How to Gain Teaching Experience While Doing a Postgraduate Degree

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If you want to work as a university lecturer after doing a PhD it is vitally important that you start getting some teaching experience while still doing your postgraduate work. This has a number of advantages. More experience will look great on your CV of course, but also it means that you can make yourself useful to your department and earn a little money in the process. This article intends to provide a brief overview and some advice to postgraduate tutors, rather than provide detailed information on teaching methods.

Universities differ, some prevent their postgraduates from doing any teaching at all, seeing it as a distraction from their primary purpose of doing research and completing their PhD. However, this is becoming rare and many departments would not function without their army of postgraduate tutors supporting the permanent staff and taking on work for those who are on leave.

Teaching can seem daunting to those who have never done it. Postgraduate tutors are often only a few years older than the students they teach. Some departments offer their postgraduates little training before expecting them to lead seminars or give lectures. Others are better, offering training sessions or even diplomas in post-compulsory education. However, that opportunity is often reserved for contract staff rather than hourly-paid tutors. Other opportunities are available, further education colleges offer the City and Guilds 701 course which is specifically designed to train those who teach adult learners, but can also be broadly applied to undergraduate teaching too. Your PhD supervisor will also be an invaluable source of advice.

Taking seminars or tutorials is often the first role given to postgraduate tutors, and it is actually a very challenging teaching environment. Students who have come straight from school to university often have no idea what is required of them in a seminar and expect to be spoon-fed information as in a lecture. Sometimes reticent students can provide a baptism of fire for the inexperienced seminar leader and methods for dealing with students who have not prepared for the class and are not willing to contribute will be by the tutor developed over time. Some of the main ways of structuring a session include setting a quiz, asking students to do presentations, discussing reading material provided before class, breaking the class up into smaller groups and assigning a task to each group. The aim of a seminar is to explore issues, themes and problems, rather than simply to re-teach the material presented in the lecture. Do not be tempted to fill up awkward silences by telling students how much you know about a topic. They need to use seminars or tutorials to explore how much they know.

Depending on the university and subject you teach, you many be asked to provide one-to-one tutorials. This can be the most rewarding of all teaching methods and gives you the opportunity to really get to know your students and their abilities and interests. Often you will meet with them to return essays or projects to them, or to plan longer assessed pieces of work. Make sure you are well prepared for these meetings: if giving feedback, have it easily to hand and familiarise yourself with their work; if giving advice on a future project, make sure you can tell them research methods and techniques, suitable books to read and so on. Do not make these meetings too formal, this is a good opportunity to get to know your students as individuals. This will then give them the confidence to contribute more successfully in seminars.

Lecturing is very different and in some ways is easier because you do not have to interact with students unless you want to. However, the prospect of delivering a presentation of 50 minutes to a lecture hall of several hundred people can be extremely frightening. Many of the skills you learn giving conference papers will be important here: speak confidently, but slowly, make sure you time your lecture, provide interesting visual material if appropriate and ensure your argument is clear and logical. We have all been to bad lectures, so learn from the mistakes of others. Frequent errors are: trying to pack in too much material, speaking too fast or too softly and having irrelevant visual images or handouts. If you can, try to speak from notes rather than simply reading word for word from a script. If you begin to do this early in your career, you will soon find you are presenting much more confidently.

You may be required to mark essays, projects and exams too. Most lecturers either love or hate doing this, however it is a great opportunity to see whether your students have taken on board your teaching and advice, and also whether there are ways you can convey information to them more clearly. Sometimes you will be provided with a mark scheme and left to get on with it, which is a daunting prospect if you have never marked work before. Again, your supervisor will be able to help, and any piece of work counting towards students' final degree mark should be second marked by a colleague. This will give you the opportunity to compare your marking standards to someone else's. The process of recording and collating marks and attendance throughout the year is an important one, so make sure you keep accurate records. If a student is struggling, you will have to discuss this with other colleagues, so you will need to know if he or she has been under-performing, or not attending class. In most departments the main roles concerning pastoral care of students (for example, personal tutor) are taken by permanent members of staff. However, because you may seem more approachable than more senior academics, some students may come to you with their personal problems. This can be a minefield, and if you are unsure about how to deal with a stressed or emotional individual, it is best to seek assistance from colleagues straightaway. However, in many cases, reassurance and empathy will be enough to help the student and give him or her confidence to carry on.

The teaching experience gained while doing your PhD will also indicate whether you want to go into that side of the profession in the future. You may realise that you do not enjoy it, and would rather focus on research, or perhaps even a non-academic field altogether. But if you do find it rewarding and inspiring you will be able to build on this experience and develop a career as a teacher in Higher Education.

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