working on parking costs, scholarships for non-assistantship students, donations to Bearcats pantry, health insurance costs, caring giving expenses, etc. We hope to make announcements in these areas soon,” says Dean Ward. Keep an eye out for further articles as these exciting opportunities are rolled out!