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.