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Graduate School Does Not Prepare Students to Teach Effectively

Graduate School is Great

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed most of my experience while in graduate school working towards my Ph.D. I was paid to fuel my personal curiosities about how bacteria make choices. It was a win-win in my opinion. I was contributing to the overall knowledge of the scientific community and making connections that I never would have dreamed of years before. I could safely say no one on the planet was investigating the same phenomena I was, so I held knowledge only I knew. Pretty amazing feeling. I read some article in Science Careers long ago about advice for graduate students. One nugget was that the student needed to become the expert of their project, not their advisor. I tried to make that my goal and knew I was succeeding when my advisor would ask my advice about observations she was making in the lab.

Graduate School is Good

Don’t get me wrong. Graduate school was not all a field of lilies. It was hard, very hard. Blazing trails and keeping up with all the latest research from around the world about my topic was daunting. Then, there was the preliminary exam (aka qualifying exam); six weeks of taking on an entirely different topic, becoming an expert, devising experiments to answer research questions, writing a full grant proposal, presenting to the department, and defending your ideas for hours is not for the faint of heart. However, the prelim (I had to go through twice) is like being thrown into the ocean as an infant and told to swim the English Channel. If you make it, you are a much better scientist for it. It was HARD, but I don’t regret all the effort it took.

Graduate School is O.K.

Working in the lab can be very time consuming. Many lab bosses expect the grad students to be in the lab 60 to 80 hours a week. I should have been in the lab more, I admit, but I also had a wife and a daughter the last couple years. I had a lot of expectations of me not only as a student and a training scientist but also as a husband and father. Only one of these four expectations was I an expert at after 25 years of schooling. Being spread so thin made each facet that much harder. Needless to say, my wife (and daughter, and in-laws, and parents, and brother, and the rest of the family, and friends, etc.) were very excited when I finally saw the fruits of my indentured labor.

Graduate School is Absolutely Horrible

Don’t get me wrong. I had opportunities to ‘teach’ students during graduate school. I taught a few semesters of lower-level biology lab sections early on. I enjoyed trying to make connections for the students. I remembered when it all came together for me and the light clicked. I wanted that so badly for my students; and much earlier in their academic career.

Now I am out of school with a degree I am very proud of. At what point in graduate school was I supposed to become an expert teacher? Much emphasis is towards shaping an independent scientist who can survive in the jungle, and rightly so. But, what about an emphasis on one of the tenets that come with many job descriptions those fledgling scientists would eventually end up with: instructing? No courses, no seminars. Am I missing something? Is the arena of instructing young minds preparing them for the future jobs we need them to take and excel at not important?

I am very fortunate. I have a faculty position now. I am an expert…but not at what I am expected to do, teach. I am a novice, an infant trying to very quickly consume as much information in teaching strategies and instructing styles that I feel I should have been exposed to in school. Do the science departments and education departments of our colleges and universities know of each other’s existence and absolute need for integration?

I want to be the best instructor ever. I want my students to get it every lecture/class meeting. I want them to appreciate the world around them and make logical decisions. Is that too much to ask? It is for the current state of a majority of graduate schools.


9 thoughts on “Graduate School Does Not Prepare Students to Teach Effectively”

  1. When I embarked on my (yet to be completed) PhD I discovered the best learning was that I know very, very little – and if I learn nothing else, that will serve me better than any little insight offered by my topic… I am suspicious of doctoral students who don’t make this same discovery… these days I work to help subject mater experts become teachers… and its being an SME that is often their greatest obstacle.

  2. Nice blog and a very valid point. I was lucky enough to have several training courses on teaching in grad school, although they were all 1 day workshops on tutoring/lecturing etc (so felt a bit superficial). In my first faculty post my Dean allowed me to spend 25% of my time studying a post-graduate diploma in education alongside my teaching and research. It has completed changed my views on education, and more importantly my practice.

    It is the reason why some science education colleagues and I have set up the International Network for Educational Development and Scholarship in the Biosciences


  3. Teaching well is an incredibly refined skill. You seem to appreciate that fact. The two sources I repeatedly return to improve my teaching practice are The First Days of School by Harry Wong & Rosemary Wong and The Skillful Teacher by Jon Saphier et. al.

    The First Days of School is filled with practical advice and strategies to get the school year off to a successful start. This book is geared more to elementary and secondary education but would,I imagine, have some useful nuggets of advice and information for you. Plus Harvey Wong is a hoot! (The book comes with a CD.)

    The Skillful Teacher is the definitive source of good teaching practice. The central tenant is that teaching is a skill that can be learned and refined through practice and reflection. Another main principal is “matching”. A teacher develops a repertoire of instructional strategies. The skill in teaching enters when a teacher can effectively match a strategy to a student or group of students in a given situation. I am not sure if Research for Better Teaching, Inc., the organization Jon Saphier founded, has materials and professional development for college level educators but you may want to check out their website.

    All the best to you as you develop your teaching practice. Your efforts will make a difference and your students will notice!

  4. Mathew, I am the director of the Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo (check our website http://www.aucegypt.edu/llt/clt/Pages/default.aspx ) and we find that the most difficult faculty to reach when it comes to professional development in teaching are the engineers (not so much the scientists). Like many faculty, they teach like they have been taught and do not acknowledge that it could be done better.

    May I ask your permission to use part of your blog in our bi weekly newsletter next fall? I think the message continues to be very important to disseminate (again!)

    1. Thanks for leaving the comment. I won’t say anything about engineers except that they are a different breed of tinkerer. Feel free to use this in your newsletter. I hope it encourages great discussions.

  5. Good discussion on a relevant topic. This indeed is a lacuna in the PhD evaluation system. Universities may allow half-a-credit course on teaching, including formation of course content, practicals, preparation of lecture and practical materials, interaction with students and evaluation by students and a board of regular teachers. With this, the graduate student shall get some exposure to teaching profession and University shall give a suggestion as a grade so-obtained to future employers.

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