Scientists Step Into the Classroom

Ask a scientist what she teaches and the answer will be "maths" or "biology." Ask a teacher what she teaches and the answer will be "15-year-olds." That, says Lucy Wenham, formerly an Imperial College physicist and now a secondary maths teacher in central London, is the difference between research and teaching: In teaching, the students--not the subject--are the main focus.

Wenham is one of thousands of former researchers who, despite enjoying many aspects of scientific life, decided to make a career transition to teaching. Asked why they made the switch and what it's like leaving the laboratory for the classroom, Wenham and several other north European scientists-turned-teachers reply that teaching offers a dynamic, demanding, but extremely enjoyable professional environment. For a scientist who's willing to work with young people--and to take on all the complexities that this brings--teaching can be a very rewarding career. As Kirstie Urquhart, a former chemist (and former Next Wave editor) who is training as a teacher in the United Kingdom, puts it, "it's really nice when you see the faces of kids who have struggled light up."

Why Leave the Bench?

After a lengthy training period in research, what motivates scientists to retrain as teachers? Ann Childs, a lecturer in science education at the University of Oxford, says that the main reason most researchers want to retrain as teachers is that they "want to impart their enthusiasm for science on young people." Childs, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry and 11 years of teaching experience, says that research-career insecurity is another reason that often comes up during interviews for Oxford's 1-year Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), the teaching qualification that most UK graduates take.

Anders Hansson is a case in point; he worked in academia for 10 years, reaching associate-professor level at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, before becoming a teacher. "The shortage of funding was a major part of leaving," he says. But leaving research because of its downsides is only part of the story. The other major part is the pleasure teaching can bring. Urquhart's first indication that she had a passion for teaching was when she realized as a graduate student that working as a laboratory demonstrator--setting up experiments and guiding undergraduates through them--was the highlight of her week. Years later, she became a teacher.

What Makes a Good Teacher?

Passions are one thing; skill is another. What does it take to be--or to become--a good teacher? Irish national Liam Garvey trained as a botanist, up to a Ph.D. For the last 8 years, he has worked as a science teacher in an international school in Stuttgart, Germany. "The most important thing" about teaching, says Garvey, "is you need to like people." Hansson agrees. "A teacher is not just a transmitter of knowledge"; a large part of the job, he says, is concerned with the pastoral care of the students--"the social and psychological aspects," as he puts it.

The next key skill cited by Garvey is the ability "to explain concepts; science requires kids to grasp difficult ideas." Partly, it's a matter of creativity, says Childs: When she recruits teacher trainees, she looks for "creativity; people who have alternative ways of explaining things." But achieving that kind of clarity also depends on the ability to pitch lessons at just the right level. Garvey recalls "the blank stares" he got when he started teaching botany. "I made the mistake of going into way too much detail," he says. Wenham agrees that the teacher part sometimes needs to rein in the scientist's personal interests in the subject. Go into teaching "not because the thrill is your subject," Wenham says. "The thrill is seeing someone understand your subject. That's a massive difference."


Many who have made the transition say it’s wrong to believe that attending school provides insight into what it's like to teach. Urquhart worked for a year as an assistant teacher before deciding it was the right choice. She describes walking into a classroom as "absolutely terrifying." Before she got teaching experience, Urquhart says, she had no idea how difficult it is to be in charge of a classroom full of children. "You have to impose your will on 25 to 30 kids. It's completely different from giving a lecture."

Another misunderstanding that scientists may have is that learning is easy for everyone. Most Ph.D.s are likely to have sailed through school academically; it can be a shock to deal with students who find learning difficult. Ph.D. graduates, says Childs, are very successful learners. "They are atypical in schools." Urquhart agrees: "If you've gone through school in the top set, you don't realise what it's like in classes where kids don't find learning easy." It's not just innate ability but also motivation, says Hansson. In academia, he says, "you are used to dealing with motivated people."

A Differing Pace, Different Challenges

Scientist-teachers also spoke of the difference in the day-to-day pace of the job. In terms of structured time, Wenham describes the two professions as "total extremes." In a Ph.D., you have 3 years to get the job done, whereas in teaching, says Wenham, "each of your next 50 minutes are planned." German national Joachim Reichl, who has a Ph.D. in biology and has been teaching since 2000, agrees. In the lab, "you're really independent and can come and go when you want." But when you are teaching, your time is always accounted for.

Another difference is that teaching is live, in real time, with a real audience. "You're performing when you teach," says Garvey; consequently, "teaching is very tiring and demanding." Another consequence of the real, live nature of the transaction is its unpredictability; Urquhart warns that occasionally even the most carefully prepared lesson can fall flat "if the class is in an off-the-wall mood."

Despite the considerable differences between teaching and research, Childs believes that many researchers have developed "coping strategies" that are useful for dealing with unsettled classes. During a Ph.D., "sometimes you experience 6 months without getting results. Ph.D.s have real persistence and endurance," she says. "I don't think younger applicants to teaching have this."

Retraining and the Job Market in Northern Europe

The importance of excellent science education in schools has been stressed by science policy makers in recent years, and many European countries are trying to recruit teachers who are passionate about their subjects. Teacher training and job markets vary across Europe, although for those with training in natural sciences, the job market is generally good.


In the UK, most former researchers take a PGCE, usually a university course with school placements, although on-the-job training is also possible. The UK has been recruiting science and maths graduates into teaching for the past several years to fill a job market shortage. Matt Hopkinson, a spokesperson for the UK's Department of Education and Skills, says that although currently there isn't a teacher shortage as such, science and maths are still priority areas. "Those with maths and science won't have any problem getting a job; we would encourage maths and science [graduates] to consider teaching as a career."


Scientists in Sweden who want to become teachers generally go through a year and a half of teacher training at a university; this course, too, includes placements in schools. Jean-Pierre Zune of the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education--the organisation responsible for teacher education--says that currently there are reasonable opportunities for Ph.D.s to train and work as teachers in Sweden.


In Germany, postgraduate teacher training consists of a 2-year teaching course at a College of Education (Pedagogische Hochschule), with regular teaching placements. Germany prefers applicants who have undergraduate degrees in two different fields, for example, biology and sport. But according to Anne Schwarzenberg of the Federal Cultural Ministry in Bonn, because science teachers are in demand, advanced training in just one science field will often be adequate, although this will vary in different federal states.

Entering Teaching as a Mature Student

Employers value the work experience scientists have acquired, says Childs: "Schools do recognise that Ph.D.s are bringing lots of skills already. You're not starting with a blank slate." Wenham also reckons that entering teaching at a later stage--with greater life experiences under your belt--has advantages. "Children are very perceptive. They sense your strengths and weaknesses. You need to know yourself."

The Benefits of Teaching

A career in teaching offers considerable rewards. "Having a permanent contract" is attractive, says Garvey. Another advantage, says Urquhart, is that "teaching is practical and portable; you can do it anywhere in the country." Hansson enjoys the team aspect of his job, working with his science-teacher colleagues: "We're a group of 12 chemistry and biology teachers. It's a very nice environment."

But the greatest reward for these teachers is seeing the fruits of their labour: student progress. The ultimate reward, says Garvey, is "when a kid gets it. You see the light of understanding; that's the kick."

Teaching, says Wenham, "is not an easy option"; but she realised along the way that she was "passionate about education," something she cannot claim about her days as a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London. Looking at her scientist contemporaries back then, "I saw what was driving them and I felt I didn't have that." Wenham now finds teaching 15-year-olds "amazingly rewarding."

Teaching is just one of the many valuable jobs that scientists can do. In teaching as in any other career, the fit is the key, says Wenham: "Everyone has a niche. Fulfill your talents and skills."

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor .

Anne Forde is Next Wave's European Editor, North and East.

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