This post was written by Stefanie Becker.
In a recent blog (Zero Sum Game) James asked whether it’s a good idea to tutor during your PhD. Let’s assume that you need to earn some money: Is tutoring the best option? Tutoring is highly paid, and you’ll gain some teaching experience, so you may think that tutoring is the thing to do, especially if you want to apply for a university job later.
Weeell, I must say I disagree: Actually, in my view, tutoring is advisable if you’re NOT striving for a university job. However, if you want to take on a job that promotes your university career, the smartest thing is to get the money in by being a research assistant (RA), and in particular, an RA to a productive researcher. The reason is that the researcher may include you as co-author on his papers if you're doing a good job. And, let's not be mistaken about that, PAPERS ARE EVERYTHING.
If you want to stay at a university, you'll need a strong publication record. Even when you want to be a lecturer, there will be many applications for each lecturer position, and the applicant with the most publications will get the job. Of course, there is some weighting, with first-author publications being rated much higher than co-author publications, publications in peer-reviewed journals being regarded more highly than book chapters, etc., and there will be considerations about the field in which you've published, and possibly, the methods you've used in the past, etc., but the most decisive selection criterion for a university job is "number of publications".
Teaching experience may matter at some later stage in the decision processes of universities, but long long long before that, the university will ask (1) whether you are able to produce high-quality research on your own (hint: always publishing with the same senior person may work against you), (2) whether you are able to attract funding, (3) whether your expertise matches with the department, (4) whether you are easy to work with, and only THEN may somebody ask, "Oh and by the way, what courses have you taught in the past?" General teaching experience may not even count for much, but experience with a specific course may get you some points -- but note that it is VERY improbable that this will make a difference in the selection process, because usually, the differences in the other, more decisive, criteria will already determine the rank of each applicant. If you do need teaching experience, it’s likely that experience from teaching one course or being tutor once is sufficient to fulfill the criteria – so you just need to tutor for a single semester.
If you want to teach (for reasons outlined in the full essay), then my advice would be: Start tutoring when you've got your publication record up to where you want it to be. Warning: If you want to go to Harvard, you should go for 7 or even 8 publications and no less than 4 first-author papers; if you’re targeting one of the top-universities in Australia, you may get in there with significantly less, but to be on the safe side, go for at least 5 publications (3 of which should be first-author publications). You may always get in with less, but if you want to make sure... Well, the competition is fierce and growing fiercer every year. As impossible as the numbers above may sound, the people you’re going to compete with have these numbers of publications, or even more. Check out other PhD students in your field of work! I am always amazed at the achievement levels of current PhD students, and I am always happy that I am not competing with the "new generation", but with a slightly lazier bunch. :-)
On the other hand, there is really no reason to cling to universities or research institutions. Your PhD certificate is like a magic door opener to positions that you have never even dreamed of. With a PhD in Psychology, you are eligible for several high positions in well-known and prestigious organizations and companies. You can be a project manager at Siemens and earn in excess of $90,000 per year instead of the $60,000 the university will pay you. You could be working in quality management and control, consulting, or have a high position in administration; you could be an editor or freelancing journalist for a scientific or not-so-scientific journal -- the possibilities are endless.
So, the good news is: Once you've got your PhD, you've proven yourself to be suitable for almost any job that requires brains. The skills you have acquired during your PhD – making yourself familiar with a new research field and its methods, making logical inferences, deriving or making predictions, testing of a hypothesis, taking a critical stance towards the work of peers and your own, writing research reports, working in a team, dividing tasks among multiple people, and so on and so forth – all these are typical managerial tasks and skills, which are required at various different stages in all large organizations. And, non-university employers will NOT base their decisions about employing you on your publication record. So, if you can conceive of a life outside university, there is no reason to avoid tutoring during your PhD -- unless it keeps you from working in the company or environment you're interested in.
If you can’t imagine doing anything else but hanging around university: Check out some cool companies, write them an email and tell them that you’re going to have a PhD in 2 years, and you’d like to do some voluntary work at a companies’ robotic department, or developing sky cars and jet-packs... because you know? with the PhD, the sky is no limit! ;-)
Editor's note: Are you a postgrad or academic? What do you think about Stef's post? If you'd like to write a reply, please contact Will Harrison.