Funding your graduate education is very different from undergrad. Graduate assistantships allow students to exchange work for financing their education. In general, assistantships are available from well-funded departments in disciplines that produce scholarly work. Departments will attempt to admit only the number of graduate students that they can fund. Professional programs like architecture, law, business, and education are the exception. These departments will not attempt to fund everyone, since they award many more degrees than there are spots for assistants.
All assistantships pay for a portion of your tuition. You are required to work for a set number of hours per week for a set wage. Even though it may seem you are being underpaid in the wage area, a graduate assistant is receiving a large monetary benefit from the tuition waiver. Imagine a state university is offering $10,000 for 20 hours per week of work and full tuition remission. At the in-state tuition rate of $250 per credit hour, the tuition remission is worth approximately $6000. This is equal to a full-time salary of $32,000 per year-not exactly rich, but enough to live on.
There are many types of graduate assistantships. The most common are teaching assistantships and research assistantships. Assistantships may also be offered doing other types of work, such as running a dormitory or working in an administrative capacity with the department. Some assistantships provide health insurance or free health care. At many Universities, graduate assistants are represented by a union. The union will negotiate the minimum terms of all graduate assistants' renumeration.
A teaching assistant will take on responsibilities for teaching or administering a course. Masters-level students frequently will work for a professor who is teaching a large undergraduate course, and will take on grading, tutoring, and course material prep duties. Doctoral students will often take on the full responsibility for teaching a smaller undergraduate course or specialized graduate course. Teaching assistants are chosen based on their mastery of the course material and ability to communicate the knowledge. A drawback to being a teaching assistant is that it frequently takes time than the number of hours stated in the award. No overtime will be paid. Another drawback is that teaching responsibilities take away time that could be devoted to researching for your thesis or dissertation. However, teaching experience is invaluable when applying for faculty jobs after graduation.
Research assistantships are the most prized type of assistantship. Students holding one will perform research work with a professor on a grant. Assistants will be intensely involved in the process of performing the research work. They may perform literature reviews, lab tests, interviews, surveys, or computer work. Some grants will require extension or technical assistance work to real-world practitioners. At the end of the grant, many projects will be written up as reports or scholarly journal articles. This gives the assistant the opportunity to be published, which is essential during the job search phase. A smart graduate assistant will choose a thesis or dissertation topic that relates to the research project he or she has been working on. This will speed the research work needed to complete their degree.