Balancing Teaching and Research: Making the Most of Your Teaching Experience as a STEM Graduate Student

 January 30, 2019

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Teaching a course is a great way to build your portfolio while improving your communication skills. It can be daunting to take on a course while attending to your own research, but the experience is ultimately extremely worthwhile. I had the chance to be the instructor of record for a Biology course for non-majors last semester.  Here's what I learned that can help you make the most out of any upcoming teaching experience.

Before You Teach

Talk to your PI

Have a conversation with your PI regarding your teaching plans and make sure that they are aware of your career plans. Explain how this experience will help you advance your career. Time you spend teaching is less time in the lab, so make sure that you have permission to miss a few days, change your work hours, etc.

Set up your schedule

Make sure you integrate teaching into your schedule thoughtfully and continue to make time for your research, even if it means working a few extra hours in the lab or coming in on weekends. Not only was I out of lab during my teaching hours, but I also needed time for prepping my classes, grading, and holding office hours. This required a shift in the way I allocated my time. If you are able to hold flexible or remote office hours, involve a TA in your course, or set up a twice-weekly class schedule, I would encourage you to take advantage of these opportunities.

Prepare your syllabus in advance

If you are given a previously constructed syllabus, then you may only need to adjust the dates and add your classroom policies. However, in many cases, you will need to create a new syllabus, resources, and class schedule. This takes some time, so make sure to secure any relevant or required teaching materials early.

During Your Course

Stick to your syllabus but be flexible

I thought I'd set up a bulletproof syllabus, but in many cases I let students turn in assignments late and postpone missed tests. Because I did not carefully plan policies around such exceptions, I encountered some inconvenience when it came to grading. Although sometimes it is necessary to accommodate special circumstances for individual students, you should be strict about deadlines and make sure your students know this. I would also strongly encourage all graduate student instructors to take time during the first day of class to read the syllabus with the students instead of expecting them to read it on their own. By discussing the syllabus as a group, you can communicate your expectations clearly and provide a designated time and space for students to ask questions and seek clarifications about the course as a whole.

Build meaningful classroom experiences

I initially thought that students would be resistant to trying out new ways of learning in the classroom. However, I received feedback throughout and after my teaching semester that students actually wanted to incorporate more group work and more hands-on activities to their educational experience. I found the Explore Biology Teacher’s Center website useful for my course; it outlines many hands-on activities to effectively incorporate active learning in the classroom. Active learning allows students to be more involved in their education, often leading to a greater sense of investment and enthusiasm. Duke offers great courses on how to do this the right way. I learned many techniques to keep students engaged by taking courses offered through the Certificate in College Teaching, including  the Fundamentals of College Teaching course (GS750), College Teaching and Course Design (GS755) and College Teaching and Visual Communication (GS760).

Seek feedback from your students

I had students fill out a mid-semester feedback form on how they thought the course was going, what needed improvement, and what they would change. This feedback not only provides you with valuable information to help improve the course (and your own teaching style), but it also gives the students control over their own learning experience. You can find an example of useful questions to ask here, and Qualtrics software is an extremely useful tool to generate and distribute feedback forms online.

Communicate with your students and be available for them

Email communication was key to forming productive relationships with my students. I would send reminders every week about pending assignments, share links to useful resources, and distribute announcements about upcoming activities or exams. Whether they read all of these or not remains a mystery! However, at least one student commented that they appreciated my availability and quick email response time. Students appreciate an instructor who is willing to answer their questions and stay engaged beyond the classroom.


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After You Teach

Apply what you've learned

Teaching gave me more confidence in other aspects of my graduate work, including research presentations. Even if you don’t think you will teach again, the skills you refine while teaching apply to multiple career paths. Teaching helped me learn to be concise in sharing complex information, pushed me to find better ways to communicate scientific concepts to a more general audience, and improved my technological and audiovisual capabilities. If, like me, you do plan to teach again, take some designated time after each semester to reflect on what changes you can make to improve your teaching and your course.

Focus on your research and look for more opportunities

What happens once you have taught your course and are back in the lab every day? If you are like me and miss teaching, look forward to your lab meeting presentations as a way to practice the pedagogical skills you will need in the classroom. Focus on your dissertation research and writing while always looking out for career development opportunities which can help you understand how to translate teaching skills into diverse job opportunities. The Graduate School has great professional development initiatives for this, including an upcoming workshop. If you are interested in teaching as a career, Duke also offers courses on college teaching and the Teaching IDEAS workshop series, including topics like developing your teaching portfolio and writing a teaching statement reflecting on your experience as an instructor. This advice will be invaluable if and when you decide to apply for teaching-focused positions at the end of your graduate training.

Teaching last semester was a great experience and helped solidify my interest in undergraduate education as well as curriculum development. Teaching science to non-majors required me to think more carefully about how to communicate my passion for science to diverse audiences.  As I continue to look for more teaching opportunities, I want to focus my efforts on re-inventing the scientific lecture format to be more engaging and developing lessons for hands-on activities that can be easily incorporated in the classroom. If you have considered integrating teaching into your STEM research as a graduate student, I would strongly encourage you to give it a try! It could help you to see your skills and possible career trajectories in a whole new light.



Headshot of Nichole Orench-Rivera
Nichole Orench-Rivera

Ph.D. candidate, Biochemistry

Nichole Orench-Rivera is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biochemistry Department. She currently works at the Kuehn Lab researching how bacteria modulate the composition of their outer membrane in order to survive changes in their environment. She is in the process of completing the Certificate in College Teaching and has participated in the Preparing Future Faculty program at Duke. Connect with Nichole on LinkedIn or check out her personal website for more information.