Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A reply to a reply to the zero sum game: Should PhD students tutor?

A couple of people have asked me what I thought about Stefanie's comments about tutoring.

I think she makes a good argument for the benefits of having a strong publication record. She is correct in saying that it is very difficult to get short-listed for a job without a strong track record. And I would certainly agree with her central premise that any time spent away from publishing might not be helping you get a job, but only if you are aiming to create your own job through applying for a competitive postdoc or if you are applying for a research only position.

Given, however, that the majority of positions that are advertised are teaching and research oriented positions, then I would argue that tutoring and perhaps teaching a course or two can be valuable experiences during your PhD. I have been on several selection panels for teaching and research positions, and candidates who have had amazing publication track records have not been short-listed, or not been successful at interview because they were not able to demonstrate an ability to teach the required courses.

It is also worth keeping in mind that if you are looking at jobs within Australia, there are many more positions outside of the GO8 universities than there are within the group of top tier universities. Most of our graduates aspire to work at research intensive institutions, however by not looking for opportunities more widely, graduates may miss out on some interesting and enriching jobs. Many of the lower ranked universities now have extensive research aspirations, however when recruiting new teaching and research staff, especially for entry-level positions, they place a strong emphasis on demonstrated teaching ability.

Graduates may be reluctant to apply for these positions due to a fear of having a high teaching load, however, with some planning and negotiation, it is possible to strike a balance between teaching and research. One of the great benefits of working at universities with a different culture is that recent graduates are given a great opportunity to grow both personally and professionally.

There are two other benefits of teaching that I think can sometimes be overlooked. First of all is that I don't think you truly come to grips with a research area until you have to stand up and explain it to a room full of people. It is a great way to learn more about areas of psychology that may be related to your research. Many of my research ideas have come from having to teach courses in psychology and law and social cognition. The regularity of teaching also trains you to become more disciplined in how you research topics, as you have to manage your time carefully.

The second benefit, as I see it, is that teaching gives you a chance to actually talk to students. It is by spending time with students and engaging them in the areas of research that you are an expert in that you interest them in psychology, and perhaps even your area of specialisation. I know that I would not have been successful in recruiting some of my early students if I hadn't done some teaching at the end of my PhD.

Now, all this is not to say that research is not important, quite the opposite. You have to strike a careful balance between publishing and teaching, and so my point is that you should do both. It is very easy to think that teaching is not important or valued, even after you get a teaching and research position. I think this is partly due to the mixed messages academics sometimes receive. Universities don't run as a monolithic organisation (despite how it seems), and the research goals and teaching goals are managed by somewhat separate parts of the university. Not only that, external pressures operate on these two goals at different times.

There has been a lot of noise lately in Australia about the ERA, which is the research quality assessment framework by which universities will be compared. This has generated a lot of focus on research productivity. There are however, major changes coming in how universities are evaluated and compared in terms of their teaching quality, and so we should all expect there to be a greater focus on this shortly. Not only that, but there is a growing awareness that teaching quality impacts directly on student outcomes such as attrition (which is a very expensive problem for universities), as well as demand for courses. And let's be completely honest here, it is through undergraduate students wanting to take our courses that we can afford to spend time on research.

So in sum, you should think about teaching and research as being inter-twined rather than separable. Doing each of them well enhances your ability to do the other. Excellent research attracts students, both at the individual and institutional level. Excellent teaching attracts research students at both levels as well.

(I wrote this at the start of UQ's Teaching and Learning Week, during which it was announced that UQ had won the maximum number of national teaching awards possible…)

Dr Blake McKimmie

Note: While I am the Deputy Head of School (Teaching and Learning), these comments reflect my own personal views on the matter!

No comments:

Post a Comment