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Making the Transition from Student to Teacher During Your Graduate Studies

Much of the advice we share about selecting a good Ph.D. program centers around your relationships with faculty and your research opportunities. However, a significant part of the doctoral student experience is developing your teaching skills.

As a future well-rounded professor, one of the main expectations will be that you can competently manage a classroom. Read below to learn how Ph.D. programs prepare the next generation of educators and mentors and why the emphasis on teaching is a crucial component of the Ph.D. experience.

Why Do I Need Teaching Experience?

Doctoral students are presumably comfortable in the lab or the library, but not everyone is as confident with speaking in a public environment. While many students present their research at conferences, teaching lets you practice your presentation skills on a more regular basis.

It also requires you to learn how to communicate your ideas effectively. As a budding expert in your field, you may take basic concepts for granted, but as an instructor, it is your job to make sure your students are sufficiently introduced to the foundational theories and skills of your field in order to produce their own excellent work.

Teaching is also a great way to exercise time management and organizational skills. Grad students already have a lot to juggle with their own research and coursework. The reality is, though, much of your time as a professor will be spent working with students and advising them through their own projects too. Grad school is the place to learn how to develop those skills in a controlled environment so you know how to manage your time and prioritize your work, particularly when others are depending on you for support and instruction.

Even if you decide to go into industry over academia, your skills as a teacher are transferable to any job. You may find that you need to train a new employee or lead a team of research assistants on a new project. Perhaps you have to give a major presentation to the board of your company or conduct an important meeting. Even if you aren’t preparing lectures or grading papers, what you learned as an instructor will help you excel in any role that requires strong leadership, clear communication, and excellent organizational skills.

How Do Graduate Students Gain Teaching Experience?

Just like not all graduate programs are the same, neither are all teaching experiences. Your pedagogical journey will largely depend on your discipline and where you are in your program.

Years One and Two

Many first and second year Ph.D. students may be required to take a course about how to teach. For example, at SMU, all first-year Chemistry Ph.D. students enroll in a teaching practicum that provides a week-long training and prepares students for teaching lab or lecture courses. Similarly, students in the English department undergo an intensive training and take a pedagogy seminar in year two that requires observation hours and prepares them for their future teaching assignments.

Years Three and Four

From there, students may serve as a teaching assistant (TA), which gives them hands-on experience about how to prepare for and teach a course. Tasks can range from assisting professors with preparing lectures, grading papers, and leading review sessions before exams, to overseeing students in the lab. Often, the professor acts primarily as a supervisor and meets regularly with their TAs to go over weekly assignments and provide feedback on their teaching techniques and approaches.

Advanced students may take a more active role in designing and teaching curriculum. Some programs let students team teach with a professor or with other colleagues. Co-teaching gives graduate students a similar support structure to a TA assignment, but also gives the grad student a little more flexibility and ownership about what and how material is presented.

The Dissertation Phase

In some cases, students who are in the all-but-dissertation phase of their program may be invited to teach as a graduate lecturer and manage their own class. These are typically either introductory courses that go over foundational concepts or smaller advanced courses that have a manageable class size. In either case, the idea is to create a teaching load that is not too overwhelming, but that offers the graduate student an opportunity to learn how to navigate the classroom by themselves.

Tips and Advice for Graduate Student Teaching

Teaching is an art that requires practice. Even those who are naturals in front of the chalkboard (or smartboard) can always benefit from some coaching and constructive criticism. Most universities have a Center for Teaching Excellence that offer resources to help faculty and instructors sharpen their skills.

Attend workshops when available, especially outside of your department. Working with people outside of your discipline may help freshen up your teaching style and help broaden your perspective as an educator, especially if you’ve only previously worked with colleagues in your field.

Also, as a student, you have easy access to the best resource: your professors! Don’t be afraid to ask them for advice, especially as you develop your own personal teaching philosophy. They may also be able to open new networks for other teaching-related opportunities to you, such as individual mentoring or grade-school summer assignments.

Finally, be sure to find your balance. It is just as easy to be consumed by your own research as it is to get lost in grading papers and preparing lectures. It will be challenging at first, but eventually, you’ll find your groove and figure out what works best for you. Do let your advisor or supervising professors know if you are too overwhelmed. Being frazzled by the combination of teaching and your independent research won’t make you an effective instructor or researcher.

Embrace Your Growing Expertise and Learn to Teach Others Along the Way

The reality is that most Ph.D. students are well on their way to becoming more knowledgeable about their field than the vast majority of other people. Part of growing as a graduate student is embracing your expertise and giving back to others through teaching. You will quickly discover how much teaching a topic will refine your thinking and help you grow your own understanding.

Teaching can be one of the most rewarding experiences of a Ph.D. program and will definitely help you determine if a career in academia is the right path for you. Accept your new knowledge and responsibilities and make it a priority to grow as an educator during your years of study. 

Want to learn more about how to make the most of your Ph.D. years? Explore our full resource, A Guide to Choosing, Applying for, and Thriving in a Ph.D. Program.

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