As mentioned in my previous posts, I am working as a teaching assistant (TA) for the machine learning course. We are halfway through the trimester. It seems like a good point to write about my experience so far. I am going to discuss all the aspects of my TA experience covering the motivation, application process, responsibilities, and payment.
I had mainly two goals for working as a teaching assistant. First, I wanted to shadow the course management process. This would help me understand it and would be useful when I have to design courses for students in the future. I can always list them under my experiences in my resume when I apply for faculty positions. The second goal is to get some side income. Frankly, this is not much, but is always useful on a student budget.
Polytechnique has most of the courses in French. And I have successfully managed to ignore my yearly goals of getting better at French so far. So, my options were very limited. Machine learning is one of the courses that is offered in English (probably because I am not the only one who couldn’t learn enough French). I took that course in Fall 2020. I liked it. I am using those concepts in my regular research. The professor (Sarath Chandar) did a fantastic job at organizing and teaching. The course title can look good on my resume. So, it seemed like a good option.
Last year fall, I was auditing the reinforcement learning course by Sarath. During the course, he mentioned that he would want students to apply for TA positions for his courses. At the end of the class, I asked him about the application process and he mentioned that typically the students apply around May or June for the Fall courses. All I need to do is to email him around that time.
I did exactly that. I sent him my resume and some details about the projects I was working on. Although, I only audited the reinforcement learning class, he liked my interactions so much that he asked me to compile all the questions and suggestions I have in a document, so he can use it later to improve the course. I reminded him that in my email to make my case a bit stronger.
Finally, around the mid of June, he emailed me to inform that I was selected for the TA position. He added me to the TA Slack channel and weekly meetings. We are a team of 6 TAs and Sarath working behind the course to make it better.
The official application with polytechnique started much later. That was around end of August. I had to send an email with my CV. There were a couple of formalities and I received my official contract from polytechnique around the end of September.
The assignments and supplementary tutorials (like probability, linear algebra etc) are handled by TAs. Sarath plans the main course content and gives lectures. I designed the probability and linear algebra tutorials and the assignment 0 (non-evaluative) covering the prerequisites for the course. This was mainly to make sure that the students remember the probability, linear algebra and real analysis concepts needed for the course. I could have used the previous year tutorials and assignment. But, I found that those were slightly misaligned with what is actually needed for the ML course. So, I corrected them.
Other than the tutorials, I helped test the first evaluative assignment. I was not supposed to work on the second assignment, but the TA assigned to that had some last moment urgencies. He needed help and promised to repay with final exam correction load at the end of the course. I took it. This helped me get familiar with the assignment design part and autograder code (Yes! Part of the assignment is graded by a code!).
Other than assignments and tutorial, I also host weekly office hours on Friday. This is to help students with their assignment or course related queries. Students can also ask questions on piazza, which the entire team of TAs and Sarath can see and answer.
I was not sure how the payment works at the beginning. I thought the TAs are paid at the end of the course. But, I was wrong. The payments are added to my stipend (with some tax deductions). The total amount mentioned in the contract is slightly less than CAD 1500. I get slightly more than CAD 100 after taxes. This is quite a reasonable pay for the work.
Most of my major work is done. I now have to keep hosting my office hours and correct some parts of assignment-2 and final exam questions. I will also be giving a tutorial on scikit-learn in a couple of weeks. But that is quite similar to the tutorial last year. I didn’t have to make major changes.
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