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Teaching as a PhD Student

10 Mar 2021 1:14 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

As a department chair, I regularly get inquiries from PhD students about opportunities to teach a course in our program. This post is based on the information I give them. While talking about sessional teaching gets into the huge and important structural issue of contingent academic labour that is too complex to address here, I do have some advice on seeking opportunities to teach a course for the first time.

First, understand the value of teaching experience. PhD students are understandably very interested in having experience as a course instructor to increase their competitiveness for academic jobs. This is wise, though be aware that peer-reviewed publications are still the primary coin of the realm, so do not overstate this value in your thinking. But teaching experience can also have value for non-academic jobs, as it builds those ‘transferable skills’ everyone talks about – organizing and managing complex processes, resolving disputes and problems, and so forth.  

Second, do not underestimate the time and energy cost of that experience. Even experienced TAs may be overwhelmed at the demands of being a course instructor for the first time. I advise prospective instructors that teaching pays about 50% more than a teaching assistantship at our university, but is 200% more work. Teaching a course will take up nearly all your time –  time that could be invested in dissertation progress, preparing publications, and other professional and personal goals. These demands can seriously derail momentum toward your longer-term objectives, and so teaching too early is often not in your overall interest.

Third, make sure to learn the local context, particularly relevant collective agreements and other policies and practices. Most contract instructors in Canada are unionized but each collective agreement will be different in language, procedures, deadlines and so on, as will university procedures and practices. Don’t rely on rumour or friends’ experiences elsewhere. Consult the key players – union offices, department chairs and administrators, and others whose job it is to know and follow the local rules. For example, under the Carleton collective agreement, summer instructor positions must be advertised by December 15, and I often have to tell people making initial inquiries in January and February that they are too late. 

Fourth and immediately following the above, understand as much as possible how hiring decisions are made. In a unionized environment seniority will almost always be critical, but with variations. For example, some collective agreements may require first offering courses without advertisement to the most senior person who has taught them before; others will require advertising all courses even if there are one or more likely candidates with seniority. And while transparency is generally desirable, each hiring (and hiring offer) is an individual and confidential personnel decision. 

Finally, do not teach alone. By this, I mean to seek as much advice, mentoring, and support as possible, especially for dealing with sticky student issues. Your support environment will vary and some instructors seem to be inexcusably thrown into the deep end and left to sink or swim. But in most cases the department and others are there to advise and assist you, especially since it’s in their interest to have a well-run course. Ask; don’t assume you have to solve everything yourself.

Make no mistake – teaching is rewarding! But ensure that you understand the complexities of what it involves, and how it fits into your own interests, circumstances, and aspirations. 

About the Authors:

Jonathan Malloy is chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University and co-author with Loleen Berdahl of the bookWork Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, summer 2018).


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