Teaching as a PhD student can be exasperating.
It is time consuming: you have to prepare seminars, respond to emails, hold office hours, and mark assignments. It is also exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to give a lecture or lead a seminar. In some cases, your dissertation supervisor might even advise to ensure that teaching does not affect your PhD research.
I frequently encounter this dichotomy of teaching vs. research, and I admit I have thought along this line too. For most of my time as a PhD student I thought it’d be easier and that I’d be done fasterif I didn’t have to teach. I somewhat envied friends who had secured scholarships or positions that didn’t require teaching.
Spending a term as a visiting scholar at Northeastern University without teaching responsibilities made it clear I was wrong. I think everyone should teach.
That is why I would like to take this blogpost as an opportunity to highlight a few of the often forgotten benefits of teaching as a PhD student.
Teaching: It’s not about you
The competitive nature of academia has many ‘faces’: the need to have an intriguing research puzzle, have an ‘impact’, the constant pressure to present your work and yourself.
At times, these may obscure the fact that at the end of the day it is not about you.
Ironically, this egocentric approach does not come natural to most academics (at least in my experience), yet it’s become part of the game we play (see Conor Heaney’s blog post for more on the Hyperindustrial University).
What teaching does, ideally, is it frees us from this egocentrism and instead allows us, if not forces us, to be allocentric. For me, this goes to the core of education and bridges the assumed divide between research and teaching.
Why are we in higher education, and in research specifically?
Because we want to further our understanding of a certain field of study, or more broadly speaking, because we want to further our understanding of the world. If we are serious about this goal, then ‘we’ cannot be a collective of individual researchers advancing personal knowledge. ‘We’ must include students in this process.
Furthering our understanding of the world means increasing the number of people who comprehend it. In that sense, teaching is both a privilege and a responsibility – one we should take seriously.
‘Good’ teaching means being able to put yourself in the other person’s place and take their perspective, so you understand what they do or don’t know. You can then tailor your teaching content accordingly.
But it doesn’t stop there; teaching also requires you to understand someone else’s view and to be able to articulate their point of view to others in the classroom. Teaching, in the best case, makes you more empathetic.
Teaching gives you structure
Although I think the allocentric case for teaching as a responsibility and privilege in itself is a strong argument in favour of teaching, there is also an argument to be made for teaching as improving your research. At a very basic level, teaching helps you structure your time.
Teaching is exhausting. On a teaching day with four seminar groups, I personally find it very challenging to do anything substantively research related. That is why I set aside administrative tasks for teaching days.
Having one day for such tasks, frees up the rest of my week and helps me focus on my writing. The real and perceived time constraints imposed by teaching related activities make me more efficient in my research related activities because I have no time to waste.
Breadth and depth of knowledge
Another positive side effect of teaching is that it will make you a better researcher. There are multiple reasons for this.
In preparing your lectures/seminars you are forced to consider the matter from students’ perspectives. What do they know and how does this relate to their experiences? This often means you need to adjust your presentation, break it down, simplify it.
Assuming you teach something related to your own research interests, this helps clarify and deepen your understanding of the content. It is one thing to have a grasp of something yourself, but the comprehension needed to explain it to someone who doesn’t is much deeper.
Students expect to learn about not only core readings, but also the latest developments in the field. In this respect, teaching also helps you to keep up with the literature, broadening your own understanding.
Importantly, students also often bring in innovative approaches, new perspectives, and sometimes, additional readings that will expand your horizon. And although I don’t subscribe to the view that “they teach me, just as much as I teach them”, I do know it’s a two way street.
Attending and presenting at conferences is an essential part of academia. Most of us aren’t naturally talented public speakers and conferences can be a terrifying experience. Teaching can help in this.
The classroom gives you an opportunity to practice communication skills. Teaching is less pressure than a conference presentation and you have the benefit of almost certainly knowing more than the audience. So it can give you an opportunity to try out different styles of presenting and become comfortable with public speaking and answering questions.
Good communication skills again help you in your research. If you can clearly communicate your work, others will find it easier to engage with it. A more attentive audience will put forward more insightful questions, which will in turn improve your work. Teaching can be your gateway to presenting and the more you practice, the more comfortable you will be.
Teaching as a PhD student can be exasperating. However, as this blogpost makes clear there are benefits too: teaching grounds you, it helps you structure your time, it makes you a better researcher. So my advice for anyone who is starting teaching? Make the most of it, for your students and yourself.
Robert Nagel is a PhD candidate in International Conflict Analysis at the University of Kent. His PhD project focuses on gendered influences on conflict resolution in civil wars. He is a graduate teaching assistant for a module on research design and mixed methods.