Teaching in your early career years – why it can matter

It is the end of March and I have not blogged this month, which is not ideal. There is, however, a good reason why time for blogging has been limited this month, and it is this topic that I want to write about today – teaching. For as well as the continual process of paper writing and grant submission (I’ve counted them out, and I’m not sure how many I’ll count back in…) for people in a lecturing position this is getting to the sharp end of term-time. Lectures are ongoing, students are preparing and handing in their essays, final year undergrads are going into d***ertation meltdown, and Masters students are starting to turn their attention to their thesis research.

It is easy to complain about such things ‘getting in the way’ of research, so I think it is important to be clear about one thing – education is a fundamental responsibility for all those in academic positions, and must remain an absolutely core activity of a university. By all means grumble about tedious and sometimes seemingly pointless administration, excessive teaching loads, or being assigned courses about which one knows very little and must devote significant amounts of preparation time. These can ‘get in the way’ of scholarly activities. But the root idea of educating the next generation of scholars, decision-makers and citizens is something every single member of academic staff should see as a responsibility that comes with faculty employment. It really worries me that early career academics are increasingly told to avoid teaching at all costs, to secure big grants right away so they can get themselves ‘bought out’, and to treat contact with students (apart from those at a high-enough level to be able to write papers you can add your name to) as an activity of lower order than eating, breathing and excretion.

Those passing on such world-weary words of wisdom to young scholars will of course retort that they are merely dispensing sound career advice, that papers and grants are the only things that matter. Now sadly I cannot disagree with that, but what I do take umbrage with is the idea that teaching is a pointless activity early on in your career. For rather than arguing about what the balance of research and teaching in a university ought to be, today I want to point out that there are very pragmatic and sensible reasons to do a bit of teaching alongside your PhD/postdoc.

Sustainable energy exercise with undergrads - siting wind farms
Sustainable energy exercise with undergrads – siting wind farms

Put simply, it will mainly be research trajectory that gets you a lectureship at a UK university nowadays, but teaching experience will be what keeps you afloat in the period immediately after. And keeping afloat with the additional responsibilities that come with a lectureship mean more time in those first months and years to keep the research moving forwards at the same time. Allow me to illustrate with a few personal examples.

Lecturing. We’ve all done loads and loads and loads of conference presentations. We can talk about our subject area ad-nauseum to people who are interested in it and debate sophisticated disagreements over the minutiae with the leading professors in our field. It can therefore be rather crushing to find that some (not all!) of our students occasionally do not reciprocate our enthusiasm – as a lecturer once told me when I was a PhD student, you have to remember that when you were an undergrad, you were ‘the keen one’ who turned up to all the tutorials, did the reading and answered the questions. Doing a bit of lecturing (and of course tutorials) during your formative scholarly years helps to build a thick skin. More importantly, it also helps you build up a back catalogue of slides and material that you can adapt when the time comes for you to be in charge of a module of your own. For instance, this academic year I have been tasked with running two modules from scratch. This entails a significant level of preparation, but I have been helped no end by the fact I have been able to draw on a whole host of lecture slides and tutorial activities I used in my previous job… I hasten to add that these are things I prepared myself and not stuff I stole from someone else! Indeed, when recently trying to finalise two grant applications and revise a paper whilst also preparing lectures, just as I had resigned myself to an all-nighter I happened across a PowerPoint in the depths of my USB stick – it was something I had written in my postdoc days, and gave a nearly perfect off-the-peg lecture for what I was planning to do in class the following week. It nearly moved me to tears.

Supervision. Supervising is stressful. If you have a heart you will feel a certain degree of responsibility for your students’ progress, especially if they are on a postgraduate programme. How often should you meet? When should you chase them up? Is it okay to leave them to get on with their project for a couple of months without interference? It’s a lot to take in all at once – all the more reason to have a go at supervising an MSc student while you are employed as a postdoc, when the programme director will be aware you are a rookie and may well give you a wee bit extra advice and support along the way. Very pragmatically, saying you’ve supervised postgrads to completion is a nice thing to put on the CV as well, and helps to build up the picture that if employed, you can be trusted to get on with it.

Administration. If one were to do a straw poll of what drives academics potty, I suspect admin would be rather high up the list. When I say ‘admin’, I really mean anything that happens outside of contact time – responding to student emails, dealing with extensions/late submissions, marking, exam boards. In my final year as a research associate, I ended up being in charge of a first year course with 150 students on it. All of a sudden, out of nowhere came requests for extensions, dates for essays that I had to set, students emailing me at 3am, material that had to be submitted to external examiners. It was rather overwhelming, and if I am being brutally honest I did a really bad job of it all. But I did it and I learned. I picked up time management strategies that worked for me, got a sense of what the most important things were to get right. This meant that when I got plonked down at the start of this academic year with a few modules to look after, I had a rough idea of what I was doing and didn’t lose hours and days chasing my tail. I wouldn’t recommend starting with a massive class of 150, but getting a first-hand sense of what ‘course admin’ involves and how to manage it stands you in really good stead for when you’re expected to balance research and teaching commitments.

I was once at a career development session where we were told that all you need to do with teaching is to show you can do it, and that you are prepared to do it if asked to. I can’t help but think that is a bit of an over-simplification. Because one thing I have really learned this year is that slowly building up a back catalogue of teaching materials, experience and strategies over years of postgrad and postdoc has saved me a lot of grief and stress over my first year in an academic post. Most importantly of all, it has saved me time – time that can be used to keep the research ticking over during the stressful teaching months. And here’s a thought. A wee bit of teaching experience is easy to get when you’re an early career researcher and costs absolutely nothing, but the time it will save you down the line could equate to being ‘bought out’ for a month or two. Now, how does the success rate for garnering teaching materials compare to the success rate for grant application…

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