My own pathway so far
Before delving into some of the results of my Twitter poll, I thought it would be useful to share my own track record and present situation. I’ve always considered myself at a particular disadvantage in terms of planning teaching because I actually have no formal training in biology. I’ve never taken an ornithology, cell biology, conservation biology, or any other typical biology course. Instead, my training was in engineering and computer science, with most of my biological knowledge having come from reading books and papers, watching talks, spending time in nature, and generally being embedded in biology departments from my PhD onwards. However, already in my PhD I was often asked to share some of my technical skills with colleagues, and have run programming courses and so on since then. One of these, my social network analysis course, I’ve offered 2-3 times per year since 2013. In the meantime, I have spent—and continue to spend—the vast majority of my time in research, with positions in a research-only institution (the Max Planck Society) and now having a 5-year research fellowship in a university. Because the director of the Max Planck department I was in also has a university professorship, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to co-teach one undergraduate and one graduate course each year, to which I independently added an additional course on computer programming for biologists. But, while I have something to put down on my CV for teaching, I consider myself far from being an experienced lecturer.
So, how important is this teaching experience?
Given that I haven’t myself sat on a faculty selection panel, and because I’m pretty sure conditions vary from country to country, I wanted to try and gain a broad perspective on this question. So I put up a Twitter poll to ask whether teaching experience is important, not important, or depends on other factors (see the results of the poll, and lots of useful comments, here). The results of this poll were enlightening, but kind of for all the wrong reasons. In short, of nearly 400 votes, 43% answered that yes, teaching is important while 20% answered that it isn’t. This leaves 37% suggesting that the importance of teaching depends on context. This didn’t really answer my question outright, but went a long way to explain why I had always struggled to give a clear response to this question. For example, it was suggested that teaching experience is essential for a professorship in Germany, but also not necessary for a professorship in Germany. Luckily, many people used the opportunity to comment, which was quite revealing.
When is teaching necessary?
Probably the most revealing insight is that many hiring committees will take opportunity into consideration when ranking candidates. For example, more experienced researchers would have greater expectation to satisfy teaching requirements than those earlier in their career. Consequently, teaching experience is likely to be more important for senior appointments (i.e. full professors) than more junior appointments (i.e. tenure-track or assistant professors). It also goes without saying that teaching experience will be substantially more important in more teaching-focused positions, which includes those from less research-focused institutions, as well as positions that specify a greater teaching component (which are also becoming increasingly common in research-focused institutions). Finally, keeping in mind that the academic job market is very tight and highly competitive, it could be that teaching experience ends up being one of the deciding factors in separating to otherwise excellent candidates.
What counts as teaching?
A key question is what counts as teaching experience. On challenge to being able to write out a strong teaching statement, which I thought was interesting to learn, is that not all teaching is considered equal. First, and foremost, ad hoc teaching, such as guest lectures, is rarely considered as effective teaching experience. What is weighted particularly highly is convening and examining courses. That is, actually being in charge of a course is important. Because this is rarely possible before actually becoming a professor, second best to this is to take responsibility for a module (or a somewhat independent section) of a course. Ideally, this will involve a contribution to the examination of that part of the course content.
A second insight, which was also news to me, is that undergraduate teaching is weighted more highly than graduate teaching. In particular, first and second year core modules are the most highly valued. This makes total sense as such modules represent the foundations of a university degree. However, because these modules typically run year after year, there is usually little opportunity for someone on a short-term contract to make meaningful contributions to their content. Thus, having such experience is likely to represent the exception rather than the rule.
Lastly, something else that surprised me is the importance of teaching evaluations. This, of course, makes complete sense as they are best way to show the quality and quantity of teaching that was done. What I also learnt is that it is important for the evaluations to be specific to each person’s teaching as opposed to general evaluations of the course (and all lecturers) overall. Whether that is possible or not will depend on what the university offers. To my knowledge, this wasn’t the case where I was before (nor do they run evaluations for elective courses). In these situations, it can be worth exploring running some evaluations independently.
So far, the main take home message I took from the poll is that teaching is not always critical, even if it is listed as part of the job requirement. However, certain conditions will make it more important–specifically more senior appointments and teaching-focused positions. There is substantial variation across countries, which I interpret a bit in light of differences in the level that permanent positions are appointed (e.g. many European countries appoint permanent positions at the professor level). Regardless, it’s worth making clear the opportunities that were available, as many committees will take this into account. All this sounds great, except that (of course) these requirements are challenging to meet, and almost always have to be accompanied by research excellence. How can we achieve this? In the next post, I’ll discuss the balance between teaching and research, and what to do if no teaching opportunities exist.