I have been fortunate enough to experience being both a graduate student instructor (GSI) and graduate student research assistant (GSRA) for the biostatistics department within my two years here. I was a GSI my first three semesters, and am currently a GSRA this last semester. While I think many graduate students incoming to UM, reputed as a large public research institution, are rearing to partner with faculty and partake in discovery, I see distinct pros and cons to both positions:
Pros and cons of being a GSI:
Pro: Meeting new people. As a GSI my first semester–a time when everyone is a stranger!–I became close to four of my biostatistics classmates through long homework grading sessions, helping one another field questions during office hours, and managing class policy and administrative issues; moreover, I instantly met at least 70 fellow public health students from other, diverse departments within the School of Public Health (SPH), students with whom I would’ve never crossed paths if I were not their instructor. Because I met all these colleagues of mine on day 1, since then I’ve been able to smile, stop, and chat in the hallways when I frequently see a familiar face. It has made SPH a much more friendly place.
Pro: A fixed schedule. GSI-ing, as opposed to GSRA-ing, is a much more organized job affair in that there are dedicated times for your teaching responsibilities and you will rarely spend more hours than expected attending to them. Aside from the occasional request to meet outside of class for an extra tutoring session or overly in-depth homework question in email form (difficult to answer when that question is quantitative), GSI-ing doesn’t tend to spill outside the boundaries of your two laboratory sections, 2-3 office hours, and grading sessions.
Con: Student conduct issues. It is uncomfortable to encounter multiple assignments that are suspiciously identical, or seemingly copied from the solution manual. One might think that there is some satisfaction to catching cheating incidents, but I don’t think any teacher relishes the experience. No one likes to stir up drama surrounding academic dishonesty when the vast majority of students are attending class and diligently attempting assignments, struggling or not.
Pros and cons of being a GSRA:
Pro: Learning and applying new methodology. Research has allowed me to move past the theory of statistical methods emphasized in coursework to actually applying these analyses to real-life clinical investigations run by epidemiologists, professors, and physicians in SPH, the UM Health System, and health centers across the nation. It’s eye-opening interacting closely with one or two faculty members on a professional as opposed to instructive level, seeing how they approach problems and gaining insight into harsh work-life balance of academia.
Pro: A flexible schedule. Just as how GSI-ing is nice in that one’s schedule is very strict, GSRA-ing is nice for the very opposite reason in that one’s schedule is quite flexible. If you have a slew of midterms coming up, it’s okay to delay some research tasks for a few days and catch up later, while abandoning one’s section as a GSI is clearly not an option. GSRA-ing involves more time-management skills, but accordingly more leeway in when and where you do your work.
Con: More hours. I can only speak for my own experience, but GSRA-ing has required many more hours per week than GSI-ing. It’s easy to get absorbed in a coding problem, or sit for hours muddling through a “dirty” dataset. While research work is open-ended and thus intriguing, it leaves less time to complete the traditional but mandatory homework assignments and studying for courses.