Learning to Teach

University of BristolRebecca Ingle is a second year PhD student in the Bristol Laser Group in the School of Chemistry. Her research involves studying photodissociation dynamics in both the gas and solution phase using a combination of laser experiments and computational chemistry methods.

At its heart, a PhD might seem quite a simple thing. Bumble around in a lab for a few years, try to find conferences in the most exotic corners of the Earth, write a few things down. However, as well as the exciting cutting edge research, there are a whole host of other opportunities to challenge yourself with, including trying your hand at teaching.

Some people might consider teaching a waste of time; after all, you won’t have much of a PhD if you don’t have a tome of research to submit at the end. However, it can be an excellent way of developing your confidence, learning about some new subject areas and picking up some so-called ‘employability-skills’ if you are ever planning on leaving the realm of perpetual studenthood. You might even find teaching motivates and helps with your research work, rather than detracting from it.

If you’re looking back on your first year undergraduate studies with a warm sense of nostalgia, longing for the days when you thought you knew everything, then perhaps teaching is also for you. But how do you go about getting involved and more importantly, how do you start becoming an effective teacher?

Choose your Audience

There are a huge number of opportunities available for teaching, both in and outside of the university. Maybe herding groups of undergraduates and their chemicals back to the fume hoods, where they belong, sounds like the challenge for you or maybe you’d rather try to instil a love of maths in the younger generation. Regardless of what size groups or subjects you want to teach, you can probably find something to suit.

If you fancy venturing outside of the university, the market for GCSE and A Level tutors is huge. It is even possible to teach online now. However, it is worth doing your homework if you are planning on tutoring through an agency to ensure that they are reputable and exactly what cut of your earnings they take. Although perhaps less lucrative, schools are often keen to get support with after-school science clubs or additional support for students.

Most departmental opportunities are advertised by email but it can be worth keeping an eye on opportunities on a university level as well as via Widening Participation and the Careers Service.

Be Prepared

It may seem obvious, but the better you know the material yourself, the better you will be able to deliver it. The more thorough your understanding, the easier it will be to come up with alternative explanations to try and make sure all your students understand the material. If you have a feeling for what students typically find difficult on a course, it can be worth preparing extra questions or examples to give them more opportunity to practice and feel more confident.

However, no matter how hard you’ve studied the subject, some enthusiastic student will come up with a question you had no way of anticipating. Cue desperately trying to remember what you definitely knew four years ago to avoid shattering the naïve illusions of undergraduates that think you are the font of all knowledge. On the plus side, getting used to thinking on your feet in these situations makes question time at conference talks seem like a breeze.

If avoiding working with projectors and computers is impossible, turn up to the room three hours early, preferably with someone from IT in tow. The closer it is to the start of the lesson, the greater the likelihood that the computer will refuse to log on, decide that .ppt is an unknown file extension and delete all your files.

Seek Help

If you are completely new to teaching and have no idea how to cultivate the aura of calm and knowledge that your lecturers seemed to manage so easily, there is a lot of help out there. The University runs several ‘Starting to Teach’ courses specifically to address this problem and course organisers are normally only too happy to help, as if you fail to answer the students’ questions, they’ll only get asked them later.

Course organisers and other PhDs typically know what the most common issues and problems are likely to be or if you’re helping with practical sessions, ten different ways to switch the equipment off and on again to get it to work. Your supervisor might have some sagely tricks of the trade to share as well.

It can be nervewracking standing up in front of a class, hoping that after an hour, the whiteboard of algebra will suddenly make sense to everyone but it can be immensely rewarding seeing students making excellent progress. Being a researcher means you can often give a unique perspective of where a lot of theories are actually used and bring some seemingly useless topics to life. Sometimes the answer will be ‘I don’t know’ but you might find yourself learning as much as your students do.

Right, you’ve got your doctorate. Now what?

Photo of Richard BuddI don’t know how common this is, but I gave no thought to ‘post-PhD’ when I started out. I was mostly interested in the field and wanted to see if I had what it took to do a doctorate.  Job thoughts came later, with an academic career emerging as the frontrunner by several lengths. I love my area of research, I really enjoy teaching, and there’s no ceiling as to how far you can develop intellectually. I had a good job for a time before I started my postgrad studies – interesting, well paid, international travel, nice people – but after a while I wasn’t getting any better, just learning more facts. The next options for me were to go into management or get involved in more advanced kinds of research. It was a no-brainer: I had to go back to university.

So, here I am, with my PhD, and looking at the job market. It looks like getting from a freshly passed viva to a lecturing post requires having a few things on your CV:

  • A doctorate;
  • Research experience (in addition to your doctorate);
  • Teaching experience;
  • Conference presentations;
  • Journal publications, and preferably a book;
  • Successful research funding bids;

I’ll go through the list, in principal and in (my) practice.

You didn’t always have to have a PhD/professional doctorate but you probably do now. It might not be as important in some subjects like nursing, teacher training, or architecture, but having one in those will certainly not count against you. In most subjects, though, it’s a case of no doctorate, no entry. For me, that’s a check.

Getting research experience – preferably as part of a research team – seems to be pretty important. Not many have the opportunity to do this before their doctorate and you can’t always squeeze it in during. You might get to be involved in other people’s work if you’re in a lab in your research group, but this is not an option for everyone. Teaching is readily available if you’re studying in a department that has undergraduate students, less if you’re not. I had a career in non-academic research before I came back to university, managed to get a few cameo research jobs during my PhD, and am now working on a research project. My department was a graduate school and you couldn’t teach until you upgraded from MPhil to PhD, but I previously taught English in Japan and then accumulated quite a few bits of bobs after my upgrade, too. So far, so good!

Most people do conference presentations as they go along. They’re nerve-wracking, but you get to share your research, pick up new ideas, and often meet some interesting (and perhaps useful) people. You can start off small, presenting at student conferences or at the ‘early career’ section of a major one, and then at some stage move into the bear pit with the grown-ups.  It’s all a practice thing and I did a few of these every year, some of which went well, some of which didn’t. Still, I learnt from it, quite enjoy it really, and that’s another box ticked.

Publishing is tricky, particularly during your PhD, unless you’re involved with someone else’s research project. Like me, you may not have anything new to say from your doctorate until you’re near the end of it. You can do book reviews, though, but I’m personally not sure how much this counts. There can be quite a lead time on journal publications: a few months to write, share, revise and then submit them, then a few more until they’re reviewed and sent back. Then you have to address their suggestions and resubmit it, provided they didn’t reject it outright in the first place. Only after all of that – once it’s all been approved, of course – can you put that precious ‘Budd (forthcoming) Catchy But Serious Title, Prestigious Journal, 3 (1), pp.34-52’ on your CV. Books are another option, at least in the social sciences. Unfortunately, you can’t just send the editor your final thesis copy, it’ll need months of rejigging and then more editing. Publications are where I fall flat at the moment. I have one that I’m working on by myself, two collaborative ones from other work I’ve done or am currently doing, and then at least three more from my PhD. In a year from now, it’ll all look rosier, and in two years, peachy!

Research funding is a bit of a Catch-22 in that you can’t get funding without a permanent job or a permanent job without funding! The ideal route is that you get a two to three-year ‘post-doc’ soon after your viva that brings everything on the list with it – research, teaching, presentations, publications, and research funding. People in the sciences tend to do a few of these before getting a permanent job, but in the social sciences it’s usually one, and there are far less of them around. They’re often not that well paid and/or quite short term, which is completely unhelpful if you’ve got a family and can’t move around every six to 12 months.

I hope most people are more informed about what happens after the doctorate than I was four years ago. I did manage to work most of this out as I went along, though, and am now only a few publications short of the next stop on the ladder. Some people I know have moved from their doctorate to a lectureship almost seamlessly, but this is pretty unusual. It’s probably good to be aware that there is a bit of a chasm between completing your thesis and The Job. You may have to fill the gap with part-time and/or short-term contracts, and you’ll need to collect certain building blocks to construct your bridge to the other side. Good luck…