Teaching while doing a PhD is it a rewarding experience?

Is teaching while doing a PhD a rewarding experience? In this blog post I will reflect on some of my experiences in teaching undergraduates. This has been a post that I have thought about doing for a while.

My situation:

I have been lucky enough to have plenty of teaching opportunities since starting my PhD. During the first two years of my PhD I have taught undergraduate seminars for four units and even given a couple of lectures. In particular, I have taught mostly environmental politics with seminar teaching for a Green Politics unit and a Global Environmental Politics unit. I have also taught seminars for a unit on the Politics of NGOs and seminars for a methodology unit.

Now I know teaching opportunities vary between departments and universities. I have friends doing biology PhDs who do a lot of demonstrating work in lab time for undergraduates, but they teach no seminars. I also know that seminar teaching can be difficult to get in the social sciences. I know that the main Exeter campus has rules on teaching and that there are a lot more PhD students. The reason I have been able to do so much teaching alongside my PhD is due to the luck of being on the Penryn campus where we have undergraduate students, but also a small department. This means that there is lots of seminar teaching opportunities for the politics PhD students based on this campus.

My first teaching experience:

I was warned by my supervisor that my first time teaching would be my worst. Now with that warning in mind I set about to fully prep for the first seminar I would run. I read all the articles set for the class and made detailed notes. Designed the seminar questions and activities to be an interesting introduction to the unit. I felt confident all would go to plan…

Well… It completely went wrong. This was my worst teaching experience so far (I can’t image a seminar going much worse unless I was to accidentally set the seminar room on fire).

There was a failure in communication as the academic running the unit changed the topic and the readings for the first week. This was updated on the electronic learning environment for all my students, but not for me. Alongside this issue the lecture just before my seminar had the unit coordinator informing the students about an additional essay not listed on the unit handbook that they would have to do.

Naturally the students were not happy with this situation. My first seminar only lasted half an hour as I had students walk out in anger. I really could not blame the students for being angry. Most of them were nice enough to not direct blame me. Still a rather shocking first experience for myself. Luckily I had a couple of hours until the second seminar so I was able to edit my prepared material to make sure it covered their reading and the students had also calmed down from the additional essay that the lecture mentioned to them. So the second seminar was a success compared to the first.

Despite this experience I continued teaching and there are rewarding experiences that come from teaching.

Is teaching rewarding?

There are three key benefits I have found from teaching.

  1. Wider reading – It gives you the opportunity to read around subjects that you would not normally get a chance to. The PhD can be very focused on your area of research so being able to get my head out of books about online communities, Internet memes, and public understanding of science can be refreshing from time to time.
  2. Engagement with undergraduates – Opportunity to engage with discussions on a variety of topics with (mostly) interested students. I have found the PhD to be a lot less isolating when I can bump into students I have taught or currently teaching and get caught up in short chats when walking around campus. Its also pretty cool when you see students improve and gives a very rewarding feeling that you made a difference to their education.
  3. Marking – this might sound like a weird point, but marking undergraduate essays has helped me improve my own work. This is due to the marking process making me more aware of errors I make and I do find proof reading my work has become easier over time.

That said there are disadvantages to teaching. In particular, the time it takes out of your week. For example if I teach seminars on a Thursday then I can guarantee that most of Wednesday I will spent preparing for the seminars. Balancing this with the PhD can prove to be difficult. Marking often turns into a massive time sink as essays are not quick to mark and other deadlines may be on the horizon.

Another key issue is that teaching can be very stressful. While I have found teaching to be something that gets easier and I worry less and less before each time I run a seminar. It can still be a very stressful experience and if something was to go wrong the experience just becomes unpleasant. Still I have found that the more teaching I have done the easier it gets.

Overall,  I have found teaching to be a very rewarding experience, but that is not to say that its always gone smoothly or its not stressful at times. With that all said I really should get back to the marking I have been procrastinating from by taking an hour out to write this blog post.

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Reflecting from the half way point – the PhD journey so far

Coming up to the half way point into my PhD so I thought it was a good time to write a reflective post about the journey so far. Writing this before my upgrade tomorrow. The upgrade is essentially a defense of your thesis so far with academics who have not supervised or even have any expertise in your field of study. Most UK PhD programs have this at either 12 months or 18 months. I produced the good quality drafts of the sections of my thesis that they wanted and I should be adequately able to defend my work so far. It should be interesting to receive feedback from other academics in the politics department.

Still a rather stressful experience, but I have some wonderful meme examples to hand if any of the academics ask anything about memes. Just the thought of explaining memes to senior academics does make me laugh. On reflection its funny how I got to this point.I have heard it said that PhD are never a straight forward process and looking back my PhD has changed so much since the beginning.

How has my research focus changed? 

When I applied for PhD funding I proposed researching into the impact of triggering events in newspaper coverage of climate change (I wrote my masters thesis focusing on one triggering event). A trigger event is just an event that causes large amounts of news coverage of climate change. For example you would expect coverage to increase for a Climate Change conference. Newspaper framing of climate change was originally what I started my PhD researching, but the PhD is not a straight forward journey.

Within the first few weeks my work shifted focus to public understanding of climate change and what impact information formats (newspapers, Television, and the Internet) had on a persons understanding. A major reason for this was that newspapers are pretty much the main focus of the vast majority of academics examining climate change communication. The Internet became a much more interesting area of study.

Image from: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/10/let-me-introduce-you-to-the-internet/ (How am I only finding this image now? I will be using this at the start of all my future talks on my research!)

Image from: http://weknowmemes.com/2012/10/let-me-introduce-you-to-the-internet/ (How am I only finding this image now? I will be using this at the start of all my future talks on my research!)

Within the first couple of months of my research the focus changed to just the Internet and the exploring the consequences that this has had to public understanding. As a result quite early on a lot of the starting literature I read was no longer within my area of interest. I still have a folder full of media framing articles from the first couple of months. However, I did fall into my area of research quite early on and it is still communication of climate change. Just a very different environment from Newspapers and engaging in a range of differing theories.

Even with the focus pinned down its still a bumpy road: 

With this focus my research slowly took shape. The focus meant that I engaged with a range of research from a variety of subjects. For example I found that researchers working in medical research had done interesting work into online communities thanks to the emergence of online patient support groups. I also engage with a lot of work in psychology research on the impact on the Internet. My first year was predominately reading and writing literature reviews. At the start I had a mind map of key areas of interest, but during the writing process its amazing how something that seemed important enough to read 10 articles on became one sentence in a literature review.

Through this long process of forming my literature reviews I did find key areas of interest such as memes, online communities, online political activism. This then informed my research design. My mixed method approach meant that I used focus groups to provide contextual information on how people engage with climate change information online. This analysis has meant that my research design for my experiments has changed again just after submitting everything for the required upgrade document, as my presumptions where challenged by my focus group findings.

I have greatly enjoyed my PhD so far. I have been lucky to have lots of opportunities to teach alongside my PhD, but that has meant balancing teaching responsibilities while also carrying out my research and taking breaks from my work to avoid burnout. Its not been a smooth ride, but I am happy where this has taken me and the research area is particularly interesting. Even if I sound totally mental to those around me when I talk about creepypasta (horror stories shared on the Internet) or popular Internet memes.

The final 18 months: 

Hopefully, the last 18 months will go smoothly. I still have a lot of work to do with the running of experiments in October. As well as having to worry about finding a post doc position/applying for grant funding and working on the draft academic articles for journal publication.

With a bit of luck the upgrade process will be a painless experience. One thing is for sure I am enjoying my PhD and it has been a wonderful experience.

An Introduction: exploring the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of science

Starting this blog: 

I am a politics PhD student at the University of Exeter based at the Environment and Sustainability Institute on Penryn Campus. I have been intending to start a blog for a while now to communicate my research with a wider audience. Also to discuss some interesting examples that emerged from Internet culture that have emerged through my research. My research focuses on public understanding of science and the impact of the Internet. In particular, my work focuses on public understanding of climate change and the impact of junk information from climate sceptics.

Some of the areas that my research covers can be seen in a talk I gave at a postgraduate research conference on Penryn campus on the challenge of Internet research. The video is low quality as it was taken by a fellow PhD student with their phone. This talk was given to an audience of PhD students from a range of subject areas with the majority being from the bio sciences. So the talk was designed to be accessible and entertaining with some wonderfully weird examples from Internet culture.

Focus of this blog:

This blog will focus primarily on sharing my research and exploring interesting things that emerge from Internet culture. There will also be the occasional post on my experiences as a PhD student and teaching in the department, but the primary focus will be on Internet culture and its impact upon public understanding of science.

My main research focus on the Internet has resulted in my developing interest on memes, user generated content, and online communities. Memes are essentially anything online which has viral spread including images and videos with most people being familiar with cat memes. An example of a cat meme can be seen with Grumpy Cat (see below). Grumpy cat is a great example of this as this meme has achieved success outside the Internet with books published and even a film ‘Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever’.

Grumpy Cat meme example

Memes could potentially be shared to spread information on serious political issues, but the majority of the popular memes are spread mainly for entertainment. Memes can often be in jokes within online communities.

Another key interest I have developed is on the subject of online communities as the Internet has enabled people to set up groups surrounding any interest. This has led to health support groups being formed for patients to support each other while on the other hand communities have emerged surrounding video games. My particular interests in online communities focus on video gaming communities, such as World of Warcraft, and the Brony subculture.

The term Brony refers to an adult fan of the show My Little Pony. The majority of these fans are men. This unexpected fan base originally emerged on the website 4chan around 4 and half years ago with the reboot of the show. 4chan is best known by the majority of the public with the sharing of naked celebrity images and harassment campaigns, but the website is core to Internet culture with many memes emerging from this anonymous chaotic environment.  The Brony subculture has produced a huge quantity of user generated content from original music, mods for video games, original video games, fanfictions, animations… The Brony subculture has also produced a huge quantity of memes (see examples below). These online communities are particularly interesting to my work as the way people choose to use the Internet and social media is important to understand.

The Internet has produced a wide range of seemingly random content and online communities. This blog will as a result explores user generated content, interesting memes, and discuss online communities for the majority of posts. I will also post findings from my PhD research on the impact of the Internet upon public understanding of climate change.