Question: While researching for admission into a Master's degree program in Computer Science in the USA and Canada, I came across terms like Research Assistantship and Teaching Assistantship. I would like you to explain these terms in more details, so that I can fully understand them. Are there differences in the meaning of these terms for the USA and Canada? Are there other means of earning an income as an international student?
Answer: Although the US and Canada are next-door neighbors, the terminology, cost of education, and approach to financial support differ substantially. Thus it can not only be confusing, but it can also lead to a mismatch of expectations and subsequent disappointments. If you are in need of financial support to pursue your education, it is imperative that you fully appreciate what you can or can not, and will or will not, get. It is truer for international students than it is for local students, since international students face sever limitations on employment and a high cost of education.
The Master's degree in Computer Science is a Master of Science degree, which is referred to as MS in the US and MSc in Canada. Generally speaking, the cost of higher education in the US is significantly higher than it is in Canada. In some instances, the cost of tuition and cost of living in the US can be more than twice as high as they are in Canada.
Before we can get into specific means of employment, let us understand what we are dealing with. Employment limitations imposed on international students are quite different between the US and Canada. For the US, once you are granted an international student visa, you are automatically permitted to work on your school (generic reference to an educational institution) campus. The authorities on your school campus are required by law to ensure that any employment offered to you, should that happen, is within the guidelines of the US law. Typically, it means you can work on campus for up to 20 hours a week and get paid. In addition, you are allowed to work full-time under the provision of training visa for up to 12 months in total. Since your full-time student status is a requirement for your stay in the US, it typically means that you would get to exercise this option only after you have completed your studies, or occasionally for summer job.
In Canada, however, an international student visa simply means that you are allowed to stay in the country, so long as you pursue a specific program of studies full-time: no more, no less. In other words, your international student visa does not authorize you to take on any kind of employment, on campus or otherwise. Should you be able to secure an offer of part-time employment on campus, you would be required to obtain a work permit from the Canadian Immigration authorities, prior to accepting the employment offer. This permit is easy to get for graduate students (students in the Master's or Doctoral programs), albeit a pain in the neck, provided your school is willing to put together the required documentation to demonstrate that such employment is an essential and integral part of your studies. No full-time employment would generally be allowed, since you are required to maintain a full-time student status. Undergraduate students (students in the Bachelor's degree programs) would rarely be given work permits to work on campus by the Canadian Immigration authorities. Generally speaking, the Canadian Immigration authorities would also summarily reject requests for work permit for off-campus employment.
There are other differences relating to legal requirements and constraints for international students between the US and Canada, but they are not particularly relevant to this discussion on financial support. For example, international students in Canada are issued renewable visas for the duration of one year at a time, whereas in the US, the visa is issued once for the entire duration of the program of studies. By the way, the definition of international student is consistent throughout the world. Anyone entering a country, who is not a citizen or legal permanent resident of the country, for the purpose of pursuing a program of studies, is referred to as an international student. This is a specifically identified category of temporary residents of the country, whose stay in the country is governed by clear and separate rules, set forth by the government of the country. As a result, a Canadian or Indian wishing to study in the US would be considered an international student in the US, just as an American wishing to study in Canada or India would be considered an international student by Canadian or Indian governments. The immigration laws of the host country govern the conduct of international students in the host country.
Does all this mean Canada is particularly inhospitable to international students? Not really! The "system" of dealing with international students is different between the two countries, just as it is between any two countries. Like it or not, you have to abide by the laws of the host country, if you wish to live there. You must also learn what those laws are - ignorance of laws is not a defense for violation of the laws. We have seen the deportation back to the country of permanent residence of some international students for violating the immigration laws, particularly those relating to employment limitations.
Within the above framework, we can now address the financial support or employment opportunities for international students of various sorts. The meaning of Research Assistantship is the same for the US and Canada, but the implementation is not. Research Assistantship is offered to qualified students by the university or a professor, from research grants obtained through the government or private sector, for assistance in particular research efforts. The Research Assistant (RA), the student who is doing the Research Assistantship, typically gets credit for this work towards his or her program of studies, in the form of a dissertation (as referred to in the US) or thesis (as referred to in Canada). Generally speaking, a Research Assistantship in the US accompanies a total or partial tuition fee waiver, whereas in Canada, it does not. Research Assistantship in Canada has no implications for the tuition fee -- it is rare to get any kind of tuition fee waiver, partial or full. Research Assistantship is deemed to be a form of employment, thus subject to the laws of the land - that is, no additional permit is required in the US, but a work permit, in addition to your international student visa, is required in Canada.
Teaching Assistantship, as it exists in the US, does not exist in Canada, generally speaking. The amount one can earn through Teaching Assistantship is up to the amount offered by Research Assistantship, but often lower. Through Teaching Assistantship, your department, typically in which you are enrolled, offers a fixed amount of money per year for assisting a professor or professors in the department: tasks typically include tutoring, grading homework, or supervising laboratories. Specifics of your engagement may not be known but you do know that the department will offer you a fixed amount of money in exchange for work, typically restricted to less than 20 hours per week. As in the case of Research Assistantship, Teaching Assistantship is deemed to be a form of employment, thus subject to the laws of the land - that is, no additional permit is required, since this form of assistance is available only in the US.
International students can be offered tutoring, grading homework and lab supervision, outside the structure of Teaching Assistantship. This is true for both the US and Canada. Every time new classes begin, the department seeks tutors, homework graders, and lab supervisors for specific needs. Those offered the opportunities, get paid either an hourly rate or a lump sum, for the duration. You are typically restricted to less than 20 hours of work per week. No tuition fee waiver is typically offered as a part of this arrangement. Even if worked the same number of hours under this arrangement as one does for Teaching Assistantship, you would make much less money, and of course get no tuition fee waiver. This arrangement is deemed to be a form of employment, thus subject to the laws of the land - that is, no additional permit is required in the US, but a work permit, in addition to your international student visa, is required in Canada.
There is another possibility of employment, but only in the US. You can work on campus, if you can find it, doing other tasks, such as being a receptionist, sitting at a help desk, or filing books on library shelves, and so on. This effort would get you the least amount of money, probably marginally above the minimum wage, which is currently $5.15 per hour.
We hope this provides you the information you are looking for, in addition to the rules and rationale governing the items of interest to you. Good luck!