How important is teaching vs research?
Landing that dream academic job can feel like a total impossibility. One would have to be superhuman to satisfy the extensive list of requirements—publish in top journals, mentor, teach, review, collaborate, travel, show focus, show breadth, etc.. In reality, probably no one ever satisfies the whole list, and decisions are end up being based on who best satisfies the most important requirements. So which are most important? This is usually the million dollar question, as it often is unclear and ends up being called the elusive ‘fit’ criteria. But, a relevant question I often get asked is whether excelling in research outweighs teaching requirements.
In most cases, research excellence will outweigh the need for teaching experience. But, this will often depend a lot on the specifics of the job. It is highly unlikely that anyone will get a position at a teaching-focussed institution without being able to clearly demonstrate prior teaching experience. The need for teaching experience gets a bit more murky at universities with a stronger research focus. Even though such institutions still require delivering a top-class education to students, their performance metrics are often strongly aligned with research outputs and bringing in external research grants. From what I’ve seen with colleagues around me, it is generally critical to demonstrate a high level of research excellence, which often includes a strong track record in bringing in research grants.
The best evidence I have for teaching experience being weighed less is that the applications for many positions now require a teaching demo. This is probably because teaching quality is relatively difficult to measure, and experience doesn’t always equate to quality. Such teaching demos then mean that all applicants therefore have equal opportunity to demonstrate their prowess in delivering content to students.
What can I do if I have no teaching opportunities?
Not everyone has the opportunity to engage with teaching. PhD students in many European countries do not contribute to teaching, nor will postdocs in research-only institutions or those on short-term contracts. A lack of opportunity can make it seem like a real challenge when targeting the academic job market. It is hard to give concrete advice on exactly what to do in a situation where no opportunities exist, but it does seem that most selection committees (at least those at universities one would want to go to) should take opportunity into account. The trick here is to try and demonstrate making the most of what opportunity is available (note that I would say that this holds true across all areas of a job application).
Some opportunities might not be immediately obvious. For example, in many countries, universities offer courses in academic teaching, and these can be a requirement before taking up a position (or being promoted to a permanent position that involves teaching). Taking these courses, or at least some of the taught modules, can demonstrate a willingness to engage with teaching that can be used when addressing teaching criteria on job applications. Further, as researchers we often develop some unique skills—coding, statistics, meta-analyses, et cetera. Try to identify opportunities to share these with others in a more-structured way. For example, many PhD programmes offer courses to students, and postdocs can make a huge contribution to these courses. While doing so might not provide the necessary documents to fulfil formal teaching requirements, it still provides something to write, something to reflect about in a teaching statement, and demonstrate pro-activeness.
What can one do when faced with having to write a teaching statement in the absence of any experience? First, it helps to outline why this gap exists in the CV (but won’t help to dwell on this too much). Second, what might help is to reflect on prior experience as a student and/or mentor, and to outline how that experience might shape the philosophy you might bring to your own teaching. What did work and didn’t work, and how might this knowledge be useful for ensuring students will have a good experience in the courses you deliver? Finally, reading up on pedagogical approaches can provide some evidence that the criteria have been taken seriously, and that a lack of experience stems from having had no opportunity as opposed to complacency.
The question of teaching experience in job applications is clearly very difficult. In some cases it’s critical, and in others less so. It is also sometimes difficult to predict where and when it will be important. One thing to remember is that many different types of academics get jobs, and often it comes down to the fit. For example, while one might not have formal teaching experience, it could be that the teaching that a department needs is exactly in one’s core research area. In any application, it is critical to have a clear focus on the strength and vision. Even in the absence of formal teaching opportunity, an application that demonstrates proactivity—for example giving unofficial courses to other graduate students—can help with giving quantifiable evidence of commitment. A teaching perspective can also build on other opportunities, such as using mentorship experience to highlight insights gained about transferring knowledge to others. Finally, careful preparation of the application can go a very long way. Such preparation should include considering what new directions can be contributed to the teaching that already exists in the department.
Of course, all of what I’ve noted here varies substantially from to country to country. When preparing your application materials, it might be worthwhile asking people who might have prior experience sitting on a panel to review your CV.