Majority of PhD students at some point in their journey have a chance to teach. Teaching often varies across universities and countries, but in general it involves delivering educational content (usually on the same field as your PhD) to undergraduate, masters, or some other group of junior students. Teaching can come in the form of delivering lectures, running and facilitating seminars, doing webinars, or marking and providing feedback on coursework. As a PhD student I strongly advise doing all of these, for a lot of different reasons.
The first major benefit of teaching is the addition of a new skill, aka teaching. This is certainly something you want to have if you have the dream of continuing in academia. Typically, as an academic, you’re employed and paid to do research and teaching has always been secondary to this duty. However, as times are changing, academic institutions are putting less focus on research and the introduction of pure teaching roles are coming to the fold. For these roles, there is less demand or a requirement to do research or publish, and it’s more about your contact time and the quality of your teaching.
This makes a lot of sense, as university fees continue to rise either domestically or internationally, there’s increased pressure for students to ‘get their money’s worth’. Plus, if you provide an excellent teaching experience it is likely to attract more students, enable you to charge more, and from a business-perspective, grow (whether universities should be run like a business is a topic for another day). In short, having good teaching experience and being able to practice these skills increases your options at the end of your PhD. You can apply for pure research posts, teaching positions, or a blend of the two. It also allows you to stay up to date with the current trends. In the next 10-15 years, I suspect teaching skills will be equally valuable as research skills.
However, if this isn’t your long-term ambition, I still recommend teaching. As outlined in a previous post, PhD students are often regarded to fall short on skills related to people skills, specifically managing others. By delivering lectures, seminars, or marking coursework you take up a senior role in relation to your students. This can be a really good way to demonstrate transferable skills relating to managing others and delivering feedback. If outlined properly on your CV/Résumé, it’s a really effective way to explain to an employer that you already possess managerial skills – rather than them thinking you don’t. Teaching can also come to your aid in other areas of your career post-PhD. It’s a great way to network with other academics and can set you up with a range of career options, such as consulting, coaching, and teaching in other contexts outside of academia. Moreover, teaching can also demonstrate good interpersonal and communication skills which are essential for any industry.
The second key benefit of teaching during your PhD is for your own well-being. Almost all PhD students have a habit of taking on too much work or getting bogged down in their own research. Teaching actually gives you space to get away from your PhD and do something different. This is a really important part for your PhD journey as it can give you respite and allow you to recharge. It might also have added benefits to your own research. Putting things down and picking them up again allows you to look at things in a different way or considering things you might have overlooked initially.
I always found it helped with my own motivation. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to put things down and stop thinking about it for a day or two. Teaching also means you can get away from your research guilt free because you’re still being productive and doing something to further your development which is essential for all PhD students. If this is something your supervisor isn’t on board with, I strongly recommend you outline the benefits of teaching – especially in the context of your long-term career goals (try to keep it academic focused, some supervisors aren’t fond of you telling them you want to work in industry).
The third and final benefit is probably a more obvious one. Money. Some PhD courses require you to teach so you’re unable to be paid for your teaching hours, some universities don’t pay their PhD students as it’s expected for PhD students to volunteer their teaching hours. For me, I was fortunate to get paid for my teaching and marking hours. As we all know, managing money during a PhD isn’t easy so this can also be a really easy and key source of generating a bit of extra cash. If your university or PhD course doesn’t pay you for teaching, I would still strongly advise you to teach. However, don’t overstretch yourself. In the first instance, get your teaching experience so you can learn and acquire the skills necessary for your own development (you never know when you might need them later). Once you feel as though you’ve ‘maxed out’ on your teaching skills, it doesn’t improve your well-being, or you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns (i.e. the opportunities to learn are diminished because you’ve learnt most things already) – stop doing it or ask to be paid. At this point, it is likely to only be a bigger burden and interfere with your PhD. If you’re teaching for no benefit, it just becomes poor time management that you could allocate to publishing, practicing self-care, or learning a different skill.
Overall, teaching in your PhD can really set you up in your career after you’ve completed your PhD. It allows you to address skill gaps in your CV/Résumé, network with others, provide psychological respite from your own PhD, and possibly support you financially. However, take this post with a pinch of salt, once you’ve learnt everything you can, and it doesn’t serve you any benefit anymore – stop doing it. You should always be prioritising your PhD, own well-being, and your personal development, period.
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