Becoming a TA at the University of Toronto

This month, ASK a TA! addresses a question from a graduate student about the process of becoming a TA at the University of Toronto. Our post is written by Michael Dick, a TATP Social Sciences Trainer and Microteaching Coordinator. Michael is also a PhD Candidate in Information Studies at the University of Toronto.

Hi, I’m interested in becoming a TA, but I am confused about which courses I can apply to become a TA in, and when/where/how I should start applying. Also, I wanted to know how competitive it is to get a TA position, and if there are any useful courses/trainings you would suggest. If there are any mentorship opportunities, I’m down to become a mentee!
-Eager to Start


Dear Eager to Start,

As you know, the University of Toronto is a large institution with teaching assistant (TA) opportunities available in many of its departments across its three campuses. I certainly appreciate how significant a task it can seem to obtain TA work, so I’m here to talk you through some of the basics and offer some advice on employment and training opportunities that may be of interest to you, or indeed to any newcomers to the University of Toronto community.

What are some key considerations in working as a Teaching Assistant at U of T?

  • At U of T, TAs take on duties like grading, demonstrating labs, running a variety of tutorials, holding consultation hours, invigilating tests and exams, and a bevy of clerical duties related to course management (e.g. updating content on course websites like Quercus).
  • TA work is an employment relationship with the university, although it may be part of the overall funding package some graduate students receive from their faculty or their department. Teaching Assistants are represented by a collective agreement between the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902, thus TAships are unionized positions. Although many TAs at U of T are Unit 1 members, CUPE 3902 has multiple bargaining units at the university. Those who do the same or similar work at one of the federated universities, such as Victoria University, would be members of different bargaining units (notably Unit 2 or Unit 4).
  • If a TAship is part of your graduate student funding package or post-doctoral fellowship, your program department or faculty should assist you in securing an appropriate amount of employment to correspond to the portion of your funding that’s been earmarked for this work.
  • TAships may be framed in a variety of different ways, depending on the type of work that you will do.

If I am studying at a faculty or department that doesn’t hire TAs, can I still work as a TA at the University?
You can work as a TA in a number of divisions/faculties or departments outside your own.

How can I identify what and where I could teach?
Reflect on your undergraduate and graduate studies to create a list of potential fields in which you could work as a TA. For example, you may have completed a double major in anthropology and psychology in your undergraduate degree, got a Masters in criminology, and now you have began doctoral studies in sociology. This means that you could potentially teach in four distinct areas, so you could explore TAships at four different departments at the University.

What is the process to get hired?
You may encounter a variety of different hiring practices depending on departmental culture and procedures. TAing within your own graduate department is ideal. You may even have the chance to TA for your research supervisor. A staff member in your department may send out e-mails with TA job announcements, or she or he may post them in a central place within the department. Ask at your program orientation session if you have one, or check with your fellow students and student associations for help and advice. You can also contact the staff member responsible for TA hiring in a department that interests you to make inquiries. TAs work across all three of the University’s campuses—St. George, the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC), and the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM). Programs that don’t offer their own graduate degrees are great places to consider because they will not already have a pool of graduate students to draw from as TAs (and will thus look outside their department for hiring).

When does hiring happen and who coordinates this process?
TA hiring usually happens several weeks in advance of each of U of T’s three terms (Fall, Winter, and Spring/Summer). Positions aren’t open for more than a couple of weeks; in fact, some “emergency postings” – which can be announced even after the beginning of the term – are only up for a matter of days! It’s important to check-in regularly if you’re not on a mailing list. Also, check the website for your program, department, and faculty for job postings. Many maintain a “job bank” online (or sometimes still within the department itself), that could include information on relevant TAships. Again, remember that exact posting dates aren’t fixed and that some positions (especially those emergency postings mentioned earlier) aren’t up for long. U of T also now posts TA (and other Unit 1 positions like Course Instructorships) through a centralized website.

What is required to apply for a TAship?
Apply for the positions that interest you following the instructions, just as you would any other job. You’ll usually have to include a cover letter and a CV, and possibly references. Keep an open mind about the positions and leverage your expertise across multiple disciplines to assess your qualifications. Being willing to travel to another campus will also open up more possibilities for you, as will a willingness to take on one or more smaller contracts (i.e. usually those under 100 hours for the term), which may involve only grading and clerical duties rather than taking on a more student-facing role. Departments are required to have a hiring policy for Unit 1 positions on file, both locally and with the labour union. If you are interested in exploring the hiring criteria further in order to assess your competitiveness, this policy and the collective agreement, which governs the unionized TA work, would be good places to look. In general, subject matter expertise is valued alongside pedagogical skills, as well as more general employability criteria (e.g. responsibilities, a respect for diversity, etc.)

Can I apply for more than one TAship at a time?
You can apply for several TAships across a variety of departments. Once you get an offer for a position, you can decline it. The good news is that once you hold your first Unit 1 position (or, more accurately, the position with the most number of hours in your first term of employment) you and the hiring department can become good friends for several years. Under the collective agreement, you must be offered up to six “subsequent appointments” of at least the same number of hours (though you may not always work on the same courses or even at the same campus). Your funding package may have other guarantees built into it as well, so it’s important to check. Finally, it’s worth knowing that you may also apply for additional TAships beyond your subsequent appointments (e.g. to hold a TAship in an additional term within a given year), and that application should be made following the same steps described previously.

What happens once I am hired?
No matter where you work at U of T, you will be offered four hours of paid training with your first TAship. These four hours could be a mix of department-led training or other programming offered by services like the Teaching Assistants’ Training Program. Depending on your duties, health and safety or other specialized training may also be required. On the subject of duties, you should be given a copy of a form known as a “DDAH” (Description of Duties and Allocation of Hours), which you must review with the Supervising Instructor of your TA contract. This form will set out her or his expectations of you for the course. You should keep it handy as you work on your contract, making sure to track your hours against this form so you can raise any issues of potentially overworking your contract before they even arise. Work patterns will differ across programs/departments and even across courses, but the DDAH and an open line of communication with the teaching team are absolute musts!

I certainly hope this overview of all-things-TA-related at the university has given you a helpful orientation to the institution, along with a sense of the multitude of professional development opportunities available to you as a way of enhancing your experience!

-Michael Dick