The most common forms of support are:
To be a RA you need to find a professor who has the money and projects to support you. The best way to find these professors is to talk to friends and to take classes from Prof’s you think you might like to work for. If you work hard and do a good job, you might be offered a job. Some professors are more likely to do this than others.
The RA experience can vary depending on who you are working for. Some professors may demand everything from you. Some might say this builds character, while others would say it leads to burnout. In either case, you will find out really quickly if you like what you are doing. Unless you are desperate, ask around before signing up with a prof. Figure out what they demand, and what it is like working for them, etc.
Work done as a RA will often lead into your thesis work, or a masters project, so it is desirable to do something you are interested in. Note that some professors offer cushy RA positions to lure good students into working for them.
You can get a job as a TA.There is usually a need for good TA’s. You can fill out a sheet with your coursework and/or teaching experience to help place you as a TA.
TA’ing can be a wonderful or horrible experience. Part of this depends on how you like the classroom setting. If you don’t enjoy helping students, dealing with their questions, and standing in front of the classroom, TA’ing is probably not for you. However, it is also an opportunity to influence students who are possibly the next generation of graduate students. In this way it can also be very rewarding.
Some people say that you don’t really know something until you teach it to someone else. Not only is this true, but also, trying to teach something to others will show whether or not you really know it. Don’t let yourself be pressured into a position you don’t think you are capable of handling.
Depending on the classes TA’s might have to do some grading of homeworks or tests. Ask about this so you know what to expect in advance.
Another option is fellowship awards and grants. It is highly recommended that you apply for a fellowship or outside grant for support. Not only does this provide you with the all important “cashola” to cover expenses, but also distinguishes you and the department.
I didn’t get financial support from the department; is there any way to get a job somewhere else??
Yes. There several local research firms that like to hire . These firms will often pay better than what you would get as a RA or TA, but they may demand more too. Often there is a conflict of interest between you finishing your degree, and the company trying to make a profit. You can try out such firms for summer positions and see what it is like to work there. Also, ask people in your field what experience they have had. Most people I have talked to say that it is hard to balance school and a job like this. If you are only getting a masters, this can be a great way to ensure yourself a job after you graduate.
Should I work for my advisor or somewhere else? What are the pros and cons?
In general, if you want to graduate sooner and your advisor has the grant to support you, it is better for you to work for your advisor. The advantages are obvious because it will speed up your graduation process. In addition, the work you do usually contributes directly to your dissertation, generates publications, gains hands-on experiences, and prepares for the post-graduation bootstrap. The downside of working for your advisor is that you probably will be bounded to him/her especially when your advisor is very demanding.