Student Stories

Research vs Teaching Assistant : Which is Better?

Hi back, everyone. In my previous article, I wrote about MS v/s PhD – PhD Gives Fatter Paycheck (staying anonymous) .

And in this one, I thought it would be better to clear up some funda that keep coming up in such discussions: RA and TA.

Almost everyone keeps blabbering about it, but few might actually know the nuances of that.

First, What is RA and TA?

RA stands for Research Assistant.

TA stands for Teaching Assistant.

These both terms keep coming up because they are the main sources of funding for grad students when you go to a univ.

As  RA, you are required to work on some professor’s project (typically 20 hours a week)….”work” as in experiment, analyze, cross-check observations, take observations, write program codes, also help by co-authoring papers, blah-blah…. that kinda work.

As TA, your work description will be like taking quizzes, checking answer sheets, invigilating tests, helping undergrads in their studies, etc..

So which is preferred amongst the two? In my grad application process, a professor, let’s say Dr X of ABC univ in USA was extremely kind to share the scenario with me. I will rephrase her words for you as follows:

  1. RA is preferred because “the work you do as an RA becomes your own Ph.D. dissertation under the professor’s guidance”. Hence, u won’t have to put in extra efforts or time to do your dissertation plus u can hope to be guided by the professor a bit compared to others (remember profs in good univs can go for months without giving a precious glimpse to the underdogs! :P) Result: extra chill time! J
  2. RA is preferred because “RAs are employed (paid) for 12 months but TAs get paid for 9months in a year only, they are not “employed” during summer months since courses are fewer”. So basically, RAs don’t have to worry about funding or accommodation throughout the year.
  3. RAs get paid from a prof’s project, so that amount is stretchable according to the prof’s whim. Usually it is more and has better perks than a TA’s.
  4. TAs are not paid by any professor; they are funded by the institute, it is fixed and non-negotiable.
  5. Getting RA is tough, but TA is tougher. I can’t tell you the name of the univ (yeah, everything is anonymous about me, sorry :P) but take my word for it: it’s damn good. Anyways, back to the point: a prof from that univ (CSE Deptt) answered when I inquired that “there are no TA positions in that whole deptt for a WHOLE YEAR atleast”. And it’s the scene pretty much everywhere else. Go figure!
  6. You can contact profs for RA before you go for your admission and its possible that you get an assurance of an RA funding before you join the univ (what a relief!) but you CANNOT contact anyone for TA. After you submit your application, you can just cross your fingers or count rosemary beads of getting chosen by the univ miraculously for a TA.
  7. RA get free travel allowances to conferences and workshops globally, but TAs seldom get such boons (boon as in imagine what socializing with famous scientists for eg, at these conferences can do to you!!)”
  8. “Its only as an RA that you will able to learn something commendable,new and interesting through your research, something that counts and will pay off. But as a TA, you will only learn how to be a good teacher. Hard but true, no offenses!”

All that said, every good thing has a catch-22 clause right?

Here’s the thing: Prof X said “RAs are tougher than TAs for fresh undergrad applicants” (but not as tough as for grad as I mentioned).

Also, some univs have a rule that all incoming grads will have to work as TA for a year then the possibility of RA can be explored.

On the lighter side, RA is not for lazy people: you have to work hard and work your grey cells as well. Also, since it is a 12month job, you might not get to see your folks and your hometown as much (if at all)

And when you contact a prof for RA, remember that they usually assume MS students do not contribute any significant progress to their research, so mention (and have that mindset) about wanting to go for direct PhD or MS+PhD (jeez! Could have added this very good point to my MS Phd Dilemma post earlier!!)

In my next post soon, I will give a short writeup about tips on how to contact prof, as suggested by…..yep, you guessed it right…… by Prof X

Luck till then!

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  1. My son is a student doing a Masters in Computer Sciences in the US. He has completed his 1st year. Which of the following is preferable for him? He will now start pursuing the 2nd year of his Master’s program there. Please check and advise.

    1) RA with a Professor of another department of another college in the same university helping them with his coding skills for their project?


    2) TA with a Professor in his own Department of Computer Sciences in his own college?

    I shall be grateful to you if you could kindly mail me your response at my mail ID given below:

    [email protected]

  2. Thank you so much for the clarification! I’m just finishing my 1st year as a PhD student and was offered to RA with two of my professors. I’m excited!

  3. Hey, great post!! I have been accepted at Lamar University for Fall 2014 for pursuing MS in Environmental Engineering but I haven’t got scholarships there. They said that a TA/RA can only be offered after assessment of student’s performance after the student has arrived to the college. The orientation starts at Aug 14, 2014 and I was wondering about what I should do about it. Can you please give me an idea about how often does a student get TA/RA after their arrival to the college. I contacted the department head but no replies yet on that part.

    One more question, I have also applied to North Dakota S. U. but haven’t heard back from them. I haven’t contacted professor about RA or TA yet, so I was wondering if I should contact them at this stage for TA/RA.
    PLEASE PLEASE help me out .. you can write to my email.. It’d just great if you could show me a way right now..

    Thanks in advance,
    Asmit Das
    [email protected]

  4. Nice post 🙂 HSB seems to have mastered the art of attracting readers by cool captions to each post 🙂 Raghu : Well done _/_
    I have an admit in the UTD for Fall 2014 program in electrical engineering.Looks like UTD doesnot have the culture of RA/TA for masters students.Is that true or am I being wrong in my perception.I had inquired few seniors and they seem skeptical about this 🙁

  5. hi!!
    I hav completed my BE in mechanical engineering with 66.1% in 2012 from Pune UNiversity. Currently i am working as design engineer on ANSYS. My GRE score was 288. And i am planning for admission in Jan 14 in mechanical field with FEA, CAE and CAD as majors. so can you please refer me some universities.
    And your all blogs are really helpful. Thank you!!

    1. Hi Hrshada, Your undergraduate academic scores are good but GRE score is a little low. We would be happy to post answers to your profile evaluation queries in the forum section.

  6. ”HOW to approach professors for RA?” and How do I know research project running by the professor and funding matters? It is acceptable to professors – apply RA before submit application?.
    Which factors to be considered, when applying for RA ? or What need to have to apply for RA ?

    1. You can check the department website to know about the current projects and professors involved.

      You have to shortlist all those faculty members whom you share research interests with. You can approach them before or after submitting your application. But a better response could be expected after submitting applications and once you are admitted.

      Your research exposure in terms of any projects undertaken, publishing papers in research journals, presenting papers in conferences, helps a lot.

  7. This really helped alot to me for knowing the difference between the two….
    can u share some tips for doing MS in 2 years from India…

  8. Thnx anonymous writer 4 info on RA & TA. Great info.
    Here’s my question. Could you list a few colleges that could be approached.
    Just concluded a B.Sc with 3.05 GPA in Maths and Econ. Career goal: supply chain management, risk management, leading to actuarial qualification. In need of financial support.

  9. HI,


  10. thnx 4 d is of immense help.
    awaiting 4 ur next post eagerly….coz dats a big question..”HOW to approach profs?”

  11. Hey dude..
    gr8 help….
    very difficult to get such insight n clear picture abt precautions for PhD n MS…
    thanks a lot..

  12. Hey ANONYMOUS WRITER, you are A.W.E.S.O.M.E. Informative posts.
    Anyways, I have been contacting universities as well, who spell out clearly that “NO PhD, No Aid”.
    But I was wondering can you tell the department that you are planning on a PhD, but for the time being you will enroll for a MS with Thesis. Will that increase your chances of being considered for an RA/TA? And if one can, won’t it tarnish ones credibility when at the end of the Thesis one kinda tracks back giving reasons as to why you cannot invest the time for a PhD??

    1. @shekar: ansr smthng 4 me
      1) y wud u want 2 waste time on MS if ur ultimate goal is PhD?
      2) y wud u refuse a chance at phd if offered??

      n here’s d truth: i wudnt have applied to a univ that states “no phd no aid”….considering phd studnts are givn prefrnce over MS ones, no aid for phd implicitly implies (90% cases) that there’s no funding scene for MS either. but do give it a try. & no, it wont tarnish ur credibility if u for some whacky reason, say no to an offered phd…..noone bothers to keep records of promises made by students 😉

  13. Thanks HSB! It really helps me what my next move should be. Learnt a lot from your hard work too, helping others to succeed.

    Thank you again!!!

  14. i reallyyyy wanna know who you are!! looks like an angle sending posts man 😛 thanks a lot for sharing these lil bits which we would have taken ages to explore on those complicated websites of each univ! 🙂

    1. i do wonder if u would have commnted d same if i hadnt admitted i wasnt a guy. anyways no sweat!

      @all : thanks

  15. thank you so much regarding this useful information about RAs and TAs. I really appreciate it. Before this i was in real confused situation.
    but i question related to this blog. on what basis is the selection for RAs or TAs basically done by the univ? GRE/TOEFL/academics etc. ?

    1. TA needs a good GRE & TOEFL score…RA prefers a good research record, ur GRE score may be pardoned by d prof. Both need good acads

  16. Hello,
    I am from Biotechnology department from NIT Rourkela. I appeared my GRE and my range of scores wre 1130-1280. My CGPA is 8.26 and I am the third ranker of department. I have done projects in Tezpur University and through SURGE program IIT-Kanpur. Can you please suggest any college where I can get as a Phd???

  17. Hey… First of all, thanks for the valuable info…
    and I am unaware of how to earn RA or TA from a professor. Could you please share some tips…!! n when we should apply for them…

    Thanks in advance..

  18. hiii friend
    Thanks for your post which was very useful for all.
    I have a very regarding this RA and TA,
    I completed my M.Sc (India) and got admission in to XYZ university with a TA, the prob here is that University doesnt provide Ph.D, so I need to move to other University for it.
    I need advise, at what movement of time I can request for RA at the University. On what bases a students TA ability judged by the University.
    What do we (TA students) need to do when universities have holidays from May to July as students are off the schools.
    Kindly advise
    Many thx

    1. its ok….after a master degree in an US univ ur chances of gettng phd at a good univ increases. RA can be demanded at any time, basically people spend d 1st sem checking out research options at d univ and interactng wid profs. next sem, after a prof agrees, they apply for RA (this is d scene for people who go wdt fundng). TA capabilities r judged by ur GRE & TOEFL scores

    2. n ya…at d tym u mentioned, u wont b funded so hv to find ways to support urslf. u can cm back home 🙂

  19. I must say u have hit the right chords man.
    your posts are (for me) the most awaited ones.Thank u for your insight.
    I understand if u dont want to disclose your name,it would be appreciative if u could atleast name the colleges u refer to.It helps.

    Eagerly awaiting your next post.

    1. First, its “woman” 😛
      abt why I didnt name them…well both of them are kind of confidential and are not supposed to be shared publicly. hsb is accessed by a good number of people and these things spread fast…dont u think it would tarnish my credibility and screw up my app chances if it reaches Prof X or that univ that I am gossiping about them? Can I risk that for appreciation? You have to take my word when I say the univ is good….isnt it enough that I am sharing those tips anyway? 🙂
      will post the next ones soon!

      1. Thanks a lot for the info, but can you help others by giving few tips about how to approach and mail a professor for RA in the specific area (i mean to the degree we apply – not the other department ones 😛 ) so that the probability of getting RA goes high. Many thousands will get benefited by this including myself. Hope you will help.

        If i have any such tips i would surely post them !!! Best luck 🙂

        1. thre are some good topics in HSB about mailing profs. check them out. i will add my views soon..

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