How to balance teaching and research

As an early-career academic, how can you juggle teaching and researching while also prioritising self-care? Callum Russell shares his reflections on striking a balance

Callum Russell's avatar
8 Mar 2024
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Starting a new job brings with it a roller coaster of emotions. When I took my first steps into academia at the University of the West of Scotland as an early-career researcher and lecturer, I was excited about the challenge and opportunities ahead. But I also felt apprehensive. What if I couldn’t meet the expectations others had of me? The feeling of the need to prove my worth overshadowed my excitement.

The prospect of balancing teaching and producing research was daunting. But I realised that the skills I’d developed as a student had prepared me to navigate my way through this challenging new environment. Here are my reflections on creating a stimulating learning environment for your students while ensuring your research is impactful and original.

Learn how to manage your time

At the heart of balancing teaching and research is the art of time management. Traditional strategies like meticulous planning and prioritisation remain invaluable. Setting clear, achievable goals for both teaching and research activities, and creating a structured schedule can significantly reduce overlap and stress.

Personally, I’ve found that using software and digital project management tools were fundamental to streamlining my efficiency. They’re effective ways of keeping the planning process fluid and adaptable, allowing you to easily accommodate the unpredictable and ever-changing nature of research without compromising on teaching responsibilities.

Integrate your research into your teaching

One of the most effective ways to balance teaching and research is to see them not as separate entities, but as complementary facets of academia. Incorporating current research topics into the curriculum not only enriches the learning experience for students, but also allows lecturers to delve deeper into their research interests.

For instance, in several of my chemical engineering modules, I integrate my research findings and experience in microalgae-derived biofuels and high-value biochemical compound extraction to demonstrate the real-world applications of what we learn in the classroom. This blend often sparks positive discussions, which not only provide feedback and a different perspective to me, but also the potential to inspire student-led projects that contribute to ongoing research efforts.

Don’t be afraid of technology

The digital age has ushered in a plethora of tools that can ease the ever-changing balancing act between teaching and research. Collaborative platforms facilitate easier communication and project management within research teams, allowing for more efficient use of time and resources. Artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a valuable digital tool, offering inspiration and generating ideas for both teaching and research – don’t be afraid of it.

Cultivate a support network

The importance of a support network cannot be overstated. Building relationships with colleagues who can share teaching loads, offer feedback and collaborate on research projects can significantly lighten the load. For me, this network extends to the students as well. Engaging them as active participants in research projects not only aids my research efforts but also enhances their learning experience and prepares them for future challenges. I find this to be one of the most fulfilling methods because, having not long been a student myself, I still understand the struggles, doubts and needs that chemical engineering students face. By sharing my work, I can build not just a solid student-lecturer relationship, but also lay the foundation for positive future industrial collaborations.

Institutional support is available – and worth tapping into

Many universities now recognise the importance of supporting faculty members in their dual roles as teachers and researchers. Having dedicated departments to turn to for advice, guidance and support, especially when it comes to research, is invaluable. This shift negates the historic pressure-to-publish culture, making the transition from teacher to researcher much more relaxed and enjoyable.

Additionally, I’ve found that workshops and seminars on effective teaching and research methods have introduced new perspectives and strategies to me by fostering a thriving collaborative network between many different areas of academia – most notably the difference between how STEM academics manage their responsibilities compared with those from within the humanities and liberal arts.

Embrace flexibility and self-care

Recognise that the perfect balance between teaching and research is a dynamic and often elusive goal. Embracing flexibility and being open to adjusting your strategies as circumstances change are essential. Equally important is prioritising self-care; the demands of academia should not come at the expense of personal well-being. Finding time for relaxation and hobbies outside the university can recharge your batteries and improve your overall productivity and satisfaction.

Callum Russell is a lecturer in chemical engineering and project management at the University of the West of Scotland.

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