Ever heard the phrase, ‘Those who can’t do, teach’?…. Wrong! Breaking down complex subject matter into an accessible format and making it interesting is a rare and valuable skill. The good news is, it’s a skill you can learn.
Engaging in teaching activities during your PhD is a challenging and rewarding experience that enhances your CV, your communication skills and ultimately helps you with your research. And, not least, it can be a valuable source of pocket money!
Those who can do, teach
Graduate teaching requires you to be adept at making complex subject matter accessible and interesting. If you can do this well, it’s a skill you’ll take to any future career. Teaching also forces you to revisit topics from your dark and distant undergraduate past. It’s a universal fact that after your last undergrad exam, somehow the memory banks get wiped clean. And if you have a long gap before starting your PhD, your knowledge base for your subject suddenly becomes that bit narrower. Teaching will expose you to scientific basics you’d forgotten you ever studied.
The role of the graduate teaching assistant
The Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) is a recognised role, in both Europe and the US, although the title can vary. GTAs mainly assist in labs (a role often referred to as ‘Demonstrator’) or by running tutorials. Lab teaching typically involves supervising prescribed practical activities and report marking. Leading a tutorial involves a bit more work in terms of material preparation and the level of active teaching. Remuneration reflects the level of teaching expected and GTAs can expect between £12 and £20 per hour in the UK, ($20 – $33) depending on university policy.
The role is optional, and places are usually fewer than the number of grad students (especially for tutors – lab demonstrators tend to be greater in number) so there may be a selection process for choosing GTAs. Your university provides the training and you would teach in the subject/lab most relevant to your own PhD/experience.
In the lab, a particular group of students may be your responsibility for the duration of the course, or you may be assigned to a particular experiment, teaching different groups of students on rotation.
Challenges and rewards
One obvious concern may be the potential interference with your own lab work. Lab demonstrators usually commit to a maximum of two sessions per week; tutors may take on more, as tutorials are shorter in duration. However, this is something that you would discuss in advance with your supervisor or PI. Of course, there will be days when you’re so involved in your research work, that having to stop in the middle of it makes you curse the day you signed up to teaching duties. That said, the teaching often ends up the being the break you need, and you return to your work refreshed and more productive for it.
Taking on additional teaching responsibilities requires an organised approach to your workload, another essential skill to employers. Don’t leave marking papers until the last minute and take some time to read over the material prior to each class (even 10 minutes over a coffee).
And of course, the biggest challenge of all… the students. Teaching astute and engaged students is a pleasure and is relatively easy. It’s dealing with reluctant or less focused students, or those who struggle with the material, that tests your ability as a teacher. Recall the worst teacher or lecturer you’ve had and why they were so difficult to follow. And then do whatever it is you wished they had done. The same goes for when you’ve had a particularly good teacher. What was it about their teaching methods that made the subject so enjoyable?
Building good relationships with your students is hugely important, so adopt a friendly and approachable manner. Many will be struggling, but perhaps too shy or apathetic to ask for help. A good teacher will try to keep their students interested and aware of the reasoning behind what they’re learning, so be enthusiastic about your subject. If they’re interested, they’ll be more focused. Getting students interested enough to keep asking questions is very rewarding. But don’t fall into the trap of just telling them how to get the answers; this will be of no benefit to them in the long run. Make a point of asking what they think and continually test their understanding of the underlying principles.
Making your experience count
Don’t think of your time spent tutoring or demonstrating as additional chores or a money maker (although the latter is an added bonus), but as a valuable addition to your skill set. The Higher Education Academy (UK), allows registration as an Associate, based on a portfolio of evidence of teaching activities and development of the appropriate skills. Three years of graduate teaching activities can provide you with enough documented evidence for this.
Further teaching opportunities
Those who have an aptitude and enthusiasm for teaching may find that graduate teaching duties lead to a career in University teaching or science communication. So, if this is the career for you, get yourself affiliated with the appropriate governing body.
There are many additional activities to help you develop your skills. These include acting as a private tutor (normally for secondary or high school students in the UK) or getting involved with a local science communication group where you may have the opportunity to participate in open days, science festivals or school demonstrations.