Making the Time (to Learn How) to Teach

 October 2, 2018


Word cloud

With limited time, Ph.D. students have to pick and choose from the long list of opportunities that graduate school has to offer. We are often told in STEM fields that we should prioritize our research since this will be the biggest factor in future academic hiring decisions. But since faculty positions are not exclusively research jobs, I’m here to make the case for also dedicating your time to becoming an effective educator. Duke has developed a lot of professional development programs that address the discrepancy between teaching experience and future teaching expectations. These include the Certificate in College Teaching for pedagogical training and Preparing Future Faculty for exposure to, and mentorship about, the numerous responsibilities that faculty members juggle. In addition to these programs, Ph.D. students at Duke have the opportunity to independently teach an undergraduate course of their own design through the Bass Instructor of Record (IOR) Fellowship program. I taught a Bass-sponsored course on the Food-Energy-Water Nexus for undergraduates in environment, public policy, and engineering majors in Fall 2016. Having since graduated, moved to a postdoc position, and entered the academic job market, I’ve reflected a lot on my teaching experience. These are my top reasons for making the time to learn how to teach during grad school:

1) You can broaden student learning in your department. Courses taught by Bass Fellows often reflect their research interests, and therefore, highlight emerging or innovative topics that may not be covered in their department’s more traditional course offerings. I considered this an opportunity to highlight the interdisciplinarity of environmental science and expose students to different ways of learning. My Bass course explored the relationships between the food, energy, and water sectors and environmental politics. This was a lot of material to cover and I was careful to consider how my students would interact with the course content. For example, I needed to figure out how to balance the quantity of information with time for students to debate and refine their opinions on controversial topics like the environmental impacts of GMO crop production. I decided on a flipped-classroom plus discussion approach where students read materials ahead of time and spent class meetings in structured conversations. You may also consider following the example of my peer Bass Fellow, Laura Bagge, who dug deep into her field with a class on Extreme Animal Adaptations and highlighted unique physiological mechanisms that aren’t commonly covered in biology lectures. I encourage future Bass Fellows to similarly think outside of the box when designing their courses. By sharing new perspectives, we may inspire students to more thoroughly explore our fields and pursue their own research.

2) You’ll have informed opinions about the type of institution that’s right for you. Faculty effort breakdowns range from high teaching/lesser research to high research/lesser teaching (and anywhere in between) depending on the field and the school. As you prepare for the academic job market, your experience leading a class will inform how you want to spend the majority of your time as a faculty member and what you want your courses to look like —both of which can be factored into decisions about where to apply. For example, by comparing my experience teaching a small seminar-style course with the larger lecture-based courses I had previously TA-ed, I learned that I want to work at an institution where I can teach courses that incorporate a lot of student discussion and peer-review exercises. 

3) You’ll know what to expect in the future. When you find yourself in that teaching position down the road, you will already understand the time it takes to build syllabi, design assignments, and prepare for class meetings. Without a textbook that could guide my interdisciplinary course, I spent a lot of time culling the scientific papers, policy analyses, government reports, and lay audience summaries that collectively made up the course’s learning materials. My teaching semester also taught me how to better prioritize and balance my workload so that I could continue to be productive with new demands on my schedule. These improved time management skills have since helped me with writing my dissertation and the early phase of my postdoc.

4) Hiring committees are looking for applicants with teaching experience. Finally, teaching preparedness is becoming an increasingly important factor in faculty hiring decisions. PhD training programs in STEM fields seldom include opportunities for students to gain high-quality teaching experience, yet many of us go on to academic positions that will involve teaching. Learning how to teach does not have compromise your research priorities. In fact, a recent study showed that gaining evidence-based teaching experience during PhD training increases confidence in students’ ability to communicate their research without having a perceived impact on their productivity or preparedness as a researcher.

My teaching semester was the busiest, yet most rewarding, semester of my doctoral training because it reinforced many of the reasons I decided to pursue my PhD in the first place. I came away from the experience with increased confidence and a clear sense of my own preparedness for an academic career.  On top of that, teaching undergraduates energized my own work by offering the chance to collaborate with the next generation of environmental scientists. My advice to those of you considering the Bass IOR Fellowship is to plan in advance so that you can take advantage of all this opportunity has to offer. Start by talking with the Director of Undergraduate Studies for your department to get an idea of popular course topics and make sure to note that applications are due the fall prior to the academic year you teach. Happy teaching!



Jessica Brandt, Ph.D.
Jessica Brandt, Ph.D.

Recent graduate, Environmental Health

Jessica Brandt earned her Ph.D. in Environmental Health from the Nicholas School of the Environment in May 2018. She is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey in Fort Collins, Colorado, researching how contaminants move within aquatic food webs and among ecosystems.