How To Get All-Important Teaching Experience

July 21, 2000

One thing I created on my résumé was a separate category for what I called "Teaching and Leadership Experiences," because I consider those to be related to one another. I find invariably that I am asked about my teaching skills by industrial interviewers such as large chemical or oil companies, as well as by potential academic employers. I think my teaching experience shows that I am able to communicate.

Kriste Boering, Ph.D. student in chemistry at Stanford University

For graduate students and postdocs interested in academic careers, there are many benefits to acquiring teaching experience before becoming a professor. These include:

  • Confirming in your own mind that teaching is what you really want to do.

  • Helping you prepare for your first teaching assignment as a professor.

  • Giving you a significant leg up on your competition in your search for an academic position (not to mention a source of extra income).

Types of teaching experiences

Teaching assistantships are a good place to start. T.A.'s handle many routine but essential teaching responsibilities, such as preparing problem sessions, writing problem sets and examinations, holding office hours, preparing laboratory experiments, writing up handouts, giving late/early examinations, grading, and answering electronic mail. As a teaching assistant you will begin to experience some of the essential nonlecturing responsibilities that come with being a professor.

The next logical step after serving as a teaching assistant is to start giving guest lectures. To do so, you need only the permission of the professor in charge of the course. One type of guest lecture takes place when you, in effect, substitute for the professor and seek to give, with perhaps some modifications, the lecture the professor would have given.

Another type of guest lecture occurs when you give a presentation on your particular interest or specialty. In this case your talk complements the regular course material. You have greater flexibility in what and how you present your ideas, since you are the expert on the subject. On the other hand, you will probably have to develop your presentation from scratch with little or no help from the instructor.

After you have given a few guest lectures, you might want to step up to teaching longer course segments of a few weeks or more. Look for opportunities to fill in during the scheduled or unscheduled absence of a professor in your department.

Team teaching, in which you share responsibilities with a professor or perhaps another graduate student or postdoc, is yet another possibility. Under these circumstances, you would probably become a paid university employee. This situation is more likely to occur when a new course is being proposed and you and your partner are working together to develop and teach the course. Both of you are likely to be present at all the lectures, although specific duties may be divided along the lines of individual interests and expertise. This approach is a great way to obtain experience both in teaching and in developing a new course, something you will most likely do in your first year or two as a professor.

Teaching a full course entirely on your own is the ultimate preparatory experience. Here, you are the professor, and will be responsible for all aspects of the course. In most cases you will probably be replacing someone who is on leave or otherwise not available. This way the university will not have to create a new slot for you.

Teaching a full course is a very time-consuming activity, so you want to think carefully before making such a commitment. You may want to do it near the end of your graduate-student or postdoc experience. True, this period is also the time when you are most engaged in your research. However, teaching a course while doing research can provide a welcome balance in your life.

The summer may be an easier time than during the traditional academic year to find courses to teach, because fewer regular faculty members are available at that time. This way you don't have to wait until a slot opens up from a professor who might be going on leave. However, teaching summer school is challenging because the courses are faster-paced, resources are tighter, and fewer professors are on campus. In some cases, you may have students who are not part of the regular student body or who are not expecting to work as hard. These are all factors to consider.

By looking outside your graduate institution for teaching experiences, you can expand your options significantly, since the type and number of courses available will be much greater. Teaching at another institution, particularly if it differs from your own, can help you decide if this is a type of college you would be interested in as a professor. This broadens your portfolio of experiences and references, and increases your overall competitiveness for academic positions.

How to find the right teaching opportunities

You have a variety of ways to identify or create teaching opportunities. The most obvious is to simply announce that you want them. Tell as many professors, students, and postdocs as possible. Often faculty members declare that, had they known students wanted to give guest lectures, teach class segments, or even teach a full course, they would have encouraged and supported this desire.

Next, find out what courses are currently being offered and who is doing what you might want to do. By definition, graduate-student and postdoc teaching is temporary, which means that the people now offering such courses will not be doing them one, two, or, at most, three years from now. This is the time to get in line for these opportunities.

Preparing for a successful experience

Obviously you want to do all you can to make your teaching experiences a success for you and your students alike. It is important to remember, however, that nobody gets it completely right the first time, and even the best teachers are always improving.

In preparing your lectures, you need to consider the objectives of your presentation, how they relate to the objectives of the course, and the backgrounds and interests of the students. Your best source of information in this regard is the professor who has taught the course before. Talking to him or her will help you avoid costly mistakes while saving you significant amounts of time.

Getting feedback on your teaching is essential. At most universities, a course evaluation is handed out at the end of the semester, just before the final examination. However, feedback need not take place only then. You can give your class a mid-course evaluation form any time you wish, and thus make changes before the course is over.

Please note that the above list represents a wide range of possibilities. It is very important not to over-commit yourself. If time concerns mean stopping at a teaching assistantship, then do so. If it means giving a few guest lectures rather than a sequence of lectures, or a sequence of lectures instead of a full course, then do so no matter how enticing the more time-consuming opportunity may appear. You want to do something you will be proud of and that can help you as you apply for full-time academic positions.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to

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