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Teaching as a skill and a career

With the start of the new academic year upon us, it’s time for at least some researchers to get back into the classroom. But, like many of the skills that scientists need once they’ve reached the professor ranks, how to teach well is rarely part of a researcher’s training. At its best, teaching can be a wonderfully rewarding experience, but success requires more than just subject area knowledge. Teachers also need confidence, passion, and knowledge of pedagogy. The learning curve can be particularly steep for new faculty members as they learn to juggle a myriad of activities.

Different types of institutions also offer different teaching requirements and opportunities, so it’s important for new faculty members to join an institution that fits their professional aspirations. Because of their almost exclusive focus on teaching, undergraduate and community colleges are the most demanding in terms of a professor’s time and teaching capability. But today, even in research-intensive universities, good teaching credentials often are an important factor in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.

Teaching is a time-consuming endeavor, but there are many reasons why university faculty members, even at research-oriented institutions, should think about their teaching and at least try to be good at it.

Over the years, Science Careers has provided practical advice to help new faculty members get up to speed with their teaching skills, and help seasoned professors improve some of their methods and practices. We have also advised aspiring faculty members on how to choose an institution that offers teaching responsibilities that are in line with their professional aspirations—and how to balance their classroom duties with their research. And for those who want to leave research entirely to pursue their love of teaching, we have explored ways into full-time school teaching. Here is a selection of the best of those articles.

Developing teaching skills and experience

Large lectures 101, by Mary Poffenroth, 11 March 2015.
A full-time lecturer at San Jose State University in California, Mary Poffenroth has found ways to make the large-lecture format engaging for students while delivering a robust, challenging course.

Teaching Postdocs to Be Professors, by Michael Price, 26 October 2012.
The Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards program offers postdocs from a wide variety of backgrounds a mentored research experience with structured training in academic career skills, including teaching.

Teaching Science to Nonscience Majors, by Elisabeth Pain, 23 April 2010.
Conveying the excitement of science and good scientific knowledge to students with no vocational interest in science requires a blend of skills, wide-ranging interests, and creativity.

Teach the Students You Have, by Siri Carpenter, 24 April 2009.
Before you conclude that students are unreachable, consider the obstacles they might face.

Postdoctoral Teaching: Savvy Career Move or Distraction From Research? by Meghan Guinnee, 12 May 2006.
Programs offering teaching and mentoring skills at the postdoctoral level provide some of the critical skills that future faculty members will need to do their jobs well, but when it comes to hiring, even some teaching-focused colleges put research first.

The Toolkit - Quick 'n Dirty Pedagogy, Rachel Narehood Austin, 8 July 2005.
The main problem with teaching is that there are so many other things that the typical faculty beginner is called upon to do. Here are some guidelines to help you efficiently gain confidence and competence as a teacher.

Teaching 101, by Tara Kuther, 14 March 2003.
Follow these tips and you'll save some time and headaches next time you teach an undergraduate course.

Learning to Teach: Diary of the Postdoc Pilots—Part 1: Developing the Profession, by Brian Flanagan and Yavuz Cakir, 17 January 2003.
Two postdocs piloting a Preparing Future Faculty program at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, share their experience of learning how to teach. You can read part two here.

Teaching Postdocs: An Alternative Approach to an Academic Career, by Paula Lemons, 5 October 2001.
Teaching postdoctoral fellowships act as stepping stones from graduate school to a faculty position devoted primarily to teaching.

The Art of Teaching, Session 2: Using Portfolios to Improve and Evaluate Teaching, by Robin Wright, 25 May 2001.
Course portfolios can be invaluable tools for presenting your teaching efforts to your promotion and tenure committee, as well as improving your effectiveness in the classroom or teaching laboratory.

Art of Teaching, by Robin Wright, 13 April 2001.
At the time an associate professor of zoology and a recent recipient of a University of Washington Distinguished Teaching Award, Robin Wright reveals 10 oh-so-important secrets she wishes she had known before teaching her first class.

Postdoc Life at Liberal Arts Colleges, Part 1, by Leslie Pray, 16 March 2001.
Even though the experience is not exempt from frustrations, there are many advantages to doing a postdoc at a small liberal arts college, including gaining valuable teaching experience, developing new courses, and mentoring undergrad researchers. You can read part two here.

Learning How to Teach: How to Do It and Why You Want to, by Douglas Curran-Everett, 12 November 1999.
Most scientists know little about techniques and strategies that will help them produce good teaching practices, but they can still learn how to teach.

Finding the right teaching load

Treading a different track, by Rachel Bernstein, 7 May 2015.
Although the decreasing availability of tenure-track positions might be bad news for trainees hoping for a traditional career in academia, it opens up new opportunities for those who prefer to focus on teaching.

Getting hired at a liberal arts college, by Timothy J. Lebestky, 28 August 2014.
Search committees at small liberal arts colleges are quite interested in candidates with high-powered research programs—as long as they make the case that they can translate that research to an undergraduate environment.

Teaching Is a Powerful Credential, by Chris Martine, 24 March 2014.
Professor Chris Martine argues that an applicant’s teaching record can make all the difference when applying for professor positions at U.S. colleges.

A Career as a College Science Teacher, by Vijaysree Venkatraman, 19 November 2013.
Many institutions now offer rewarding positions to faculty members in the sciences, with teaching as the primary responsibility, but the positions tend to be nontenure-track contracts.

Perspective: Preparing for a PUI Career, by Rachel Narehood Austin, 2 March 2012.
For some scientists, an elite liberal arts college can be a very good alternative to the research-intensive track.

Teaching IT in Underprivileged Communities, by Elisabeth Pain, 23 September 2011.
U.K. scientist Alan Wood’s volunteer experience teaching computer science in Nigeria and IT and math in Guyana have been life and career-changing.

Do You Wanna Be a VAP? by Laura Stark Malisheski, 18 July 2008.
Tenure-track faculty positions at top colleges focused on teaching are hard to come by, but a good backup plan, which could keep you on the right career trajectory for a high-level teaching gig, is a visiting assistant professor, or VAP, position.

Liberal Arts College Faculty: Finding the Sweet Spot, by Sarah A. Webb, 27 June 2008.
Faculty members at liberal arts colleges face the constant challenge of finding the elusive sweet spot that combines innovative and successful teaching with modest but productive research.

Community College Faculty: Must Love to Teach, by Sarah A. Webb, 25 May 2007.
Community colleges can provide satisfying careers for scientists who love teaching and working with students of varying ages, backgrounds, and educational experiences.

 A 'Comprehensive' Career, by Sarah A. Webb, 23 March 2007.
Smaller public universities and comprehensive colleges often have fewer financial resources and place more disparate demands on their faculty members, but those who are up for the challenge are finding creative ways to both pursue scholarship and combine it with teaching.

Academic Scientists at Work: To Teach or Not to Teach? by Jeremy M. Boss and Susan H. Eckert, 9 May 2003.
Teaching is a time-consuming endeavor, but there are many reasons why university faculty members, even at research-oriented institutions, should think about their teaching and at least try to be good at it.

Transition to Academia: Negotiating Your Way to Teaching Sanity, by Stephen Cheung, 27 April 2001.
It is often challenging for new faculty members to take up and achieve excellence in both research and teaching, but there are ways to ease the workload.

Going into school teaching

A Downstream Pathway into Teaching, by Michael Price, 19 April 2013.
For scientists who are tired of the lab and itching to make a difference in people’s lives, there are teaching opportunities in high-poverty urban areas that offer decent pay, good benefits, and job security.

Taken for Granted: Getting to Aaahhh! by Beryl Lieff Benderly, 4 November 2011.
Being a scientist is hard, but the greatest challenge that molecular biologist Jeff Cruzan ever came across was meeting the expectations of his high school students during the first year of his new career as a science and math teacher.

Scientists as Schoolteachers—Feature Index, by Robin Arnette, 24 March 2006.
When scientists leave the bench to become schoolteachers, they usually bring a deep knowledge of a scientific discipline, a love of science, and insight into how research is conducted.

Motivating Young Minds, by Edna Francisco, 15 October 2004.
For nearly 30 years, fourth-grade teacher Cecelia Lucero has incorporated Native American beliefs, scientific research, music, and other educational tools into her classroom, especially when teaching science.

From Bench Top to Blackboard: Scientists as Schoolteachers *Feature Index*, by Jim Austin, 5 July 2002.
Science Careers examines the advantages, disadvantages, and logistics of making the switch from research to school teaching—and shares the experiences of those who’ve done it.

Is Teaching For You? by Christina Line, 19 May 2000.
Standing up in front of, and controlling, a class of 30 14-year-olds while focusing on the lesson is not for everyone.

Careers in Teaching: Neurobiology in High School? by Jennifer Brakeman, 7 May 1999.
After completing her Ph.D. in neuroscience, Jennifer Brakeman chose high school over college teaching because she wanted a job with a lot of student contact, very little research, and small classes.

Careers in Teaching: Pursuing a Less Traditional Career Path, by Leah Cataldo, 7 May 1999.
To make the transition into school teaching, Leah Cataldo approached her new career as if it was a lab experiment, doing the required preliminary investigations, fieldwork, and feasibility testing.