Last Thursday, January 24th, we had our first Doctoral Discussion of 2019. This Monday, January 28th, we held our first Twitter chat. The subject of both was teaching during your PhD.
There’s a reason for this preoccupation. For two of us Hive scholars, the past few months have been absorbed by teaching. We’ve both been dealing with our first groups of students, teaching our first seminars and marking our first essays and exams. Even though we’re in different schools we’ve realised that we had more in common with our experiences and talking to other doctoral tutors around the campus the same things come up. I hosted both the discussion and the Twitter chat so I’d like to take the opportunity to draw together some of the themes and questions that came up repeatedly over the past week.
Firstly, I’d like to thank our panellists and everyone who came to the Doctoral Discussion. It wouldn’t be much of a discussion without either.
— Sussex Research Hive (@sussexreshive) January 24, 2019
What became very clear was that there are a lot of people passionate about teaching but people have a lot of questions – and it’s sometimes hard to find the answers. So hopefully this post will answer and few and send you in the right direction to find out the answers to the rest.
Let’s start at the beginning. When’s the right time to start teaching? Well, answers to that varied a lot. Some people preferred to wait until the very end of their PhD so they didn’t get distracted, other’s thought the earlier the better, especially if you already have teaching experience. The general consensus seems to be that getting some experience in your second year is best. You’ve settled into the groove of the PhD work but you’re not racing for the finish line yet. If teaching swamps everything else that first term (and let’s face it, that is a risk) then you can get back on track. Don’t forget that you need to discuss your teaching with your supervisor. They’ll need to sign off that you can handle the extra workload.
Be careful how much you take on. Teaching does take up a lot of time so don’t take on more than one class unless you’re absolutely sure you can handle the workload. There are supports in place but ultimately it’s down to what you can manage without burning out – which is no help to you or your students. Remember that it’s not just a matter of how many hours actual teaching you do. If you are taking a seminar then there is also preparation work to do, reading to catch up on and it’s a good idea to attend the main lectures as well. All doctoral tutors give an hour contact time to their students. This is usually fixed at an hour no matter how many hours you teach. Doctoral tutors are generally paid for four hours for every hour teaching – but in all probability you will probably spend more time than that getting things ready. It’s always advisable to remember exactly what you are getting paid for although balancing that with doing a good job is something every doctoral student seems to struggle with.
Next up is Starting To Teach. A lot of people were interested to know how useful the course is and whether it is possible to get anything out of it if you’ve no teaching experience. Well again, there seems to be a bit of a consensus there. Most people will agree that Starting to Teach is a very general course that is simply an introduction to teaching. You get out as much as you put in and there is a lot of extra reading you’ll need to find for yourself using the reading lists provided if you want to get the most out of it. The course is designed to complement your first teaching experience and you won’t be able to do your final assessment until you have some teaching under your belt. However, you won’t be able to sign a teaching contract until you are at least on the waiting list. On the subject of the waiting list, get used to the idea. The Starting to Teach team is a small one and they can only teach so many courses. If demand exceeds supply waiting lists are going to happen. You can find out more about Starting to Teach, including booking / signing up to the waiting list here
We were asked about teaching when you are doing your PhD part-time. This shouldn’t prevent you from getting teaching experience although there may be limits to how much teaching you take on. The flip side of that is that when you are doing a PhD part-time there is actually more time available to take on extra-curricular work but as with any other kind of job vs doctorate situation time management is always key. The more you take on, the more you will have to juggle. While teaching contracts tend to be standard it’s worth checking with your school for individual policies and arrangements.
A question that gets asked a lot is simply how do you go about getting teaching work. Doctoral tutor work is not advertised centrally as it’s short term, flexible contract stuff. Each school will have a mailing list for doctoral students interested in teaching work so the best thing to do is to get in touch with your REC (that’s the Research and Enterprise Coordinator – every school has one) and ask to be put on the mailing list. If you have expertise across a couple of different disciplines you can ask to be put on the mailing list for teaching opportunities at several different schools. You can also ask your supervisor, who’s likely to know if there’s any particularly relevant teaching opportunity coming up and this is one area where talking to the doctoral community can be really useful. Starting to teach can be a scary and somewhat overwhelming time but remember that many of your peers are going through exactly the same thing. Talk to them. Talk to us.
Rather unsurprisingly at both the Doctoral Discussion and the subsequent Twitter chat, marking was a particularly hot topic (both were held smack bang in the middle of the spring marking season).
Marking can be tricky, particularly when there is a lack of training or guidance. A calibration meeting is not sufficient for PhD students just starting out. It has unfortunately been a ‘figure it out as you go’ situation #sussexphdchat
— Devyn Glass (@DevynShay) January 28, 2019
The general consensus was that the problem with marking is that it feels like you are sticking your finger in the air and pulling out a grade. It feels random. However, many departments do have marking rubrics which will break down exactly what you are looking for when marking an essay or an exam. They provide a structure and can be very helpful indeed. When in doubt ask your course convener. They will be signing off on your marking anyway so it’s always better to ask. That goes for most of the teaching experience. When in doubt ask your course convener.
Finally when it comes to finding out about your students then Sussex Direct is the place you need to go. When you start teaching you will get an extra tab on Sussex Direct. This will link to profiles of all your students and allow you to send group emails and have an over view of the administrative side of your course. You will be notified about students requiring extra support on the Sussex Direct homepage and there will be further details on their student profile. If you are concerned about a student then raise it with your course convener. They will be able to point you in the right direction. It’s worth exploring Sussex Direct fully as there’s a lot of useful information on there.
If you have any further technical questions the Technology Enhanced Learning department will be able to help. TEL run courses that cover all sorts of teaching technology and can also come and observe you teaching so that they can advise you about how to enhance your teaching practice further with technology. They also run a very useful blog.
Hopefully this post has given a good round up of what we covered in the Doctoral Discussion and Twitter chat on teaching. You can find out more about both by clicking on the hashtags in the embedded tweets above.
Teaching is a challenging and rewarding part of the doctoral experience. Hopefully this post has summarised the main questions. You can leave any other questions in a comment on this post and we’ll try to answer them