In an effort to avoid revising for my finals, and at this stage of the game being more of an expert on procrastination than anything else, I went with a friend to the Swansea University Careers Centre. By the end of the afternoon I had realised why I had been dragging my feet in looking for permanent employment--I wasn?t ready to stop learning. After a few more visits to the Careers Centre, I decided on doing a PhD. But where? If I was to continue being a student, I had to make it a worthwhile investment of my time. So I set about looking for a programme that offered more than just a research project. I wanted to acquire new skills, such as teaching, and I was also keen to indulge in other experiences such as cultural and language differences. So, in January 1996 I enrolled in a PhD programme in physiology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada.
I learned fast that ?graduate teaching? was second only to research. It would be truthful to say that I wasn?t even close to being prepared for what lay in store for me. What I had failed to realise before arriving at my new university was that teaching would be compulsory throughout the duration of my PhD training, with the exception of my final year. The time officially allocated for teaching was 10 to 12 hours per week, depending on the course, and assignments ranged from demonstrating to or advising 10 students at most, to standing up in a lecture theatre filled with up to 200 students.
However, teaching wasn?t without its perks, and my department awarded its graduate teachers a handsome 50% salary increase. I went from earning CA$1000 (the Medical Research Council of Canada studentship rate at the time) to CA$1500 per month, which made a significant impression on my standard of living whilst I was there.
My own teaching experience was as varied as they come. I was thrown straight in at the deep end, and for my first assignment I was asked to give optional lectures on human physiology to supplement mandatory classes. With advice consisting merely of ?just don?t show any fear,? I was pretty much left to make my own way. Although starting out a little rough around the edges, I thoroughly enjoyed these 2 years of teaching. Whoever it was who said that ?you don?t know anything until you have to teach it? wasn?t kidding! My classes consisted of students from very different backgrounds--first-year nurses, third-year physical therapists, and occasionally registered nurses on refresher courses--and reached a total of about 160 students per year.
Teaching this course taught me to think on my feet and to see problems from a different angle--often having to explain something in six different ways to the nurses without losing the attention of the physical therapists! Fortunately, I was given a certain amount of freedom within the course material, and how I decided to teach my classes was entirely up to me.
In my classes, for example, everyone was introduced to his or her personal ?cheat sheet?--since the students were each allowed to take their ?human bodies? into their human physiology exams! As one can imagine, the variety in individual ability in each class posed the biggest problem. This was overcome only by experience in time management--allocating extra time to those with less experience in the field of physiology on a more personal basis. Much time was also given to students struggling to get the required grades, and at certain times of the year this took every minute of my spare time, including weekends. In addition, preparation time for this type of teaching always exceeded that deemed necessary, often taking an extra couple of hours per class.
Although I loved teaching this course, I eventually had to sacrifice it for one requiring less time and commitment. For the sake of my own research project, I requested an assignment with a lighter workload.
After 2 years of heavy teaching, my next assignment was like a walk in the park! I was made an academic tutor to third-year students in cellular physiology. Although class sizes were comparable to my previous assignment, I met only with those students who needed a little extra help and was given a mere 4 hours of ?office time? to do so. Teaching took a personal twist, and more often than not I met with students one-on-one, although sometimes I would have groups of 10 to 12 students crammed into my tiny office. I already had a lot of experience with students who needed extra tutoring, but in addition to helping them with the course material, I had to become a personal counsellor. I became the first port of call for students with health issues (both physical and mental), and in many cases I had to advise on how to proceed in the best interest of the student. Eventually it appeared that I had traded more free time for the stress of advising students when to carry on and when to call it a day. I took this added responsibility in my stride for 2 years, but as my research project started to come to an end, I had to give priority to my own stresses.
My final teaching assignment was demonstrating to students in a third-year human biology course. Although not as interesting or challenging as the other courses I had taught, this type of teaching fitted in nicely with my research schedule. Responsibilities were minimal and consisted mainly of making sure students didn?t set fire to themselves or others!
So, do teaching and postgraduate training mix? I would have to say an emphatic ?yes!? Not only was teaching a source of added income, but it provided me with an opportunity to learn skills that have benefited me both during my PhD and my career as a postdoc. Lecturing to students from the get-go helped me to become a better public speaker and also to think on my feet. This was particularly useful when defending my thesis to my examiners. Tutoring students allowed me to become aware of problems that students can encounter and taught me to have compassion for others. These skills are good to have at the best of times, but no more so than if my career path eventually takes me to being a lab supervisor. Finally, demonstrating to students helped me to keep the whole thing in perspective--if you can?t have fun with science, then what is the point?
I feel that my training in Canada gave me the best of both worlds, but what about the United Kingdom? According to pharmacology postgraduate students Hammit Mistry and Wing-Sze Vanessa Ho of the University of Cambridge, some of the conditions and requirements for teaching are the same. Like me, both have undertaken different teaching assignments ranging from lab demonstrations with 12 to 15 first-year undergraduate students to tutorials with two to three second-year students to supervision of final-year project students. However, for graduate students in Canada, teaching is a requirement of the PhD programme, whereas teaching here is not (unless there is a shortage of qualified people). In addition, both students I spoke with said that they could do as little or as much teaching as they wanted depending on their workload. Another important distinction to make between the two universities is the system of personal and academic tutors here in Cambridge that takes the responsibility for students? welfare off the shoulders of PhD students.
The benefits of teaching are clearly the same, irrespective of the country. Mistry finds that ?communicating new ideas to students? is both rewarding and beneficial in teaching him new communication skills. And similarly, the biggest problem in teaching while training at the postgraduate level seems to be the time taken to prepare and teach the students, which, according to Ho, ?can take up to 12 hours each week?--meaning 12 hours away from the lab.
Ultimately, there are terrific opportunities for teaching on both sides of the pond. However, if you don?t mind the extra time, I would recommend the 5-year Canadian PhD programme that takes teaching into account, allowing more time in the lab and making research just that little bit easier to complete.