Guidelines for PBGG students interested in teaching careers

In a previous post I presented a proposal for a certificate program, developed by myself and fellow PBGGer Amanda Lavelle, that would serve UC Davis biology grad students interested in teaching careers. After receiving feedback that the certificate program wasn’t tenable, we reworked the program into a set of guidelines, which will be posted on the PBGG website. Here they are:

Guidelines for PBGG students interested in teaching careers

This a series of guidelines for UC Davis PBGG students who are interested in pursuing teaching careers after completing their PhDs. While this is a popular career choice (~20% of our alumni are in positions where teaching in their main function), the coursework and research proscribed by the degree program does not directly prepare students to be successful on this career path*. Therefore, you must undertake significant professional development and training in addition to your degree work. This presents a challenge in balancing career preparation with completing your degree. These guidelines aim to help you do that.

*Efforts are currently underway in the College of Biological Sciences to develop improved training programs for grad students interested in teaching careers, so be sure to keep an eye out for new opportunities.

Work with your PI

Professional development activities, while necessary, can been be seen as a distraction by PIs, so you need to choose and time them wisely – don’t go overboard, particularly early on in your degree program. Remember that while developing yourself as a teaching professional is critical for getting a job, you will also need both a completed degree and a letter of recommendation from your PI.

Years 2-3

Your focus during this period should be on passing your qualifying exam and getting your research projects off to a strong start. It is not recommended to do a lot of professional development during this period, as it will distract from research and passing your QE. However, this is a good time to answer the question “is teaching a career path I’m interested in?”

Recommended activities:

  1. Work as a TA at least once. Ideally, this should be a lab or discussion section, where you’re independently leading students. Afterwards, reflect on the experience by thinking about what you enjoyed and disliked about it. You should also fill out the Teaching Reflection Document.
  2. Do informational interviews with two teaching professionals. These should not be UCD R1 professors. Possibilities include lecturers or course coordinators at UCD, local community college faculty, or PBGG alumni in teaching fields.
  3. Spend some time reading what others have written about college teaching careers. Some suggestions:
    1. Building a Career in America’s Community Colleges,” by Ken Jenkins
    2. The Small Pond Science blog, written by CSU Dominguez Hills professor Terry McGlynn
    3. The Prospective Prof blog, written by PBGGer Geoff Benn

Years 4-5

During this period, you should hopefully have identified the projects that will turn into your dissertation. Make sure you don’t lose focus on these projects and keep them moving forward. At this point, you’ve decided that teaching is a career path that you want to follow, so you’ll need to start prioritizing some time for building your qualifications. This time will come from being judicious about taking on side projects in lab and also from personal time (nights and weekends). Your main goal during this period is building up teaching experience as a TA, as well as building your knowledge of evidence-based effective teaching practices. The goal of this is to enable you to effectively compete for a non-TA teaching position (see Years 6-7).

Recommended activities:

  1. Work as a TA at least 3 more times, ideally in 2 different classes. Have your teaching observed by a teaching professional (i.e. CETL or course coordinator). After each quarter, fill out the Teaching Reflection Document. Revisit that document before you TA again, and make adjustments accordingly. Interviewers will want to see that you are critical of your own teaching and actively work to improve.
  2. Consider doing some informal teaching research. If you have 2 sections of a class, try implementing a different teaching strategy in each section (make sure this is okay with the supervising coordinator or professor). This could done for the whole quarter, or just for a particular lesson. Informal teaching research is a great opportunity to try out strategies you’ve learned about from teaching workshops or reading education literature. Additionally, experience with informal teaching research is something that people hiring education research postdocs often look for.
  3. Learn about current evidence-based best practices in college teaching. There are a lot of resources for this, so be careful to not take too much time away from research. A good approach might be one larger commitment per year (i.e. multi-day workshop or full course) and one smaller commitment per quarter (i.e. reading a book or journal articles). Recommended options:
    1. Workshops offered at UC Davis. CETL offers a variety of workshops on modern pedagogical methods, for example an excellent workshop offered in summer 2014 was “A Learner-Centered Approach to Effective Teaching.”
    2. UC Davis courses on college teaching – for example the Seminar on College Teaching or MCB390.
    3. Online courses on evidence-based teaching. For example this Coursera course, offered by the CIRTL consortium, “An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching.”
    4. Books on best-practices in college teaching. One in particular that I recommend is “What the Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain.
    5. Explore the primary literature on college STEM teaching. A good place to start might be CBE-LSE, a journal that focuses on research into college biology education.
  4. Decide which sub-areas of college teaching (i.e. community college, liberal arts college, CSU, teaching research) you are most interested in pursuing. Learn about the particular requirements of hiring committees in those sub-areas.
    1. Targeted informational interviews with people in particular sub-areas of interest.
    2. Attend workshops from the career center on preparing for academic careers. At this point, it would be particularly useful to attend a panel discussion between professors at different types of institution (the UCD career center does this a couple of times a year).
    3. Go onto teaching job posting boards (i.e. Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed) and read through some job postings. Note any common requirements in which you are deficient. Develop a plan to fix those deficiencies.
  5. Look at the options for non-TA teaching experiences (next section) and decide which to apply for. Check the application deadlines – you may need to apply during your 5th year to participate in programs as a 6th

Years 5-7

At this point, you should be wrapping up your research and preparing to write your dissertation. Your main goal for professional development during this period is to obtain significant non-TA experience that is relevant for your specific career goals. Towards the end of your Ph.D, you will of course need to actually apply for the teaching positions that you’ve worked so hard to prepare for. Remember that applications for most positions are due 6-9 months before the start date, so be sure to start looking early!

How you prioritize your professional development during this period depends on the type of position in which you are most interested. Here are some suggestion about priorities for different career paths:

Community College Professor (tenure track):

  • Significant experience as an instructor of record (i.e. as an adjunct or associate instructor)
  • Ability and willingness to teach general introductory biology, especially to non-majors, in addition to teaching more specialized courses
  • Experience working with students with diverse educational needs and backgrounds
  • A strong research publication record is not required

Recommendations: Getting experience as an instructor at a community college is the priority here. A good option is completing the Faculty Diversity Internship (FDIP) program at the Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento. This program can easily lead to a position as an adjunct assistant professor at one of the Los Rios Colleges – a key step to getting a full time position.

Tenure track teaching-focused position at a liberal arts college or state university:

  • Strong research publication record
  • Depending on the institution, a research post-doc may be required
  • Willingness and ability to start a research program that will cater to undergraduate research. The intensity of this research program will vary widely from institution to institution.
  • Experience as an instructor of record (i.e. as an adjunct or associate instructor) is beneficial, but may or may not be required, depending on the position

Recommendations: these positions balance research and teaching, so you need to prove your competence and enthusiasm for both areas. This might be done via a participating in teaching training and mentorship opportunities while completing your degree and doing a traditional research post-doc. The UCD Professors for the Future program is a good option. For an example of this career path, see my interview with Dr. Christine Palmer.

Education Research Post-doc:

  • Experience as an instructor (i.e. as an adjunct or associate instructor) of record is highly beneficial
  • Experience with informal education research is beneficial
  • Strong research publication record is important

Recommendations: These positions are a pathway to a careers in biology education research or potentially academic administrative roles. According to PBGG alum Dr. Lisa Corwin: “If you like doing ‘research,’ but care more about your students than your model organism, bio-ed research might be for you.” You should read widely in the bio-ed literature to see which type of research seems most appealing and also watch the SABER job boards for descriptions of positions. For more information, see my interview with Dr. Corwin.

Other positions in undergraduate biology education:

There are a variety of other education related positions available at Universities including:

  • Lecturer (these positions vary in responsibilities and could include teaching large enrollment courses, developing new courses, helping faculty implement new teaching methods, or conducting education research.)
  • Course/Lab Coordinator
  • Administrator of programs for undergraduates (i.e. advising, fellowships, training programs etc)

Recommendations: This positions vary in their responsibilities, so the ideal career preparation for each will also vary. However, significant experience as an instructor (i.e. as an adjunct or associate instructor) will be highly beneficial as will strong organizational skills and demonstrated experience with evidence-based teaching methodologies.

Applying for jobs:

Prepare for and apply for jobs (finally!). The popularity of teaching as a career and the large number of biology PhDs that are being produced means that the job market is quite competitive. This means that it may difficult for you to land a full-time tenure-track position straight out of your PhD. You will likely need to spend several years after you graduate building your experience and credentials as an adjunct professor (possibly at several institutions simultaneously), traditional research post-doc, or as a teaching research post-doc. Here are some steps you should take:

  1. Set up email alerts on the major higher education job websites – Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. If there are particular geographic areas you are interested in, you may want to set up alerts on a general job website, such as Indeed. If you are interested in teaching research post-doc positions, set up an email alert through SABER.
  2. Write your statement of teaching philosophy and diversity statement. CETL and the career center have regular workshops on both of these topics. Have your statements reviewed by current teaching faculty.
  3. Create a teaching portfolio. This will consist of the teaching philosophy and diversity statements, a list of all your teaching experience, documentation of training, sample teaching materials, and sample student reviews. Some positions will require submission of the portfolio, but all will require that you at least talk about everything in the portfolio, so it’s worthwhile to put together.

Good luck and please leave a comment if you have any suggestions or recommendations for other resources.




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