Profile: Biology grad student reaps benefits of working as teaching assistant

Megan Murphy is a student at MU. She studies, does research, manages her social life and teaches. Murphy is a teaching assistant (TA) at MU and currently helps teach Biological Sciences 1010.

“First, I got my bachelor’s degree at Rockhurst University in Kansas City,” Murphy said. “I then decided to get my Ph.D. at MU. The research going on here is what interested me, and MU has such a broad interest in their research.”

College is expensive, and going on to graduate school not only adds to a student’s marketability, it can also add to the debt burden.

Working as a TA can help lower the price tag while allowing students to do research as they earn their master’s or Ph.D.

“I really like it so far,” Murphy said. “It’s challenging and very busy, but I’m doing what I enjoy so it’s not a bad busy.”

One challenge often faced by graduate teaching assistants is the similarity in ages between them and their students.

“My first day teaching I was really nervous,” Murphy said. “I came from a small university and never had a TA, so I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. Plus I was only 21. Students were sometimes older than me, and students who were from my high school would be in my class.”

However, for the undergrads, these smaller discussion classes with a younger graduate student as the TA can be beneficial.

“You have a person who’s closer to your age, and you see them up close and personal,” said Gerald Summers, an associate professor of biological sciences. “TAs know your name and have discussion so if you’re not clear you can ask questions.”

Agribusiness management major Brady James agrees.

“Megan is a great TA and has met all of my expectations,” James said. “I think TAs are a way to break down big lectures into small groups so it’s easier to get questions answered.”

Being a TA is a great way for graduate students to learn how to handle a classroom full of students and all of the responsibilities of teaching.

“You need experience, so being a TA is a great way to get a little bit of experience while still getting to do your research,” Summers said. “You get to experience writing test questions and become comfortable standing in front of a group of people.”

Murphy’s advice to students thinking about becoming a TA is to not be afraid and realize there is a balance between teaching, researching and studying. The amount of work can vary at times of the year. Sometimes Murphy doesn’t teach when her research picks up.

“I really enjoy teaching, and I think you learn every semester is different,” Murphy said. “My secret is not to bribe, but to encourage students to do well on tests with baked goods.”

This is Murphy’s third year in school and second year as a TA. Murphy’s goal is to teach at a liberal arts school because larger schools focus more on research while her interest is more in teaching.

“If I put little in them, my students learn very little. What you put into it is what you get out of it,” Murphy said.