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Academic Scientists at Work: To Teach or Not to Teach?

"Concentrate on your research. If your research is good, no one will care if you can teach. After all, when was the last time someone got tenure for being a good teacher?" Every new assistant professor has heard this more than once. Is it really sound advice? To answer this question, it is important first to fully understand the advice being provided.

The recommendation to emphasize research attempts to impress upon you, the young scientist, the fact that establishing yourself in the world of academic science will be difficult. The mentor (if that is the source of this advice) is telling you that you must: a) set up a lab; b) get grant money, c) get your research program running; and d) make it successful (i.e., publish, publish, publish). If the school where you are working has a tenure clock (that is, a probationary period before a permanent position is offered), then there is a sense of urgency. You have only a few years to establish a research program. Any distraction--even participating in teaching--could keep it from happening.

The intent of the statement that no one ever gets tenure for being a "good teacher" is to drive home the point about the importance of your research. However, your senior colleague used the word "good"--not "great"--in describing the teacher's level of competency. If you had the potential to be a great teacher, and your senior colleague knew it, then maybe the advice might have been different.

Why Teach?

How can teaching in a research-oriented university hinder your career? All of the possible responses could be summed up in one word: time. Teaching in all forms takes time. Consider that, for each class, a professor must prepare a lecture or discussion; assemble handouts; prepare overheads or PowerPoint slides; deliver the lecture; write and grade exam questions; and maybe even have office hours to answer students' questions. Just writing that out was exhausting! New lectures can take between 6 and 12 hours to prepare, even if you are an expert in the field. If you are responsible for a major portion of a course, you may find that you are devoting 20 hours a week to your teaching duties. Even the second time you teach a class you will need to spend time preparing, adjusting the syllabus to reflect changes in the science, or responding to students' concerns from the previous year.

At a minimum, a moderate to large teaching load will keep you from pursuing multiple lines of scientific investigation. In the worst case, it may prevent you from doing your research at all until your classes are over for the year.

All this really sounds like you shouldn't teach, but there are many reasons you should think about your teaching and at least try to be good at it. Consider this question: Why do university faculty members teach?

There are several possible answers:

a) It's part of the deal.

b) That's why they call them schools.

c) It's fun and you will learn a great deal about the subject.

d) Teaching is (or may be) required for promotion.

You may think this list should include "e) all of the above," you may have chuckled at b) and a), and you may think that choice c) is just our opinion, with which you may or may not agree. But hopefully you also took notice of choice d).

While most research-oriented universities have faculty members who make comments like the one at the beginning of the article, senior faculty members almost certainly expect that someday, after your research program is off the ground, you will contribute to the educational mission of the department. It is, indeed, part of the deal. This "someday" often begins with limited teaching assignments in the second or third year of most faculty appointments. In accordance with the importance of teaching, most universities include teaching as one of the three main areas for promotion and tenure evaluation. So, although it's a good idea to focus on your research at first, by the time you come up for tenure you'll be expected to be carrying your weight as a teacher.

Being a Team Player

With the case made that teaching is part of the deal of being a professor and will be required for promotion, there are several other issues to consider as you engage in the teaching responsibilities of your department. Start with the positive aspects of teaching. Teaching integrates you into your school. You are now part of the enterprise. You will meet colleagues associated with your class and colleagues who use the room after you, especially if your class regularly runs over time.

You will also meet students. Depending on the level of class you are teaching, your audience may include prospective students for your lab. This would certainly be the case if the group consists of first-year graduate students. Teaching graduate students gives you an opportunity to show off your brilliant, bubblin', witty, and, of course charmin' personality. All young faculty members should try to participate in first-year graduate courses, since this is the time when most students make their choices about what to study and with whom.

When should you begin to participate in teaching? Most new faculty members get a 1-year hiatus from teaching so that they can get their labs organized, hire personnel, and submit their first grant applications. If you are expected to get your own research funds (and who isn't?), your highest priority should be to get your grant applications in on time and in good shape for funding. So, if you have a choice on teaching dates, try to arrange it so that your teaching is not within 2 weeks of your grant deadline.

While jumping into the pool at the deep end is a great way to get used to the water, this may not be the best approach to developing a set of teaching skills. Start slowly. If your department is structured so that you can pick up a few lectures a year, this would be the best way to approach the task. If you know in advance what you will be teaching, it is a good idea to sit in on the same classes taught by experienced teachers and get an idea of what you will have to do. After all, observing the great Dr. Mia Goudteecha give a lecture will help you organize your class when your time comes.

You may be required to develop a new course. Upper-level graduate courses are the easiest to develop as they can be centered on a research topic and often include a series of papers for you and the students to discuss. They are also the easiest way for you to review the literature; you will be surprised at what you will learn. If you do opt to do one of these classes, be wary of the number of papers that you assign for each class. Students can and will only read two to three papers for each class. If you assign more, they won't be read and the class will be a drag because some students won't be able to participate. If you have to create a lecture course, choose a good book, and follow it. The better the book, the easier your job will be. Following the outline in the book is sure to make your job, and that of the students, easier and more successful.

Teaching and Promotion

A review of the tenure policies available on the Web sites of research-oriented institutions, such as Duke, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Chicago, the University of Virginia, and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, indicates that demonstrated success in classroom teaching is a required component of the faculty review process. The factors most often used to evaluate successful teaching include student evaluations and anecdotal reviews from senior faculty. Being designated an "outstanding teacher" and receiving teaching awards certainly helps to enhance the teaching-portfolio portion of a promotion package.

In addition to classroom teaching, success in the training of graduate students and postdocs may also be evaluated. This one-on-one training is time- and effort-intensive. The evaluation of such training is usually made by assessing the outcome. Did the student/fellow do the following:

  • Publish high-quality manuscripts?

  • Complete his or her degree or training in an appropriate length of time?

  • Get a good job after he or she left your lab?

The success of trainees is credited to the mentor as the trainees forge their own careers in science. Having students and fellows who develop into productive and successful scientists is almost always positively commented upon in promotion decisions. (If promotion to the tenured ranks must occur within the first 7 years, then this issue may be moot, because the outcomes for a junior faculty member's trainees may not be known by that time.)

As an acknowledgment of the importance of university teaching and the value of faculty teaching skills, many research universities have established "centers for teaching and learning." These centers sponsor workshops, seminars, and brown-bag lunch events, and provide a library of resources to help both beginning and advanced faculty members learn and improve their teaching techniques. Check out the resources at your institution and take advantage of the help that such a resource center can provide.

Getting Credit

Make sure that you get both feedback and credit for your efforts. As mentioned above, feedback comes in the form of student and faculty evaluations. For student evaluations, set up your own questionnaire (don't rely on the standard one the university provides) so that the responses will be objective and actionable; that is, you want to be able to use the feedback to improve the course. It is pointless to have the students rate whether they think you know the material. How do they know? Rather, have them comment on the organization of the course, whether they wanted more specific examples or more general material, and so on. If your school/department doesn't already have a program to provide feedback to its junior faculty, consider asking a senior faculty member to sit in on one or more of your lectures and provide you with tips and comments. This faculty member will then be able to provide a letter for your promotion folder when the time comes. Moreover, his or her comments will help you hone your skills.

It is important to make sure that your chair is aware that you are teaching and how much you are teaching. And just as you should be advising your chair about your research progress, make a point of keeping him or her abreast of your teaching prowess. Last, keep detailed records of your effort. If you teach two lectures in Quantitative Micromacros, be sure to get macro credit by listing the lectures and a brief statement of the lecture content in your ever-growing teaching portfolio. Update this portfolio after each lecture. This will ensure that 6 years after your first lecture, you (and your evaluators) will know that you actually did teach in that course and that you were an active team player in your institution.

Bottom Line

So, what is the answer to the question, "To teach or not to teach?"? For the junior faculty member, the answer is " Teach. Participate in the teaching mission of your department, but do so in moderation!" Aside from the fact that teaching may be required for your continued employment, you will benefit from the opportunities to work with your faculty colleagues as well as from the stimulating interactions with graduate and professional students. On top of these benefits, you may even learn something.

Jeremy M. Boss, Ph.D., and Susan H. Eckert, Ph.D., are the authors of Academic Scientists at Work: Navigating the Biomedical Research Career

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