Thinking about teaching during your PhD studies? Desiree reflects on her experience…

Sometimes images convey meaning better than words. I had first written the introduction to this blogpost in perfect academic style: for those of you contemplating teaching during your PhD, this post will outline the advantages and disadvantages of taking up teaching. But while searching for an image to include I came across one showing a lone paratrooper against a stunning mountain landscape. I wasn’t quite sure why I chose it, except that it conveyed the sense of adventure I feel when teaching. Then my editor approved the choice saying that ‘for many PhDs teaching at university level can be like jumping out of a plane and landing in the unknown.’ Perfect. I can’t agree more. So let me revise my argument: this blogpost aims to help you jump off the plane, navigate the winds, and assure you that at the end of the day you can land with both feet safely on the ground.

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Image credits: WikiImages/CC0

First of all, let me clarify that teaching during the PhD is by no means compulsory at Warwick, so it is very much up to you and your supervisors. Different departments may have different teaching options: a seminar here and there, a term, or perhaps an entire year of teaching. Most PhDs I know taught during their second or third year, either for money or experience, or both. In my case, I was advised by my supervisors to leave teaching for my final year, or better yet (in their responsible supervisor minds), to teach in that ‘limbo’ stage after submission, once the PhD was done and dusted. So speak to your supervisors and the head of department to know what is on offer.

If you are thinking about a career in academia, getting some teaching experience will definitely boost your CV. But if not you still get to practice communication skills and time management. Also, you challenge yourself to be creative and flexible. At first it seemed difficult to accomplish all my objectives in 50-minute seminars. I favour inductive teaching, but this approach takes a while, for you are supposed to guide students through discussion to reach some conclusions, rather than feed them information as in a lecture. Depending on your group, it may take some probing before students get into the discussion. Otherwise, as a friend reminded me, sometimes students would reach the desired conclusions 15 minutes before the hour, at which point the PhD gift for improvisation needs to kick in (or you pull out that emergency primary source activity prepared beforehand). There is something of the military paratrooper in all this because as a teacher you are on a mission with specific goals but should be ready to face unexpected circumstances.

Time is of course the big issue for PhDs who teach. Needless to say, spending days preparing for a seminar seems unwise. I learnt to prepare strategically: devote one day maximum to read up on the topic, but more importantly, to think of activities and questions to ask. Do not over prepare. Marking is another time-consuming activity. It takes me 30-40 minutes to mark an essay, which means goodbye to my weekend at least twice a year. The best advice I was given in this regard was to focus on three or four areas of feedback and to not overthink marks.

At the end of the day, teaching may not be for everyone, so think about it carefully. Explore mentoring options if group teaching isn’t for you. Students may surprise and inspire you. For me nothing is more satisfying than seeing students improve and become more confident. I’ve learnt a lot by teaching, so I am glad I jumped from the plane.

Desiree Arbo is a final year PhD student in Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. Supervised by both Classics and History, her thesis looks at Jesuit Latin literature and the uses of classical learning in late colonial Paraguay and in the early 19th century. In her pre-PhD life she taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) in South America.