5 Things to Know if Your College Instructor Is a Grad Student

One popular image of the college experience is the sage professor — experienced, learned, probably older in age.

She’s a renowned expert in her field and a seasoned teacher, ready to impart wisdom and knowledge to eager young students. The minimum prerequisite for this type of professor would be the possession of a doctorate.

Many prospective students and their parents know that colleges and universities often advertise — on their websites, in promotional literature, and during campus tours — the percentage of courses taught by professors with doctorates and/or by full-time faculty. One category of instructor these statistics exclude, however, is graduate students without a doctorate. As a college student, you may be surprised, confused, and even disappointed to learn your course is being taught by a graduate student.

These teachers may fill any of three roles in an undergrad class:

TA

In large lecture courses, teaching assistants (TAs) often help professors with teaching big groups of students. TAs perform a variety of tasks, including grading papers and tests — usually according to guidelines or a rubric established by the professor — and holding office hours to answer students’ questions. While one professor leads the course as a whole, TAs can serve as intermediaries between the professor and the class's many students.

Seminar or Discussion Leader

Large classes might split up into smaller discussion or laboratory groups after the professor lectures. Graduate students, working on their degrees in that field, often lead these groups. They’ll typically review the course material previously presented by the professor in a more intimate setting. This enables students in seminar groups to ask questions, have detailed discussions that wouldn’t be possible in a large lecture setting, and make sure they’re understanding the material.

Course Instructor

As we’ll soon see, colleges sometimes allow grad students to take responsibility for an entire class, from planning a syllabus to grading final exams.

Here is why a graduate student, rather than a full faculty member, might be teaching your course — and what you can expect from a grad student–prof.

1. Graduate students typically teach at large research universities.

At what kind of school should you expect to see graduate student instructors? According to one of the few studies on the topic (one that confirms the anecdotal evidence I’ve heard), graduate student instructors are most commonly found at large research universities, a category that includes large state and private universities.

These schools often employ graduate students (who are themselves working toward advanced degrees) as researchers and teachers, while liberal arts colleges and smaller state and private universities tend not to. In other words, if a university employs a large number of graduate students, chances are some of them will be teaching at the undergraduate level. It is rather unlikely — though not impossible, as in the case of predoctoral fellowships — that a school without graduate programs would employ graduate students as instructors.

2. Graduate students often hope to be professors.

The next question you might have is why graduate students teach at all. Graduate programs prepare their students for a variety of careers, including law, medicine, and business. But many graduate programs prepare students to become academics and professors, and part of grad students’ training (and income sources) involves teaching. So think of graduate student instructors as professors-in-training. Established university professors with doctorates were almost certainly teaching as part of their own training back when they were graduate students. Your graduate student instructor may very well be the younger version of a future professor.

3. Graduate students usually teach introductory-level classes.

A professor-in-training is someone who’s becoming an expert in her field, so universities typically entrust graduate student instructors to teach the most introductory material in that discipline. (This often happens, for example, in the sciences, where graduate students often lead laboratory sections.)

Graduate student instructors have at least bachelor’s degrees — they often have master’s degrees and are working on their dissertations — and have been taking graduate-level courses in their discipline, which is often the field in which they’re teaching. So while your graduate student instructor is also a student, she is at a higher level of learning than any undergraduate — and is consequently very knowledgeable in her field. (The bar is quite high even to be admitted to any program employing graduate student instructors.)

Treat these instructors with the level of respect you would any other professor, as they have been deemed qualified to introduce you to a given subject. Although they are in earlier stages of their careers than professors with doctorates, graduate student instructors are still usually fledgling experts in the fields they’re teaching.

4. Graduate students are invested in learning their craft.

Being a professor-in-training involves more than just acquiring knowledge of an academic discipline. Successful college instructors combine knowledge in their field with mastery of the craft of teaching. In addition to receiving academic training in their discipline, graduate student instructors are simultaneously learning how to teach.

Having said that, the level of teaching experience can vary greatly among graduate student instructors. For some, this might be their first or second course they’ve ever taught, while others may have several years of experience lecturing and facilitating discussions. What’s important to remember in all cases, though, is that teaching your class is part of their graduate education. As I mentioned above, for many graduate students, teaching college classes is a crucial aspect of their desired future occupation.

While it may be justifiably scary to think of yourself as the guinea pig for a professor-in-training, you should also remember that graduate student instructors have to concentrate on teaching even at this early stage of their careers so they can hone their skills and eventually land a teaching job. Your graduate student instructor is likely working hard to teach your course and taking the job quite seriously. Graduate student instructors are usually eager to become the best teachers they can be.

5. Graduate students have many responsibilities.

Finally, keep in mind the (other) responsibilities your graduate student instructor is likely to have. Just as any professor typically teaches multiple courses per semester, graduate student instructors may be taking high-level seminars, writing, reviewing for academic journals, doing research, studying for exams, writing their dissertations, and even teaching multiple courses all at once.

These facts absolutely do not absolve them of the duty to teach your class well and thoroughly — but remember they’re working hard when you get impatient about how long it takes to get your paper or test graded. It’s always worth keeping in mind that your instructors have lives outside the classroom, and doubly so when that instructor is also a graduate student with a heap of things to do. Challenge them to be excellent teachers, but be realistic about what to expect from your graduate student instructors.

Another common type of instructor at the college level is the adjunct professor. Learn more about why you should care whether an adjunct is leading the class.