Teaching During PhD

Teaching During Your PhD

by Krystina Osborne


As we all know, gaining teaching experience tends to fall on the side of ‘essential’ rather than ‘desirable’ when it comes to applications for academic jobs. Indeed, due to the competitive nature of the current academic job market, it is unlikely that you will be called in for an interview without any teaching experience whatsoever, and gaining this experience whilst studying for your PhD (rather than waiting until after you have been awarded your doctorate) is preferable. If you’re lucky, you will be offered teaching at your own institution, possibly as part of a PhD scholarship. Not only does teaching undergraduates (and, if you’re lucky, postgraduates) provide you with invaluable experience to list on your CV, it also reminds you of how rewarding working in academia can often be; that’s right, it’s not all interminable meetings and seemingly pointless admin, folks! However, juggling teaching, marking and preparation with your own PhD research can be difficult. Therefore, in this week’s Tuesday Top Tips, instead of attempting to offer advice on teaching techniques, I will reflect on what I suggest are some of the most important factors to consider when teaching during the course of your PhD.

  • Make sure you know how much you’ll be paid!

This may sound ridiculous but working out how much you will earn from your teaching is often a lot more complicated and unclear than it sounds. If you are self-funding your PhD or if you are the recipient of a fees-only bursary, it is likely that you will be paid for your teaching at a ‘sessional lecturer’ hourly rate. However, if your contractual duties do not include marking or preparing for seminars (i.e. if you will be delivering someone else’s lesson plan), you may be paid a lower ‘teaching assistant’ hourly rate. If you are employed as a Graduate Teaching Assistant, your yearly salary will probably include payment for teaching, even if you agree to teach multiple modules. You may also be paid to attend lectures. To make this even more confusing, these rules seem to differ between institutions, and even between departments within the same institution, so make sure you know where you stand. Whilst in an ideal world you shouldn’t be teaching just for the money, it certainly helps…

  • Be prepared to teach outside of your own field.

I have read many articles that emphasise the importance of teaching on different modules and at different levels. I have also heard many PhD students moaning that they have been placed on modules that have very little, if anything, to do with their own area of research. However, the reality is that you often have to accept what you’re given. Yes, teaching on the same Level Four module for three years may only equate to one line on your CV, but any teaching experience is better than nothing, particularly if you are being paid at an hourly rate and are relying on this wage. During your PhD, you are unlikely to be in a position where you can pick and choose the modules you teach on. Being offered the opportunity to teach your own research is even rarer. However, most Level Four modules are broad enough to encompass a variety of wider fields and time periods (for instance, Level Four English Literature modules usually include a focus on issues of gender, class, race etc.) that will hopefully include your own area of expertise. Teaching at different levels and on a variety of modules both related and unrelated to your research is, of course, ideal, but do not expect this to be the norm.

  • (Try to) Prioritise Your Thesis…

Of course, this is often easier said than done. During the second year of my PhD, I taught seminars on two year-long modules, one at Level Four and one at Level Five. I really appreciated being offered a second module, particularly as it focused on my own field of gender studies. However, I did not anticipate how much of my time I would have to dedicate to these students, around fifty in number across the two seminar groups. I created extensive plans for each seminar, prepared handouts, reread the set texts and replied to emails from students as soon as I could. I threw myself into everything… apart from my own research. Therefore, I did not make as much progress on my PhD as I should have done. I enjoyed the teaching immensely and my experiences with these seminar groups only reinforced my desire to forge a career in academia. With hindsight, however, I was not prepared for how much extra work that second module would represent and I quickly had to lower my expectations in terms of how much time I could dedicate to writing. Time management is obviously a key skill, and one that will remain essential if you do pursue a career in academia.

I recently discussed some teaching-related issues in the Vice article What It’s Like to Lecture at University While You’re in Your Twenties. If you are looking for advice on how to approach teaching for the first time, have a look at Dr Nadine Muller’s excellent post on Beginning University Teaching.