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Careers for Scientists – University Teaching Fellow, UK

For this week’s interview I’ve been speaking to Peter Kirsop from the University of Edinburgh, UK. Peter has been taking part in our webinar series “Chemistry for Biologists” which has proved really popular, so I thought it would be interesting to hear about what he does every day…..

Hi Peter,

You describe yourself as an Organic Chemistry Teaching Fellow. And what exactly is it that you do?

Teaching Fellows were introduced in UK universities quite recently, certainly within the last 5 -10 years.  The job of Teaching Fellow exists across many disciplines, so we are found in departments for art-based subjects as well as the sciences.  My particular job remit is to teach undergraduates (principally at 1st, 2nd and 3rd year level) the basics of chemistry that they need. Not so much in the final years of 4th and 5th year – those who are active in research generally do this. I also have to run teaching laboratories as well, which need to reflect current teaching for organic chemistry and the content of our courses. I’ve been doing this now for 5 years and last year I also became a DOS – that’s a Director of Studies. As a DOS I have responsibility for advising around 90 students on both pastoral and academic matters. Just recently, I’ve been made Director of Organic Teaching so I’m now responsible for the allocation of teaching duties and optimising and utilising staff resources within my own section.

Would you tell us a bit about your background?

Well, I came into the whole business as a mature student and started university when I was 40! Yes – old. Originally my intention was to leave after my undergraduate degree and get a teaching qualification. But then my Honours project supervisor persuaded me that it would be a good idea to do a PhD. So I started a PhD in organic chemistry and luckily for me, part way through my studies the conditions of the PhD were changed to include an element of undergraduate teaching. I ended up lecturing 1st year students and summer school students and doing tutorials. Then just as I was writing up my thesis, I saw a job advertised at the University of Edinburgh for a Teaching Fellow – I hadn’t realised there were such jobs available at that time – I applied and got the job! But prior to all of that – I was an engineer.  One day you’re just lying there in a pool of oil, middle age racing towards you at full pelt, and you start to think – hmm, there must be a better way…..

What do you like about your job?

I really like interacting with students. I enjoy the challenge of putting across material in such a way that I can see the students are understanding what I’m talking about. I enjoy running the teaching labs because it’s here that I see the students’ practical skills growing, and at the same time get a great deal of personal satisfaction from organising the teaching labs efficiently. There are two sides to running good labs – you need to deliver the best possible experience for the students, but also as far as the university is concerned you need to run the labs efficiently, both financially and timetable-wise.

A Teaching Fellowship is definitely a hot career choice for many scientists who are looking to move away from the bench. What advice would you give to someone who is looking to make this move?

I’m pretty sure that I got this job because of the experience I gained as a PhD student, so I’d suggest that you try to do as many teaching related activities as you can. Whether you’re a student or a postdoc, you can start off by volunteering to do tutorials at all levels – bear in mind that if you do tutorials in lower years you’ll be expected to cover subjects in areas outside your own field. So, in my case as an organic chemist I might be expected to cover 1st year tutorials in physical chemistry or inorganic chemistry. Above 1st year level, it will be organic chemistry. You’ll know how this converts to your own flavour of biology. If your university offers it, I would suggest that you do the Postgraduate Certificate of Tertiary Education although I’m not sure what the equivalent is in the US.  Here in the UK, this is a part-time course that will take you probably a year or so to complete. You can do this as part of your personal development and you only do it for about 4 or 5 days over that year – then you have to write in your own time some fairly lengthy dissertations. So do that, get as much teaching experience as you can (with tutorials) and that should stand you in reasonable stead.

Looking back on what you have done in your career, which bits help you most in your job now?

Probably organisational skills. In my previous job as an engineer I had to organise not only the actual maintenance of the factory equipment, but also financial organisation and preparing reports for management. So these organisational skills are vital. You’ll find that your teaching commitments – they come thick and fast during the term time, but once you’re outside of that, then your time is more or less your own. You need to use that time wisely to plan for what’s going to happen as soon as the term starts again, and to have as much of your lectures and tutorials written and ready to go as you possibly can.

If I asked you for a favourite quote, what would it be?

How about “Mistakes are often the stepping-stones to utter failure”, or maybe “As one door shuts another one closes”.

And to sum up – what three pieces of advice would you give a scientist who is looking to move into teaching?

Do as many teaching related activities as you can.

Do the professional qualification.

Network – try through your own university to find opportunities to do as much teaching as you can – even unpaid because it will be invaluable for your future.

How does a Teaching Fellow in the UK compare with similar positions in the US and Europe? We’d love to hear….

If you want to know about a particular person’s work experience that is perhaps a little bit different from the norm, just let us know – we’d love to interview them for you. Watch this space…

2 Comments

  1. Christopher Dieni on April 1, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Well, although Canada is neither in the US or Europe *ahem* I guess the analogue over here is to have positions that are simply “lecturers” or “instructors” which are positions as professors, but do not involve running a teaching lab.
    I would be very happy to do a teaching-only position but what I don’t like is that, according to the advertisements I see, more often than not these teaching-only positions are by no means permanent. They are referred to as contract, temporary or the specialized term is “sessional.” These can range anywhere from one semester of about four months to a maximum, typically, of three years- but I’ve never seen any longer than that. It gives me pause to wonder what will happen at that three-year mark (if not earlier); do you then find yourself no longer employed and once again looking for a job?
    It’s grim to think of one’s self moving from position to position- albeit enjoying the teaching that you’re doing- but without any permanence and with an overall very transient life. If these teaching fellowships are more permanent in the UK, you definitely have a wisdom that has eluded us over here.

    • Peter Kirsop on April 4, 2011 at 7:12 pm

      Hi Chris, Teaching Fellows are a recent phenomenon in the UK. They come about usually by a lecturer being awarded a Fellowship, typically for 3-5 years. The Fellowship provides money for a lecturer’s teaching comittments and this can either be taken up by a postdoc or Teaching Fellow. If a TF is employed to do this then they will typically be asked to do far more than just the teaching the lecturer no longer does, as just covering the teaching will not be a full-time job. I was lucky enough to have another lecturer pick up a Fellowship just as my original 3 year contract ended, so I was kept on for another 5 years. After a 5 year period, during which your contract has been extended at least once, UK employment law gives you protection with a view to making your post secure. I hope this gives you some answers as to any differences you see in US and I’d be happy to talk to you more if you wish. As I said, luck comes into it too and in larger departments/schools in the UK it is more likely that a researcher will pick up a Fellowship. Best of luck with your applications Chris,
      Peter.

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