Congratulations on gaining admission into one of the graduate programs at NUS. It is a great achievement for you to get into a top, global, research intensive university. During this period, you can hope for major advances in your knowledge, your ways of thinking and learning as well as in how you relate to people who you come across. This will likely be the most interesting and productive phase of your formative years and we are sure you intend to make the most of it.
Yes, we recognize you must do a lot of things during this period. Identifying a supervisor, deciding on a thesis topic after reading a huge number of research papers and discussions with your supervisor and lab mates, setting up lab equipment / preparing for fieldwork, gathering and interpreting data, writing up a impactful thesis and defending it before a committee, presenting papers at conferences and writing journal papers - all of these can be formidable. However, they are definitely surmountable given your abilities and attitudes; and not to forget the support you will have from your advisor other faculty members and peers.
Despite the above, your graduate student experience will be more exciting than your undergraduate experience for another reason. That is, you will learn and also facilitate the learning of others - undergraduate students and possibly junior graduate students. You will be a teaching assistant(TA), helping students learn in tutorial classes, experimental and computer laboratories and in the field. You may be involved in grading students’ assignments and in setting up assessment tasks. The heavy research load you will have may convince you to avoid the teaching assistant job or to go through it as an unnecessary chore. Don't get into this line of thinking for there are several significant short and long term gains that will materialize for you through this teaching assistantship experience.
There are at least 7 important reasons why you should take the TA role seriously. As a TA, you will enjoy these benefits, as listed below:
Gain depth in your domain: It is often said that your understanding of anything improves if you teach it to others. The TA job will help you consolidate your basics and even deepen it.
Sharpen your communication and mentoring skills: Communicating ideas is a key aspect for professional success anywhere. Even if you intend to pursue a non-academic career, you will be expected to teach and mentor your subordinates. Your role as a TA will help you sharpen your communication and mentoring skills.
Develop your people management skills: During your work as a TA, you will get to meet students with very different expectations, abilities, motivation levels etc. Learning how to manage the advancement of such heterogeneous group is a skill that will travel very far with you.
Learn to be a nodal point: Irrespective of where you work, you will need to function as a constructive link between your subordinates and top management. Conveying, in clear terms, the objectives of the top management to your subordinates and getting them to work towards organizational goals is an important skill. You must also be adept in communicating shop floor or grassroots issues, successes etc. to the higher-ups in your organisation. In short, you must play a role in aligning the organization so that it is a win-win situation for all those involved. The TA job provides you with a great opportunity to experience and become good at this - after all, you will be the vital link between the lecturer and students and help to align the teaching and learning process.
Test out the waters: It is an opportunity to find out if you would enjoy an academic career.
Maintain wider job options: Having a good teaching portfolio at the time of graduation will help you keep your career options wide open - you would have not shut any doors yet.
Get to know more faculty members: As a teaching assistant, you are likely to be called to assist faculty members other than your thesis advisor. This is a very good opportunity to initiate intellectual and professional networks. If you make a good impression by performing well as a TA, you have one other person to vouch for your abilities and skills when you need referees for your future job search.
CDTL is aware of the multiple pressures on your time. Therefore, we want to do our best to help you achieve the capability and skill needed to impart high quality teaching to NUS students. To catalyze your development into an effective teaching assistant at NUS, we have developed the Teaching Assistant Programme (TAP, which we offer at least twice every year) and a series of student workshops/dialogue sessions. This handbook will augment those efforts and serve as a ready companion that you may wish to consult whenever needed.