Deciding to teach and deciding to stay


Editor’s Note: This month’s column from the Education Committee deviates slightly from the usual format. We hope you enjoy the question and answer dialogue. 

Liam: I am a PhD student nearing the end of my training. In May, we recognized both Teacher Appreciation Week and Mental Health Awareness Month, so I thought it would be good to talk about the transition toward teaching and the stresses this process involves. I need to start making decisions about next steps in my career. I think a career that involves teaching provides the most benefit in the world. I have wanted to be a teacher for years, but I find myself questioning, is it worth sticking to my idyllic goals of “bettering the world” in spite of the ever decreasing proportion of PhD graduates pursuing faculty positions (1)? Why did you choose to become a professor that is specifically focused on realms of education and communication?

Alison: For me, transitioning to teaching was abrupt and unplanned. I always liked teaching, but I was in the middle of setting up my postdoc when I was offered this job. I was meeting with someone socially and said something like, “I know you teach at this college, and I would like to take a few months off, so if I can adjunct, let me know.” They emailed me the next day to say, “We have a search open right now. You should apply.” It was a big decision because I didn’t know anyone that hadn’t done a postdoc, and I was still excited for postdoctoral training. Ultimately, I took the leap thinking I could do that or similar work as a collaboration. I really like teaching. I love the accountability in that you are constantly coming back to what is interesting about biology. I also get a lot of ideas from working with students. Learning your mentorship and teaching style is a process, but you don’t have to start from nothing. Rockefeller University has some great resources on mentorship (2). ASCB has a number of evidence based teaching guides (3) and resources on diversity equity and inclusion (4) that are super useful for informing teaching practices. To find out if you like teaching, look for teaching and outreach opportunities. Investigate teaching focused postdocs like Penn PORT (5) and INSPIRE (6). If I could do it all again, I would seek out a program like this. In terms of bettering the world, if you can feel the impact you make without centering yourself in the process, then you’re good.

Liam: I feel like the best and the worst can be the students. For me, the best thing is that you get to see that enthusiasm, but on the flip side, I hear from so many people that “don’t want to have to deal with students.” For instance, it can be disheartening when nobody wants to be there at a lecture that I spent hours preparing. Is there something in your training that helped you to identify and set yourself up to not take it personally?

Alison: Part of your question is about balancing the known stresses of research with the unknown needs of students. If teaching is new, it’s likely added on top of the hours of research obligation you are already used to, and probably without much training (7). It’s super common for new educator-scientists to get frustrated because they feel their efforts to reach a student are going unappreciated or unseen. My reply is, “it’s not about you.” It’s not personal. What a teacher should do is open a door for a student to walk through on their own. If a student is not ready to do that, then it’s fine for that to occur at another time. By the same token, professors should not take credit for a student’s success. Of course we have student learning objectives, and we want students to learn a thing, and if they don’t learn it, then we have to think “was it on my end or was it on their end?” Is it cell autonomous or cell non-autonomous? We have to ask ourselves this when teaching and also remember that the job is to be a catalyst for something that happens to somebody else. We don’t know what’s happening in a student’s life on the day they show up to an exam.  

Liam: Yeah, you’re right! I always want it to be “if I do everything correctly, it will just work out and everyone will be so excited and remember the lesson.” But it’s not always going to be like that, so that’s reassuring to hear. As a scientist I have a tendency to attach my personal value to the work that I do, and it can be difficult for me to separate those feelings sometimes. I feel like it is often overlooked that teaching is not only physically but also psychologically challenging (8). I really want to teach, but there are the negative pressures that I feel about “failing” at teaching. How do you think about these pressures in your work, and how do you address that concern?

Alison: The first time you teach is not going to be your best teaching ever. Every day is not going to be great. Try and give yourself permission to learn. I feel like each rung of the academic ladder is about habituating to higher levels of stress, starting with grad school (9). I’m glad for open conversations about mental health in academia (10). Research and teaching each bring stress (8) and disappointment. In science you might feel emotionally bad because your project didn’t work even though you know it’s a bunch of molecules that don’t know anything about your life. You can still love your research. When you become a professor, you still have the research, but add teaching and administration to your stress roster. Teaching is stressful, but can feel more personal than research stress. As I said, it’s not personal. But that realization does not mean that you don’t get to love your job. Of course, you get to love your job (11). It’s tremendously rewarding. On a bad day in lab, you might find that you have to repeat your last three years of experiments, and that’s terrible. A bad day teaching, you say, “I could have done that differently.” You’re still moving forward. Take care of yourself, find peer mentors, and pay it forward to grad students and others in your institution (12)



About the Author:

Alison Dell is an associate professor of Biology at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY and member of ASCB’s Education Committee. Twitter @dell_alison
Liam P. Hallada started in the mountains of New Mexico and travelled to the river in Memphis, TN, to earn a PhD studying developmental neurobiology at the St. Jude Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.