Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reply to the Zero Sum Game: Should PhD students tutor?

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.


  1. I think how much teaching you need depends on the position and the institution you are applying to. Some universities have a clear research focus and a strong postgraduate program, but there are plenty of more undergraduate-focused universities that would prefer someone with lots of good teaching experience over someone with lots of publications and little or no teaching experience.

    On the same note, I've been a student rep on UQ hiring committees that rejected applications outright if they didn't have much teaching. I've also seen well-published and grant-established folks get rejected because their area of expertise wasn't quite what they were looking for. In the first round.

    The message here is that papers are important, particularly if you want to be a researcher in a research-focused institution. But they aren't everything.

    And while there are lots of positions outside academia for folks with PhDs, just because you have one doesn't mean you can slide right into any job you like - potential employers won't care if you've published/tutored but don't have the skills they need.

    I've lost count of how many science PhD students I talk to every year who think they can finish their PhDs and then become a science writer/journalist. It's not that easy.

  2. I think it’s great that we’re generating so much discussion, especially between the students and faculty, but I feel that I need to provide a slightly different perspective here. While I agree with Stef’s argument that more publications are generally better than fewer, Mel also raises a very valid point in that publications aren’t everything.

    Using Stef’s criteria, I’m in the perfect position to describe what it takes. I’ve just finished my PhD, and during the time I was enrolled I published 7 journal articles (5 first-author), 5 full conference papers (2 first-author), and 29 conference abstracts (19 first-author). Between them, they’ve picked up a few Best Paper/Abstract awards and nominations. (And unfortunately no, the dream jobs don’t automatically land at my feet.)

    My publications, however, have come at the cost of many sacrifices, and while I don’t regret any of it (except for having no tutoring experience), I wouldn’t necessarily choose to repeat the experience.

    With respect to the “7 or even 8 publications and no less than 4 first-author papers” statement about Harvard, a cursory glance of their psychology department website reveals three faculty members with the rank of Assistant Professor (equivalent to Level B / Lecturer) that I'll assume are tenure-track. According to their CVs, Alvarez had 4 first-authored journal articles and 2 co-authored; Greene had 3 first-authored; and Xu had 2 first-authored and 1 co-authored articles published during their PhDs. While they were prolific publishers during their post-docs, that’s not what we’re discussing here. Also, don’t forget that North American PhDs are typically 5 years in duration, in contrast to our 3 - 3.5 years of funding.

    I think the more pertinent question is this: after 4 years of hard work in undergrad to make it into the PhD program, and another 3.5 years of gut busting to publish like crazy, what happens when you land the coveted tenure-track position at a top-tier university? You get spend another 6 years on the tenure track, where you are put through a pressure cooker and expected to publish, teach, mentor, and conduct research at a world class level. What about having a life in the mean time?

    Perhaps it’s related to the Gen Y shift in workplace attitudes, but I’ve been increasingly noticing that my colleagues and I are no longer happy with settling down with just a “good” job. We don’t want to become the boring, out-of-touch professor stereotype. We want to have a great work/life balance between world-class research and rich social lives with plenty of travel. We want to be inspiring teachers and mentors for the next generation of students. We want to communicate the importance of and our enthusiasm for our work to the wider community – and be respected for it.

    Is there honestly any better time to explore and pursue all of these goals simultaneously than as a twenty-something PhD student, where we have enough training to make a real contribution, yet we are still young enough to have few responsibilities and plenty of opportunities?

    In my opinion, stress and scare tactics won't result in happy, productive, and creative students. For me, scientific publishing is a really enjoyable experience of communicating the fruits of my labour with my colleagues and other established researchers. It was never a direct goal of mine to get a large publication count (fact: I had almost zero publications two years into my PhD), but once it became a fun part of my research lifestyle the manuscripts almost magically appeared.

    In the mean time, I hope that my fellow students can enjoy what my two (super successful) professors call the “best years of your life”.

  3. Well said Dave, I couldn't agree more.

    Stef: if you're going for a postdoc after your Ph.D. rather than a faculty appointment, it is more important what's in the papers than how many there are. There should be a couple of papers, but quantity doesn't have to be the focus. It's far more important that the person giving you the job believes you will bring relevant skills to their lab (including the skill to publish, but this isn't the only thing).

    When planning for life after a PhD, you should be thinking about the new skills you want to learn and the new research you want to do. This helps decide who you end up applying to work for (not what institution you want to be at). As Dave points out, papers will come as the product of an interest in research.

  4. A few other points about the hiring process, particularly since Harvard was mentioned repeatedly. Both Alvarez and Xu worked for years in the Harvard lab. They were well known by the people doing the hiring, who also would have written rec letters for both of them. The one thing that is not mentioned in any of the preceding discussion is the letters of recommendation, which in the US, can be even more important than a publication list. I had 4 papers published when I was hired at MIT. That was after 8 years of grad school, and 5 years of postdoctoral experience. This is extremely atypical, I admit, but it was the content of the papers, and my letters that got me the job. Dave's point is spot on: focus on the ideas and the work, and the papers will come. If they don't, then it's not the right job for you whether you want it or not. The point of science is the science, not the job. The job comes if you do enough good science, or some really excellent science. That said, it is critical that people get to know you and your work; don't under-estimate the importance of impressions at conferences!

  5. From the original author who caused so many misunderstandings:

    Thanks a lot for the comments: I basically agree with all of them. Mel is of course right that there are teaching-focused institutions where teaching experience is important, and Tom and Bart are of course correct that for a post-doc position, it’s more important that you’ve worked on the topics of your employer (and published, preferably, because anybody can claim to have worked on that problem).

    These are important qualifications and corrections: When I wrote the blog, my focus was more on researchers, but I didn’t specify that; i.e. IF you want to be a researcher at a good university (and you have to earn some money during your PhD), is tutoring advisable? If you listen to PhD students at UQ, you invariably get the impression that tutoring is the best option, or even the only sensible thing to do. This wide-spread opinion is, I think, responsible for the fact that it takes UQ’s PhD students longest to complete their PhDs (definitely in Australia, but I suspect this could be a world-wide record – ok, don’t take that serious, just kidding).

    Moreover, thanks to the comments, we have gained some clarity about what you need in order to get a post-doc position: Post-doc positions are actually not THAT difficult to get, and I am sorry if my comments misled you there. Rather than the post-doc positions, it’s the tenure track positions, promotions, and especially getting National and International research grants that heavily depend on your publication record. And I suspect that someone who wants to have a career as a researcher doesn’t want to hang around on post-doc positions for too long. Even in getting a post-doc position, the publication record could count for something, I think, because a good publication record immediately signals that you’re capable of producing high-quality research, probably even on your own… so if you get the position, it’s a bit less likely that you spend your years there as a an RA. So, in sum, it is certainly correct that other things, like letters of recommendation, etc. can be more important in getting a post-doc position than publication record: But publications become extremely important afterwards.

    And I would like to point out that I’m not trying to scare anybody with these comments or prevent anybody from having a life. As outlined above, the blog was intended to correct a wrong belief, i.e., the belief that tutoring is IMPORTANT for your career as a researcher/lecturer at a research institution – MORE IMPORTANT than doing research and publishing papers.
    This belief is totally and utterly WRONG… and that’s basically, really all I wanted to say.