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TA or RA-ship for theoretical physics

  1. Sep 24, 2008 #1
    Question: I know I want to do theory, and definitely not experiment. To that end, is it better to be a TA or an RA? I heard it said that being a TA is better...is this true? I was somewhat disbelieving...
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  3. Sep 24, 2008 #2


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    The absolute best way to learn is to teach. In that sense it is better to be a TA. Frequently a RA is better pay and you do not have to teach so you have more control over your time. What is your priority?
  4. Sep 24, 2008 #3


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    Many schools prefer that you start with a TA, then move on to an RA once you've picked a research adviser who can support you. If you come in without a research adviser, chances are you'll be given a TA.

    A TA can give you valuable teaching experience, and everyone should do at least a year of it at some point in their graduate career, if not more. But when you start working on your masters thesis or dissertation, you'll appreciate the extra time you have with a RA - because you're expected to do just as much research on a TA, but more of your time is taken up by teaching, grading, and proctoring exams.
  5. Sep 25, 2008 #4
    I'd like to study condensed matter theory. I heard that I should be a TA instead of an RA for theory...although, theoretical "condensed matter" requires, I think, a bit of lab experience...I'm guessing.

    I'm just wondering what the heck I should do right now to accelerate my career, and amass material that will look good on an application. What does an aspiring theoretician do to improve his marketability to a prospective grad school, anyway?
  6. Sep 25, 2008 #5


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    I don't understand why anyone would tell you that TA is better than RA for theory.

    If you're very busy doing research, get an RA. If you're still early in grad school and your project isn't quite defined yet, get a TA.

    It's really quite simple: do you want to spend your afternoons teaching or doing research?
  7. Sep 25, 2008 #6
    Condensed matter theory doesn't necessarily require any lab experience (except in the computer lab).

    As for what an aspiring theorist can do to improve his application success? Research and get published, score exceedingly high on the Physics GRE, hope your strongest recommendation writers are friends with the admissions committees, and develop a firm handshake.

    You don't have to worry about whether it is better to be an RA or a TA until you get accepted.
  8. Sep 26, 2008 #7

    Dr Transport

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    The best way to learn enough to pass your qualifying exams is to be a TA an teach. I have seen more than my fair share of fellow grad students flunk their exams because of not learning to set up problems for freshman courses.
  9. Sep 27, 2008 #8


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    I personally think that every grad student should be required to TA at least one year. It helps in two ways. You learn to organize your thinking process and make it explicit rather than implicit as you explain it to the students. Secondly, you learn to teach while you still have supervisors who can help you (I also don't think TAs should just be dumped into courses with no supervision...just as you'd have a research mentor if you did an RA, you should have a teaching mentor if you do a TA). Anyone who does graduate level research should know how to teach, even if it is only a very minor part of what you do for your career later. Even if you never do formal classroom teaching, the same skills will aid you with mentoring your own grad students, with giving presentations at conferences, with giving invited seminars, or even just giving a presentation to a committee at a regular research group meeting.
  10. Sep 27, 2008 #9
    As far as teaching being a good experience for people who don't intend to teach... I'm not a terrifically awkward person, but I'm terrible at speaking to groups because my nerves get the better of me. As far as graduate students in physics go, I doubt I'm alone in this. Standing in front of a group of freshman and sophomores, describing something that you already know you're good at will start to ease those nerves - eventually you'll be standing in front of a group of professors trying to describe something you only thought you were good at, and you want to be sure you're over getting the shakes.
  11. Sep 28, 2008 #10
    Sometimes it would be better overall for students to have RA's at the beginning of their graduate years, and TA's at the end. The reason is that, for grad students in their 1st or second year, a full schedule of classes plus teaching plus research can be a heavy burden. Even though in the end research is the most important thing, a student with a TA AND coursework will find it easy to push research aside, since for the most part, the demands aren't that time-sensitive, unlike doing weekly homework, or preparing for the next class, so it becomes easy to allocate less time to it (even if you don't mean too). TAs might be good for senior grad students as a sort of outlet from doing research. I don't think allocating 100% of work time to research is a very good idea, since it can be frustrating and difficult at times. Having something else to work on would help them take their mind off their immediate problems, and maybe come back with a clearer mind.
  12. Sep 28, 2008 #11

    Vanadium 50

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    Quantumlaser, I think there's a reason why most graduate schools typically start with a TA-ship and after a year or two move the student to an RA-ship.

    (1) Research in the first year or two is supposed to let the student explore his or her options and pick a thesis advisor; it's not "serious" in the sense that it usually doesn't lead to a PhD.

    (2) At the end of the grad student's term, he or she needs to be focusing on finishing his or her dissertation, and not be distracted by other activities. I know you "don't think allocating 100% of work time to research is a very good idea, since it can be frustrating and difficult at times", but frustrating and difficult is exactly why you need to focus your energies on it.
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