The Fall semester is ending and Spring will start soon. It’s about this time, or sometimes even earlier when departments and grad students will ask about funding for the Spring semester. For those not familiar with graduate school funding, grad students usually do not pay for school out of their pockets. There are monies available from the university, the research advisor, or external fellowships that pay for entirely or partially for tuition as well as a stipend. So it’s kind of like getting paid to go to grad school, though they money you see in the form of a paycheck is not a lot. A good chunk of the money is directly put towards paying for the tuition. So why the grad student may technically be budgeted $40,000 per year, half or more may go towards tuition. $20,000 isn’t a lot, but usually enough to live on for a few years while you finish school, assuming you don’t live in super expensive places like New York, DC, or LA.
Now back to the different monies. First, grad funding is typically reserved and used to allow students to do research toward a thesis or dissertation. Section, not all degrees or programs will have graduate funding available. In STEM fields there’s usually a lot of research while in humanities there isn’t as much. All three will pay for tuition and stipend, though the amount for stipend may differ. TAs or teaching assistants are paid for by the university, or the department more likely. A TA’s job is to teach labs, grade, or otherwise assist the faculty with the undergraduate courses and sometimes graduate courses. That takes a significant chunk of time, maybe 15-20 hours a week in total. On top of TA duties and their own courses, the student will try to do their research towards their thesis. RAs or research assistants are paid to work on a specific research project defined by the research contract or grant their research advisor is working on. The RA’s job is to do the research as dictated. While this sounds perfect as you’re getting paid to do research which, it assumes the dictated research is what the student wants to do and can lead to a thesis. I’ve known many students who have worked on projects as a RA that they didn’t care for or was too short-term to lead to a thesis. They did it because it paid them, but didn’t move them forward towards their degree in a good fashion.
Fellowships are perhaps the best money because it is given to the student with no prescribed teaching duty or research project. So if the fellowship student can find the appropriate research advisors who has a project that fits the student’s desired topic and can lead to a thesis, then he or she gets paid to work on exactly what they want. This is of course a rare situation as there are many more grad students each year than there are fellowships.
Now the question of which is better, a TA or RA? It’s more of a personal choice I think. If the RA project is something you’re interested in and can lead to a thesis then it’s clearly the better option. However, an additional caveat about RA’s is since the funding comes from a contract or grant that will end at some point, the RA’s funding may end at some point. Hopefully it’ll last through your thesis or dissertation, but not always. On the other hand, TAs positions will usually continue year after year as long as the university has money, so it’s a more guaranteed funding. The TA is also more free to do the research on their choosing, as long as the advisor agrees. Of course the downside is TAs has to grade or teach labs which eats into their available research time. I have had students in the past that prefered a TA position to RA because the RA research was of no interest to them and they’re rather do the TA and continue their desired research and hopefully find RA funding for their research in the future.
If you’re considering grad school in a STEM field, you should definitely look at applying for fellowships since it gives you the most control and freedom in your research. But in general you shouldn’t be paying for grad school if you’re a good desirable candidate. Most fellowship deadline are in the Fall semester, a year before you’d start grad school or get the money. You should also contact faculty in your research interest area at the university to see if they have RA positions available. The answer will usually be no or I don’t know as most faculty use their RA funding for students to do the work as soon as possible, but never hurts to ask.