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The Most Value-for-Time Job in SMU

Photo Credit: The Straits Times

$590 for an estimated of 30 hours of work; that’s close to $20 an hour you would earn for every Teaching Assistant (TA) stint you perform at SMU.

While this payout sounds enticing enough, there is far greater value in being a TA beyond just collecting your lump sum at the end of the semester. It all depends on what you make of it. A trusted mentor once told me, “get a job not for what you can earn, but for what you can learn,” and that’s advice I do not regret taking.

As a serial TA myself (sixteen stints and counting), I’m as credible as they come for giving TA-related advice. Here are four key reasons why you should give SMU’s most value-for-time job – in my opinion – a go.

Building Valuable Relationships with Your Professor

The aforementioned Christmas party.

Most professors don’t make friends with their students throughout the semester and refrain from socialising. They’re busy people. As a TA, however, you interact with your professor on a consistent basis, and both of you are likely to get to know each other on a deeper level.

Not to mention, you get to pick at their minds and ask candid questions about their field, the answers of which you may not get anywhere else. You’d be surprised at just how many insights you’ll gain just by being someone’s right hand man/woman. Your professor may even “jio” you for a Christmas dinner at the end of the year.

True story.

Untapped Internship / Job Opportunities

Where brownie points and good books are concerned, your professor’s networks are a luxury to tap on. If you prove yourself as a reliable assistant, you might be able to gain access to industry connections or internship opportunities your peers can’t find online. Why wouldn’t they recommend a loyal, meticulous and hardworking student?

Additionally, professors are fantastic people to ask for career advice, especially if you are considering a career in the field that they specialise in.

One of my fellow TAs, Adeline (not her real name) from the School of Economics (SOE), happened to receive a part-time internship opportunity at a local trade union as a data analyst, an offering made available to us by our professor.

Added Learning Experiences

“Those who teach will never cease to learn," said Mark Sanborn in The Encore Effect. Let’s be real – even TA’s may not understand everything about the module, regardless of their good grades. A TA-ship is a great opportunity for you to bridge knowledge gaps and consolidate your learnings from the modules you enjoyed previously as a student.

Who knows? Your professor may have even refined the lesson content to include new things you weren’t taught during your time as a student.

For example, when I was a TA for the module Economics & Society, I learned about the national income equation – a new addition to the syllabus as my professor had continued to add new information relevant to how we understand the world.

Unexpected Friendships

Photo Credit: The SMU Blog

The nature of the TA’s role inevitably involves interactions with other students, and this is a great opportunity to meet new friends. A simple conversation on Telegram or over email can lead to a million things; possible lifelong friendships being forged, people to play Mahjong with. As someone who loves getting to know others, I tend to make around ten friends in every class. Of course, this depends on your level of extraversion and inclination to socialize.

What if I’m shy? Well, students approach TAs frequently for questions and advice, so you do not need worry about starting a conversation. Many of the good friends I’ve made from SMU have actually come from classes in which I was a TA. Perhaps TA-ships are the new CCAs.

Getting that job

So, how do you go about getting that bread?

1. Ask yourself if you even want the TA-ship

Photo Credit: Chinsay

As Steve Jobs said, “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Taking up a TA role begrudgingly will only do more harm than good in the long run. Nevertheless, here is some food for thought for considering it:

  • Do you like your professor?

  • How much can you learn from your professor?

  • Do you think you can handle the workload of your predecessor?

  • Are you good at the module?

The answer may not seem clear immediately, but if you are at least leaning towards a “yes” for these questions, a TA-ship should be worth it.

2. Participate in class actively

Class participation is a graded component in almost every module, and it is important to know that it can be used strategically to help secure TA-ships. By being an avid participator who makes appropriate comments and asks constructive questions, you will not only score well for class participation but also leave a good impression on your professor. This gives you more ease when approaching your professor to ask for the role.

3. Ask your professor early on

Frankly, a TA-ship begins while you are still a student. If your answer to “Do you want to be a TA for this professor?” is a resounding “Yes”, ask your professor as early as you can about a TA-ship after you’ve made up your mind.

How early is early? Not in week 1, for sure – but throughout the module, after some level of interaction with the professor and participation in the class, you should be able to ask for a role easily.

Asking early is important, even if you haven’t received your grades yet, because other students may already have asked the professor early on. It is important to get “first dibs” when requesting for the role, so asking early increases your chances of securing it.

4. Settle the necessary paperwork proactively and meticulously

Each school has a programme office that oversees the administrative functions of the school’s lessons. Upon confirmation of your TA-ship by your professor, you need to go through an official onboarding procedure. This is important, as it relates to monetary payment and officialization of the role. Communicate with your professor regarding this.

If your professor is busy and doesn’t actively respond to you, email your school’s programme office and CC your professor. It would be best to get your professor’s contact to facilitate communication.

Afterwards, you should receive a soft copy form to fill out. You will need your professor’s signature, so do keep communication channels open with him or her as much as possible. Be sure to complete the form in a timely manner and send it back to the programmes office. Coordinate with the office on any other relevant details and work to be done to confirm the job.

So, you’ve gotten that TA-ship. What now?

As Man-Spider would say, “With great responsibility, comes great power.”

A TA’s role is mainly administrative, to help the professor with any support functions involved in the process of teaching and learning. This can include anything like:

  • Marking attendance

  • Recording class participation

  • Marking homework

  • Giving consultations

  • Answering students’ queries about the module

For anyone wanting to become a TA in SMU, I’ve attached a handy guide on how to onboard as a TA, as well as how to download your class’s data from SMU eLearn.

For TAs, what you see is not always what you get. Being a TA will be a highly rewarding process, picking up skills you never expected to learn and challenging yourself intellectually throughout your stints. In the end, the $590 in the bag may not be as important as the valuable, intangible experiences you’ve snagged.

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