As I mentioned in my first blog, I had a slightly different PhD experience to most. My funding and course enrolment fees were paid for by a Teaching Fellowship. I had four years in which to run my experiments, write up my thesis and teach for up to 180 hours in my department every year. In this blog, I want to explore how this joint research-teaching experience helped me as an ECR, shaped my research and career to date and opened up other avenues and opportunities along the way. I also hope to share a few tips on how to get teaching.
I am not gonna lie, I was really nervous to take up this PhD Teaching Fellowship. After all, it felt like I was being asked to do a one and a half full time job and I wasn’t quite sure if I would be able to juggle everything. Doing a PhD on its own is hard enough right? What if I couldn’t deliver all my teaching, what would that mean for my funding? What if I couldn’t finish all of my experiments in time and wouldn’t be able to write up my thesis? These and a thousand other questions were going through my head at the time, and let’s face it, I was most likely experiencing a little – a lot – of imposter syndrome. In the end, I decided to put aside my nerves and take up the opportunity because I remembered I actually really liked teaching, as I had a taste of it in my undergrad and masters.
Being an EU student, I was not given a stipend to cover my living costs as an undergrad, so from the very beginning I was trying to find a part-time job. I applied to work in a few shops on my local Highstreet but was never successful – I had quite a lot of lectures and seminars to attend, which made working more than a 3-hour shift very difficult. Thankfully – and with a wee bit luck – an opportunity in my department to run a public speaking class came up. I had my interview and was offered the job – hooray! I still remember how much I really enjoyed teaching that class, organising and prepping material for it, delivering it and interacting with all the students. Reflecting back, I really hope I helped at least some of my students to feel more confident in tackling any future presentation or job interview, but at the time I didn’t appreciate how much I would learn myself! I was able to develop skills in time management, planning, prioritisation and I also developed my intrapersonal skills. I can hand on heart say that developing these skills opened up opportunities for further teaching during my masters and ultimately made me a very competitive candidate for my PhD Teaching Fellowship. Working within my department was also a great way of getting my name known – which is never a bad thing!
Teaching in my undergraduate department also gave me the amazing opportunity to attend my first ever conference. I and another student from my year were asked to be student representatives for Bangor University and attend the Higher Education (HE) Conference that was being held in Manchester at the time. At the conference, I was able to gain insight on how HE makes important decisions that impact student experience, taught curriculums, how universities impact our wider community, and I was even able to debate the importance of Clearing in the UCAS system – disclaimer, I actually went through Clearing myself to attend university.
It was during my time as a Teaching Fellow, where I was really able to ramp up my teaching portfolio. I started running seminar groups, journal clubs, marking student assignments and dissertations and even started lecturing in my final year. And it was at this time, that I started gaining recognition for my teaching. I attended a series of teaching seminars ran by the university and obtained a certificate for each completed one, which I was able to include in my CV. I was also able to enrol on the University’s Learning and Teaching Professional Recognition Scheme, which would enable me to apply to the Higher Education Academy (HEA) programme. Regretfully, I never submitted my application, nearing the end of my PhD I decided I should prioritise my thesis – that was the sensible thing to do right? And I accepted a post-doc position, which was 100% research. I do regret not finishing my HEA application then, but I can now happily say I am giving it another go and have enrolled in Edinburgh to start this November – stay tuned!
So, how has all of this teaching actually helped me as an ECR? And how could it also help you? Let’s break it down.
Aside from sharpening those all-important time management and prioritisation skills and opening up opportunities to gain formal teaching recognition, it really shaped me as a person and as a researcher.
Communication. Teaching, made me a much better communicator in and outside of the lab. It sharpened my ability to convey my research to different audiences, and to do it clearly and effectively. All of this improved my ability to present at scientific conferences, meetings and seminars. Similarly, it gave me insights into what really engages people – and what doesn’t! And as a note here, these are all valuable skills in the job market, in or outside of academia.
Rewards. Teaching, also gave me and still gives me, a sense of achievement. It’s so rewarding seeing students engage with the material and in time watch them grow and move forward independently.
Continuous learning. Teaching helps me learn. More than once I was asked questions by students that really required some deep – and quick – thinking! One might argue very stressful at the time – indeed it was – but it motivated me to do further research and to my surprise it often helped me to think about my data in a different way.
Renewed enthusiasm. Teaching gives me a chance to push the reset button on my work. I think we can all relate to the fact that sometimes we get fed-up with our own research – especially when things haven’t been working or you get a bit of data that is completely unexpected – but having the opportunity to step back, talk to someone else and look at the bigger picture can do wonders for motivation.
Under pressure. No matter how much preparation you do, do, undoubtably something will go wrong at some point. It being a technical difficulty or your lecture slides having random additional or missing words after converting from IOS to Windows – you all know what I am talking about! Learning to solve problems under pressure will serve you well in the future. Can you think of a high-pressure situation with unexpected possible questions? A VIVA or a job/fellowship interview perhaps?
Creative thinking. High pressure situations in my teaching also taught me to think creatively. For this one, I have a wee story to share. In the last year of my PhD, I was delivering a 2-hour lecture on human memory. We were half way through and I just announced that we would take a short 10-minute break. During the break, a student came up to the podium to ask me a question, I unplugged my computer from the lectern as I was going back through a couple of slides with her. To my horror, when I plugged my laptop back in, the slides would not come back up on the main projector. I tried everything, –including the turning it on an off again – clueless and a bit flustered, I rang my local IT department. They tried a few things remotely but nothing worked and said they would need to come out in person – but this would take at least 20 minutes. So stuck with no way to show my slides and painfully aware that it was now 5 minutes over the original 10-minute break, I had no choice but to carry on. For the most part I could talk through my slides, but I inevitably got to some graphs. Which I proceeded to mime – with the help of a few students – acting as plots on a graph. IT did eventually fix the problem, after a whole system shut down, with 20 minutes to go until the end of the lecture. As scary as that felt in the moment, the students actually really enjoyed the change and a few even mentioned it as a positive in their feedback report.
And finally, to round us off, a few thoughts on how to get you started if you want to give teaching a crack.
First off, I realise that not everyone would have had the breadth of teaching opportunities I have had, I was really lucky, but that doesn’t have to stop you! Talk to your supervisor or PI if you are interested in giving teaching a go, most will be receptive at the thought and even welcome the fact that you taking a wee bit of their teaching load off their hands! You might also want to contact course organisers or directors at your university and see if they have any teaching you may be able to get involve with.
Supervising is also a form of teaching. If you enjoy this aspect of teaching, you might consider taking on project students to come work with you for a couple of months in the lab. On top of taking on a few third-year undergraduate honours projects, myself and my PIs have put out research projects adverts for masters and PhD students. On top of giving me more supervision experience they have also helped out with my own research project or side projects I did not have the time to do myself. Again, talk to your supervisor or PI about any opportunities your department can offer.
And that is it, I hope to have distilled at least a tiny bit of knowledge and insight into why and how teaching as an ECR can be extremely valuable on a personal level as well as for your academic career.
Dr Gaia Brezzo is a Research Fellow based within the UK Dementia Research Institute at The University of Edinburgh. Gaia’s research focuses on understanding how immune alterations triggered by stroke shape chronic maladaptive neuroimmune responses that lead to post-stroke cognitive decline and vascular dementia. Raised in Italy, Gaia came to the UK to complete her undergraduate degree, and thankfully, stuck around. Gaia writes about her work and career challenges, when not biking her way up and down hills in Edinburgh.