Editorial Notebooks

TA-ing good for staying sharp

Since I’m wrapping up my fourth year here at RPI, I figure now is a good time to talk about some of the things that made my time here memorable. Granted, there are a lot of things I could talk about (like Big Red Freakout and all of the events I’ve covered) but here I’ll focus on just one aspect in particular: being an undergraduate mentor (AKA undergraduate TA).

I’ve been an undergrad mentor for the past three years for the computer science department’s Data Structures class, after taking the course in the spring of my freshman year. I started doing undergraduate mentoring for credit in the spring of my sophomore year and recently managed to get paid in place of credit. This semester I’m still an undergrad mentor for Data Structures.

Why do I think you should be an undergrad mentor for a subject? There are a few reasons; one of the best reasons to do so is because it tests to see how much you understand the material. It’s said that you never really understand a subject until you’ve tried to teach it or help somebody else understand it. Even after mentoring the class for three years, there are
still students in the course who test my understanding of the
material every day.

Although this next point is especially relevant to computer science, I’m sure it applies to other majors too. Mentoring a class keeps the material fresh in your mind so if it comes up in an interview, you can remember the material. Data Structures comes up fairly often in programming interviews, so knowing their implementations is extremely useful. While finding a relevant course and mentoring it seems a little excessive, it’s worth it. My last interview with Microsoft, for example, had a lot to do with manipulating linked lists and the efficiency of doing so.

Academic reasons aside, the best reason to be an undergraduate mentor, in my opinion, is because it’s fun. You get to meet a wide variety of people while mentoring the class. There are a lot of conversations I’ve had in lab that probably wouldn’t have happened anywhere else (such as how to take one student’s cardboard robot costume over the top). I have also learned a fair amount of new, relevant material from trying to answer questions of some of the students. You also meet some people who will later become friends or project partners as they join you in later classes. I even met somebody who came in as a biomedical engineer, switched to electrical engineering, and is now going to graduate school for computer science.

The only unfortunate side to mentoring is that getting paid is sometimes difficult. For the first two years I was a mentor, I technically had to take a two credit class each time I wanted to do it because they stopped paying mentors. There were two such classes, meaning I could only TA and get compensation for my work twice. This year, however, I was able to get paid compensation for my work. After doing this job for the past three years, I can safely say that I would rather be paid than get credit.

I would highly suggest finding a class to mentor not only for the practical academic reasons, but also because it’s fun. You never know who you will meet in class (or lab), and it also looks great on a resume.