First, I want to explain why I believe that teaching has an essential place in academia and why we should work towards acquiring this essential skill. Teaching plays a key role in opening the minds of the next generation. It represents the means by which we can connect to students and inspire them. It is a way by which we engrain curiosity and passion for science on those who have not been yet exposed. As a result, we can contribute to producing more professional and more critical people, and, we can hope to recruit future scientists.
Teaching can be very time consuming, but the best time to gain this experience is during your postgraduate studies, either during your masters or your doctorate. Sometimes you will find this goal difficult. Your home university (and perhaps you) will see teaching as a distraction from the main goal of the academic program: getting your degree. But believe me, if anything, teaching while doing research enhances your time-management skills and reinforces your own knowledge and understanding. I started gaining these skills during my masters, working as a teaching assistant. Then, during my PhD, I also worked as a teaching associate (a higher level since I already had teaching experience) for three years as means to finance my studies. Both experiences have been of great value for my career development.
There are different ways you can get teaching experience. The first and most common one is by being a teaching assistant. This offer a great variety of course topics and formats. For example, you can be involved in lectures, seminar, and labs (among others). You can also participate in basic or upper level courses. I myself, for example, worked in introductory courses taught for students from all the university and in upper level courses that were part of the curriculum for Biology students. This gave me a sense of the difference in structure, depth of knowledge and types of activities that suit each course. I also learned how the responsibilities vary from one course to another, and between universities. Most of the time you will be required to grade student work – be it exams, essays, or lab reports. But you may also be more involved in course development and will be required to help propose new activities or improve current ones. My advice is to not specialize in a single course. Try to work in a diverse set of courses that will offer you a good combination of experience and self-enjoyment.
After I graduated, I also worked as a lecturer at UCLA. I was given the opportunity to teach an upper level course in Animal Behavior for 60 undergraduate students in a lecture format. It was challenging and rewarding. I had to prepare the course from scratch, so I had the opportunity to learn how to set up course objectives, build a syllabus, plan activities, supervise teaching assistants, prepare and deliver lectures, and prepare exams. Lecturing is very different to assisting. Delivering a presentation of 50 minutes can be nerve-wracking. However, here, your skills in giving talks are important: speak confidently and make sure you time your lecture as this shows respect for your students. As in any talk, it is frequent that we try to pack in too much material in a single lecture or that we speak too fast. I recommend practicing before delivering your lecture, you may probably want to write out your lecture, but don’t make the mistake to read it as if it were a script.
In conclusion, try to start getting teaching experience as soon as possible. Enjoy it, and learn not only from the process, but also from the students. Their understanding and feedback is the best measure of how well you are doing. But don’t be discouraged if they are too harsh on you. Take what is constructive, learn from the mistakes and keep growing.
Adriana is a Postdoctoral researcher in the Farine lab at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Konstanz, Germany