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Advice for Ph.D. students interested in transitioning to teaching-based positions

I get the following question fairly regularly, “I am a Ph.D. student interested in pursuing a career that is teaching intensive, either as a lecturer like yourself or as a faculty member at a teaching-intensive institution. How do I do it? What advice do you have?” I am flattered to be asked this question. Below I give my thoughts which are based in my experience. As they say in the TV-ads, “your results may vary.” In fact, the older this post gets, the less valuable/accurate this will probably be!

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Getting rid of the importance of “explaining”

Just like last year, I am currently teaching Physics 691G – Graduate Student Professional Development Seminar. This course has multiple goals that it pursues through the lens of TA training:

  • Making sure our new graduate students are ready for those first few days of TAing
  • Provide an opportunity for new graduate students to reflect on their new identity as they move from students to research colleagues
  • Provide an opportunity to explore the ideas of modern research-based pedagogy
  • Provide an opportunity to explore some professional development skills such as presentation giving which are deeply connected to their experience as TAs

This is quite an ambitious list for a course that meets for one-hour per week and also, by design, tries to keep the outside-of-class workload down (new graduate students are busy after all!). One thing I am noticing in particular this round as I have continued to refine the course is the persistence of the idea that explaining content is a teacher’s number-one job. An idea that is clearly challenged by the modern literature’s focus on the importance of student construction of knowledge.

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Professional Websites as an Assignment

As the new semester starts, I am once again teaching P619G – Graduate Student TA Training and Professional Development Seminar. This course for the professionalization of first-year UMass-Amherst physics graduate students; we strive to give our new graduate students tools such as time management and presentation skills that they can use throughout their careers. To help with more immediate concerns, these skills are taught through the lens of TA training. Presentation skills can easily be taught through the practice of giving mini-lectures in lab sessions, for example. How could these skills be documented by graduate students in a useful way? Could we do something similar for our undergraduate students, who also have a freshman seminar?

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