'D' in PhD does not mean dogsbody

January 21, 2005

Teaching undergraduates can help with your post-graduate work but, warns Harriet Swain, don't let other staff and students take advantage of you

You need more time for research. You need more money. And, oh yes, at some point you'll need a job. You must be a postgraduate. Has anyone told you how to juggle all these conflicting interests yet? No? Then you're definitely a postgraduate.

You need help - although you may have to ask for it yourself.

Debbie Smith is studying for a PhD at Kingston University and is involved in setting up a series of workshops with the Higher Education Academy for postgraduates who teach. She says: "Speak to everyone, bounce ideas off people, network. If you need to prepare a lecture or seminar, speak to people who have done it before."

She says that if you are offered the chance to sit in on someone else's lecture, take it. Similarly, you should get people to review one of yours.

She praises her university for arranging meetings for new postgraduate teachers and offering support for particular problems, and says that all postgraduate teachers should ask for similar help if they are not offered it automatically.

Danielle Lamb, resource development officer at the Philosophical and Religious Studies Subject Centre, says you should try to join as many mailing lists as possible, and regularly attend conferences and events. If conference expenses put you off, she suggests getting together with postgraduates in neighbouring departments and organising your own regional event.

Smith's top tip is to be organised. She keeps a logbook in which she records what she has done that day, what she has learnt and what her plans are. "That makes me realise, for example, that I spent a lot of time planning a seminar for the next week and I needed to do some research," she says. Every month she composes a summary of what she has been doing that shows clearly how much time she has been spending on teaching and research.

She also exploits any opportunity for her teaching to help her research. For example, when she was teaching health psychology this semester she was able to deliver one lecture based on her PhD topic related to pregnancy. She has also taught research methods, which she says she found personally useful.

Howard Green, chair of the UK Council for Graduate Education, stresses the importance of exploiting the upsides of teaching while managing its downsides.

The most obvious upsides are the skills you will be developing, not only in teaching but in other ways, such as organisation, presentation and communication, he says. He advises postgraduates to have a clear idea of what these skills are and record them formally in a professional development plan. He also warns against being landed with "dogsbody" teaching tasks - such as marking - that will pass on only limited skills.

On the other hand, he advises postgraduates to be realistic about their teaching capabilities, especially if they have recently graduated. "You need to think about your capability and the quality of your teaching for the undergraduates," he says. "Think about what you would have thought of a first-year postgraduate teaching you."

In terms of managing the downsides, he warns postgraduates to beware of teaching taking over their lives and not being adequately paid. "If you are contracted to do six hours' work, make sure you are paid properly for six hours' work and make sure you know whether that includes preparation time or not," he says.

You should be clear about your employment status. Is the university treating you as a member of staff or as a student? The employment relationship will be affected depending on which it is.

Jim Ewing, general secretary of the National Postgraduate Committee, advises joining a union to help ensure that you are taken seriously as an employee. He also stresses the importance of taking your contract seriously. "You get a contract, you stick to it and they stick to it," he says. And you should not fall for the threat that you may not receive another contract if you refuse to take on extra, unpaid work.

Smith also warns against being exploited by students. One of the good things about being a postgraduate teacher is that you have a better idea of what your students might be thinking and of how to reach them, she says.

One of the bad things is that many will choose to go to you with a problem rather than to one of the older lecturers. You have to be strict in limiting the time you spend with them, she says. "I now say, 'you have three minutes'. If they say they generally don't understand, I tell them to go away and read their notes and come back with a question."

Simon Francis, who recently finished a PhD in environmental politics and is now teaching at the Open University, says his advice would be even more ruthless - you should avoid teaching altogether.

Universities encourage postgraduates to teach to further their careers, but most find out when applying for academic jobs that what really interests selection panels is how much you have published, he says.

His view is that, because of the time involved in finding what to teach and preparing a lecture, financially you may as well do a menial task that involves less intellectual effort.

If you must teach, Francis' advice is to be ruthless about the amount of time you spend on it. "If you are not doing the teaching as well as you want to, tough," he says. "You don't get paid enough - in a sense it's practice for lecturing."

More information:
www.ukcge.ac.uk, UK Council for Graduate Education - see Preparing Postgraduates to Teach in Higher Education
www.heacademy.ac.uk - Higher Education Academy
www.npc.org - National Postgraduate Committee


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