Teaching assistantships and other ways that pay you to attend school

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Sarah Appleton loved her time at boarding school, and wanted to become a teacher in a boarding school in turn. So a teaching assistantship at Western Washington University was a natural fit — and saved her a ton of cash.

Appleton received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the university, while working as a TA and teaching 24 students English 101 every quarter. She would prepare lesson plans and teach her section, as well as grade and evaluate students.

Appleton had applied to 21 grad schools and received offers from 12. She carefully compared TA positions — one school wanted her to teach two courses per quarter — and stipends, along with institutional support before deciding on WWU. WWU offered coursework in teaching, and she’d be one of many in a community of TAs.

At WWU, Appleton received a tuition waiver, a stipend of around $11,000 per year and free health insurance.

“I didn’t want to go into major debt getting my MFA, and I wanted a nontraditional route to becoming a teacher at a private school,” she says, and adds that she already carried debt from her undergraduate education. “I wanted teaching experience, little to no debt, and location was a factor for me, too,” she says.

To get her TA position, she indicated her desire for the assistantship in her application and cover letters. The position offer came with her acceptance letter.

At the University of Washington, both research assistantships (RAs) and TAs are common, says Kevin Mihata, associate dean for educational programs in the College of Arts & Sciences.

At the University of Washington, RAs are often found in the sciences — particularly chemistry, biology and physics, along with some social sciences. Assistants help faculty conduct research and lab work, or conduct their own research under the guidance of a faculty member. No teaching is expected or required.

At most universities, TAs often teach or help teach classes. At the UW, TAs assist faculty in leading undergraduate discussions and tests, and perform grading. TA positions are unionized, and typically provide both tuition reimbursement and a stipend. Most work 20 hours or less, including lesson planning time and in-class supervision.

The goal? To help create a new generation of qualified teachers, while providing a tuition break and further education for graduate students.

Some positions only last a few years. For students seeking a Ph.D., they may need to apply for additional positions, after the first one is no longer available.

“When applying to grad school, think about why you want to work in a lab or department,” Mihata says. “There needs to be a fit between the applicant and what they want to study with a particular professor, or research they’re interested in.”

Kathleen Deines received a fellowship from Pacific Lutheran University to complete her 10-month full-time Master of Science in finance. The competitive application process asked her to write a personal statement and submit an essay and transcripts. She received word that the fellowship was hers, about one month after acceptance in the PLU program.

Deines received a little more than $5,000 per semester as a stipend, which she applied to her tuition bill. In return, she performed 10 hours of work per week, including research, as requested by her faculty sponsor. She also organized networking nights, résumé-writing workshops and test-study sessions.

“It was great in the sense that it covered a wide array of responsibilities, gave me public-speaking experience, and direct research experience,” Deines says.

As for Appleton, she moves to Michigan this month to start her new job — as a boarding-school English teacher.