PhDs told to avoid too much teaching

June 30, 2006

Postgraduates must resist pressure from managers to take on a teaching load so heavy that it affects their research, a conference has heard.

John McKenzie, a PhD researcher and teaching assistant in Aberdeen University's sociology department, told a national postgraduate conference held at the university this week that postgraduate teaching experience could have positive and negative effects.

Mr McKenzie, who is in the third year of a part-time PhD on contemporary spirituality in Scotland, does up to 12 hours of tutoring and 20 hours as a care officer a week in addition to his research.

"The main advantages of this approach are that it gives you teaching experience and keeps you abreast of broader discipline perspectives," he said.

A key focus of the annual conference, hosted by Aberdeen's College of Arts and Social Sciences, was to give practical advice on combining teaching and research.

As universities increasingly turn to PhD students to shoulder some of the teaching burden, Mr McKenzie stressed that it was crucial to get the balance right.

"Students can be pressurised to take on teaching, and this conference will allow them to make a more informed decision about whether they want to or not," he said.

He went on: "The disadvantages are that teaching takes up so much of your time and interferes with other aspects of your PhD experience, such as going to conferences and seminars."

Mr McKenzie said the aim of the conference was to allow students to make a more informed decision about taking on the dual responsibility of teaching and research.

He added that it would also give them an insight into what issues lecturers faced in combining the two.

"You have to keep reflecting on your progress in both respects. When you're doing so many things, the danger is that you do everything badly.

"The obvious pitfall is not writing up as you go along and ending up with three years of research in front of you (to write up)," he said.

Mr McKenzie said that there were instances of postgraduates giving up when faced with writing up research because the prospect of analysing all their data at once was overwhelming.

PREREQUISITES FOR POSTGRADUATES

Older academics who are supervising PhD students need to understand that the world has moved on since they themselves were postgraduates, the Aberdeen conference heard.

Dominic Houlihan, Aberdeen's vice-principal for research and a keynote speaker, said: "It's more difficult for experienced staff to recognise that students coming in now have different aspirations."

Postgraduates had significant debts and did not have the luxury of drawing out a PhD programme, he said. "(Academics) need to make sure programmes are really well structured, and that isn't quite the way some supervisors have worked."

Professor Houlihan said induction programmes, personal development plans and generic skills training were crucial. Since 2005, all new PhD students at Aberdeen have had personal development plans.

Aberdeen also holds group reviews of postgraduates' progress, enabling staff and students to share different experiences.

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