Advice for New Economics Teaching Assistants (First Year Ph.D. Students)

One of the scariest moments of grad school for me was getting up in front of a classroom to teach for the first time.

During my four years in grad school, I spent 13 quarters teaching undergraduate economics at the University of California, San Diego. Along the way, I was asked to give some advice to other incoming first-year Ph.D. students about how to be a great teaching assistant (TA).

Here’s my best advice to new Ph.D. students for being an effective teaching assistant — while also surviving the painful first year of grad school. Hope it’s useful:

Go Watch a “Good” TA at Work: By “good” I mean someone experienced, and perhaps who has won a departmental teaching award. Go to their class and watch. They’ll come prepared with notes; everything they write on the board will be on a notepad in front of them. They will use the blackboard in an organized way. They will tell students a story with a logical flow. You can get a head start by copying others with good habits. Go find someone who is good in the classroom and copy them.

Teach Classes You Know About: Many first-year Ph.D. students make the mistake of TAing for classes they’re interested in learning more about, rather than ones they’re already experts in. This is a mistake. Teach classes you know the material for — at least during your first year. Teaching subjects you know means less prep time, fewer mistakes, and more time for your own studying. You’ll be a better, more compelling teacher.

Look Like a Professional: Social signaling is not superficial — it’s an important part of professional life. Try to show up to your discussion sections looking like a teacher, not a student. You don’t have to dress up; just don’t wear your worst outfit. The university classroom deserves respect, and you should take it seriously. Students will value your time more, and it’s good practice acting like a professional.

Some Practical Advice on Running a Classroom: Here are some tips on being an effective economics teacher I mostly learned the hard way.

  • Always Tell a Story: Teach material like a story, just as you would write it. Keep your board work as simple as possible, and try to provide context at each step as though you’re walking a friend through these ideas for the first time.
  • Write All Notes in Advance: When you show up to lecture, have in hand a complete set of notes with everything you plan to write on the board that day. This requires significant preparation, but will dramatically improve the clarity of lectures and will reduce in-class mistakes.
  • Put All of Your Notes On the Board, In Order. Be organized and neat with your board work. Your goal should be for students to leave the classroom with a complete set of notes, in logical order, which are sufficiently detailed to allow them to deliver your lecture themselves later on if they wish. Students will appreciate this.
  • Explain the History of Each Model or Concept: When introducing a new concept, begin with a motivating story. What was the intellectual problem economists were struggling with when this theory was first developed? What was happening in the world? How would we have ever thought to do this?
  • Be Informal, and Show You’re Excited About Results: Show students that you are excited about the material you are teaching. Imagine learning it together with them for the first time. Don’t be afraid to occasionally pause and remark, “isn’t that amazing?” when presenting a surprising or elegant result. Being informal will break down barriers and make you — and the material — more personal and relatable.
  • Teach the Material, Not the Audience: Economic theory is an amazing intellectual achievement. It can be demoralizing to teach it to students who are bored, distracted, and tired. Don’t let the audience affect how you teach. Instead, teach the material not the students. Use every lecture as a chance to show the world they are wrong about economics — it is interesting, deep and powerful. Act like you’re delivering your last lecture on the subject every day.

And finally, some practical advice about surviving your first year in grad school:

  • Treat Your First Year Like a Job: At a real job, you work 8–10 hours a day and use your leisure time to relax, regain energy, and think creatively. That’s how you should budget time during the first year. You won’t survive by working 14 hours a day, and most hours beyond 8 will be unproductive anyway. You should work hard Monday-Friday, maybe do a 4-hour day on Saturday or Sunday, and that’s it. Be ruthless about your time. Don’t be afraid to leave a lecture or a study group if it’s a waste of time — that’s what you do in a real job.
  • Focus Your Energy on Core Coursework, Not Research: Most first-year Ph.D. students want to start doing research and applying for grants right away. Forget about that during your first year. Focus on memorizing core material, learning proofs, and burning through problem sets. I watched people fail qualifying exams because they were distracted by research during their first year. The Ph.D. program is very long (typically 5–7 years) so there’s no rush to write your first paper. Instead, try to relax and learn skills during your first year.

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This was prepared for the University of California, San Diego’s “New Teaching Assistant Training Panel” for incoming Ph.D. economics students in September 2012.

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