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!

Why did you get into teaching?

My transition to teaching was motivated by a few factors. First of all, I really enjoyed my TA experience as a Ph.D. student at University of California – Irvine. In particular, I once had the opportunity to TA the discussion sections for computational physics for majors under Prof. Daniel Whiteson. In this position, I had a lot of freedom to design the discussion sections as I saw fit. I also benefited from the fact that this course is actually quite difficult to teach due to the large spread in incoming ability level. I really enjoyed this, and my other teaching experiences.

In fact, as I went along in my Ph.D. I discovered that I enjoyed teaching more than my research. Research was interesting, a wonderful challenge, and I still maintain that there is nowhere in the world quite like CERN as far as environment. However, I found the research experience to be a bit isolating. I enjoy, and thrive on, personal interaction and the research experience, even on a collaboration of 3000 people, did not provide quite enough of that interaction.

The realities of the research/tenure-track life were not appealing. The constant “publish or perish” mentality and the difficulty of finding jobs just really turned me off. Also, my wife and I were looking to only move one or two more times, not the move-after-move-after-move that can, unfortunately, be so characteristic of many post-doc to faculty experiences. This isn’t to say that, as a lecturer, I don’t work hard. The difference is that I find this work “worth” the time I put in whereas I don’t think I liked research enough to put that time in. Sure, lecturing is not a path to riches, but I like the freedom that I feel I have relative to my tenure-track colleagues.

What is a “lecturer” anyway?

A lecturer, sometimes called “teaching faculty” or “professor of practice” is paid to teach, not to do research. If I do research it is for my own interests. In my case, I do research to systematically make my classes better.

What type of career can you make of this?

You won’t be making a ton of cash, but you can live comfortably enough. Some schools, lecturers are treated, frankly, like dirt: year-to-year contracts with minimal benefits and a complete lack of security.

This trend seems to be changing somewhat, however. More institutions are having a defined career path. At UMass-Amherst we get good benefits, some job security after being here for some time and our own promotional chain.

How many positions did you apply for?

In my first round of applications straight out of graduates school, I applied to 8 different positions: one R1 (University of Arizona), two 4-year colleges and some other positions. Arizona was the only offer I received (so luck is still a part of this).

In my second round (when my temporary teaching position at Arizona came to an end), I applied to 11 teaching positions at all different levels and two other jobs. I was accepted for telephone interviews at 5, did campus interviews at 4, and received offers from three: Coastal Carolina, Queensborough Community College, and UMass-Amherst.

What suggestions do you have for getting jobs?

While finding lecturer jobs may be a bit easier than finding tenure track jobs, they still are not super easy to come by. You will definitely have better success if you are willing to look in a broad geographical area. Moreover, the type of position has significant impacts. For pure lecturer jobs, your research record is not really very important. More important is your teaching experience, your teaching philosophy you articulate, and (unfortunately due to how fundamentally flawed they are) your student evaluations if you have them. If you are looking for a faculty job at a teaching-intensive institution, then your research record will matter and I suspect you will probably post-doc at least once first.

Often for purely-teaching careers such as lecturers, you will do a “teaching post-doc” first. This will be a temporary position as a visiting faculty or similar to supplement the usual teaching staff in some way. Here you will get experience before applying for potentially permanent positions.

The Teaching Philosophy

This is a really hard document to write especially your first time! Here are some resources:

What kind of institution do you recommend?

Well, it of course depends upon what you want! There are teaching jobs available all the way from K-12, through community colleges, to the small 4-year teaching focused colleges (which are so prevalent in New England!), all the way to the Research-1 Universities. I don’t really have any direct experience in K12 so I will not talk too much about that (but will try to find a guest poster for the future!).

My experience with community colleges comes from talking to colleagues and from interviewing at a few. Community colleges come with truly unique opportunities to interact with a diverse group of, often highly motivated but potentially under-prepared, students. The courses are small in terms of number of students. you will really have an opportunity to get to know each one of your students. Furthermore, community colleges are often at the committed to effective teaching and can be at the vanguard of implementing research-based teaching techniques. However, the number of courses that you will be expected to teach will typically be larger and the resources will usually be less than at, say, an R1 . This increased course load and reduced resource level will make it difficult if you want to develop a research program in physics education research. The reduced resources typically also means that you may have less access to professional development opportunities to improve your teaching, the likes of which have been instrumental in my career.

My personal experience has been teaching at the big R1 schools: University of Arizona and University of Massachusetts-Amherst. At these schools, you will, in physics, typically be teaching two courses per semester. Although, sometimes lecturers do other jobs as well: run the teaching labs or the demo division. Generally, you will teach one large course and one smaller course. Large courses at these schools really mean large: 300 people at a time or more is completely common. Such large courses can really be a challenge: you need to think about how teaching methods scale to such large numbers, how you will manage the logistics, and the personnel management and training of graduate TAs really becomes a challenge in of itself.

While these institutions often, at least in comparison to smaller schools, have resources you usually have to be… creative. You will never get all the TAs you think you need! Think about ways you can setup systems where you get what you need for “free.” Look for Supplemental Instruction programs. Both Arizona and UMass have such programs where undergraduate students are hired, vetted, paid, and trained by some other unit on campus than your department. They can work in your classroom and provide a valuable resource that is at least free-to-your-department. Look for other resources like these. Another example is the the Introduction to Physics Education Course that I have developed here at UMass. This course is an “everybody wins”: I get the assistants I need to run my team-based-learning course for free, undergraduates who are interested in education get some valuable experience, and I get to put the development of new courses on my CV.

My experience with 4-year institutions is based upon my most recent work with physicists at the other four of the 5-Colleges in our area: Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith. From a resource perspective these colleges seem to be between community colleges and R1’s while having smaller class sizes where you get to know everyone’s name. You are still expected to have a research program, but you are also expected to include many undergraduates in that program.

While I have no evidence to support this supposition, I do suspect that people would find it easier to move R1 -> 4-year -> community college than the other way around.

Congratulations, you now have a position, now what?

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE RESOURCES AVAILABLE TO YOU AT YOUR INSTITUTION!!!

Yes, I know all-caps is yelling on the internet, but this is important! All campuses have centers for teaching, or offices of instruction, or something. These groups offer workshops, journal clubs, discussion groups, and all manner of other resources. Join them. Yes, it takes time, but really not that much and you will learn so much from your peers and they will give you something to put on your resume. Your training (presumably if you are reading this) is in physics – not education. You need to learn how to teach which is just as hard, if not harder, than learning to do physics and you need to do it fast and on-the-job. As you learn new skills, try them out. They will fail the first time you try them. This does not mean the idea is poor any more than an experiment in the physics lab failing on the first attempt means that your ideas are bad. Failure means you just need to try again.

I cannot stress enough how much I have learned from these workshops etc.