Training to Teach: Preparing for the Other Half of Academia

If you're aiming for academia, preparing for large lectures could be in your future. Photo by teddy-rised.

If you’re aiming for academia, preparing for large lectures could be in your future. Photo by teddy-rised.

Academic faculty jobs are difficult to come by, and science graduates are increasingly taking positions outside of academia. Recognizing this trend, ASCB and other organizations are leading efforts to help students who are looking for nontraditional career paths. Despite the daunting odds, though, you may still have your eyes set on academic life. There is great appeal to the prestige and security of a tenured faculty position, and to the prospect of pursuing your research passion. For those who maintain this goal, there is plenty of advice on preparing for and securing a faculty position. The advice often (and understandably) centers on the research component of academia: What line of research is most likely to bear fruit, how to secure funding, and other critical questions.


What about the other half of a professorship? Teaching is, of course, a major part of many faculty positions. But in most graduate programs, the skills needed to be a good teacher are either not explicitly taught or not emphasized enough.


Depending on the type of academic institution you are aiming for, a lack of teaching experience may not be too much of a hindrance when it comes time to apply for jobs. Research-intensive, R01 institutions will primarily focus on your publication record, research plan, and the funding to pay for your research. However, if you are applying to a liberal arts college—especially a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution)—they will almost certainly ask for a statement of teaching philosophy (ASCB CV Reviewers are available to review your teaching statement). Moreover, they will likely consider your teaching and mentorship record when you are up for tenure. Training to be an educator early on will help you to compete more effectively for these kinds of academic positions.


Fortunately, several options are available to help graduate students and postdocs become better educators. Below are some tips that I have accumulated on my own academic path. This advice is applicable not only to those interested in faculty positions, but can also broadly serve as preparation for a variety of career paths where research is not the exclusive or dominant focus.


Get some formal training in pedagogy. Imagine you have an offer for that Holy Grail, Assistant Professor position. You have a well-developed project proposal, and perhaps even a grant to fund it. But your position includes teaching hours, and now it’s your first day in the classroom. How will you conduct yourself as a teacher? How will you decide what content to cover? Will your lessons be all PowerPoint, all the time, or will you use some other means to deliver science to your students? If you have not thought much about these questions, it may be helpful to take some formal classes in pedagogy.


The basic premise of pedagogy training is that teaching should be understood like any other scientific enterprise: evidence-based. Ideally, formal training will allow you to take a step back, evaluate your own pre-conceptions of teaching, and shape your approach in the classroom based on the best available empirical data on how students actually learn. Pedagogy courses will vary, but will generally show you how to: account for the unique learning styles of students using different teaching approaches, address cultural diversity, design a curriculum, incorporate pedagogical research into the classroom, and develop a statement of teaching philosophy.


One such course is Scientists Teaching Science, an annual online class provided by the New York Academy of Sciences. Many universities also offer in-person classes, so check the offerings at your institution. Online resources on this topic are somewhat scattered, though free resources are available if you do enough digging. iBiology is developing a scientific teaching series, which currently offers videos on how to develop ‘active’ lessons that better engage students. L. Dee Fink’s A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning is a useful tool explaining how to design an effective syllabus, and is freely available online. A variety of videos from educators and universities can also be found on YouTube.


Teach as an adjunct professor. Many doctoral programs involve a teaching component, so you may already have classroom experience as a teaching assistant (TA). If you’ve never had the chance to teach, or would like more hands-on experience independently running a classroom, consider applying for an adjunct faculty position at colleges in your area. First-hand exposure to the classroom is probably the single most valuable experience away from the bench for an aspiring teaching professor. Even when you know the course content backward and forward, there is still quite a lot to learn as a novice educator. Getting in front of a class early on will allow you to develop your identity as a teacher and find your preferred teaching style. Importantly, if you suffer from stage fright when giving scientific presentations, teaching will serve as a great trial by fire. Standing at the head of a classroom every week will help you to overcome your fear of public speaking pretty quickly. Moreover, you will get a feel for managing a classroom full of students, shaping a syllabus, and developing homework and exams—all essential elements of most full-time faculty positions.


When interviewing for an adjunct position, it is important to get a clear idea of the expectations and responsibilities well before entering the classroom. The degree of preparation needed can vary widely among universities and across departments. Some classes may have a well-established syllabus, with pre-made exams and PowerPoint presentations ready to go. Others may require that you contact other members of the faculty as a resource for materials, and still others may expect you to do a lot of lesson planning on your own. This last scenario will be the most time-consuming, of course, but is also a great opportunity for real-world experience in curriculum development. Most likely you will be brought on to run laboratory sections, so if you are looking for experience teaching lectures you may also want to inquire during your interview about future opportunities for lecture classes.


Most universities only require their adjunct faculty to hold a Master’s degree, so you can teach while still finishing your doctorate or during your postdoc. However, you should definitely have a conversation with your advisor before considering any teaching job. In addition to the 3-4 hours per week in the classroom, you should expect roughly an equal amount of time on other responsibilities, including grading and (potentially) preparing lessons. Typically, universities maintain a population of adjuncts who fill many of the lower-level sections. So, bear in mind that adjunct positions are generally not a pipeline to securing a tenure-track faculty position. But the time commitment of teaching is well worth the valuable experience you will gain.


Consider a teaching-enhanced postdoc. A recent study highlighted the disconnect between the expectations and realities of a postdoctoral fellowship: They are primarily designed to provide training as researchers, though most graduate students will eventually land careers outside of academia or in non-research intensive positions. Many institutions now appreciate the need to develop the teaching skills of their students and postdocs, and offer postdoctoral programs infused with teaching as a significant component. A notable example is the Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) program, an NIH-funded training program aimed at providing enhanced postdoctoral training through concurrent pedagogical development. There are currently 20 IRACDA programs nationwide. Participants generally develop their research as any other postdoc would, but additionally receive a combination of formal and practical training in teaching. Speaking from my own experience in the BETTR-IRACDA program of New York, IRACDA provides extensive and well-rounded professional development in teaching. They also offer a network of faculty and peer support for those interested in pursuing a career centered around teaching, or who are simply looking to balance their research expertise with the skillset that comes from teaching. Beyond IRACDA, there are several private and institutional programs with similar missions. The National Postdoctoral Association offers a compendium of programs offered around the United States.


Whether you will pursue a research-intensive or teaching-centric career, a life in academia will likely mean some degree of teaching. Preparing for this while still in the early stages of your professional development will go a long way toward easing the transition to a professorship, and will give you an edge as you enter a highly competitive job market.

About the Author:

Travis is a former postdoctoral researcher in the Cell Biology Department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, NY, where he studied the role of linker histone H1 in the regulation of chromatin structure in Drosophila melanogaster. He remains affiliated with the Einstein division of the national IRACDA program, where he is developing interventions to improve STEM student learning outcomes, and is an adjunct assistant professor at Iona College. Travis recently left his full-time academic position to pursue a career in medical writing. He has been a COMPASS associate member since March 2015 and is serving on the communication subcommittee. Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome! Email: Comments and suggestions are always welcome!
Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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