I have often heard that graduate students should reduce their teaching obligations as much as possible and focus solely on research. I think this is a mistake that diminishes the graduate school experience. Rather than detracting from my research, teaching has contributed to my PhD training and future career by making me a better researcher and a better scientist. Here are five ways that teaching has been shown to actually make you a better graduate student.
1. STEM students make better hypotheses and experiments to test them
Evidence shows that by doing BOTH teaching and research, your ability to come up with testable hypotheses and your experimental design quality improves (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/1037.abstract). My personal experience with being a teaching assistant in graduate school supports this as well. A big part of the classes I TA’d for was reading published papers in the field, and deconstructing their hypotheses and experimental designs. Looking for the good and the bad in published work, and working with undergrads to explain fundamental concepts in the field really helped me piece together my own research.
2. Teach it, remember it.
There is a continued shift toward “active learning,” because it has been shown to improve long term retention of knowledge. Especially in biology, tools and plans to do this are laid out in the Vision and Change for Undergraduate Biology Education (http://visionandchange.org/). If information retention improves for the students taking the class, imagine how much it improves for you as the teacher presenting the information! As an undergraduate, I used to have trouble remembering all of the assumptions of the Hardy Weinberg equation. My 1st year of graduate school I gave a lecture to the introductory evolutionary biology course on the topic, and now I think I may never forget them as long as I live.
3. Channel your inner professor
Teaching is a fantastic way for graduate students to gain confidence in their knowledge. Let’s face it. Graduate school is NOT good for the ego. At the start of graduate school an article entitled, “The importance of stupidity in scientific research,” by Martin Schwarz was included in my orientation packet. But… if you think that you don’t know anything (and, frankly, you don’t), then just imagine how little your undergraduate students know! You’ll gain a deeper understanding through teaching, but you will also gain some much needed confidence in yourself as a scientist. Developing your self-image as a professional scientist is part of graduate school, and teaching can help fast forward this process along. Just ask Denise Kendall, who in a letter to the editor of CB – Life Science Education argues that departments can foster professional identities in graduate students through teaching gigs (http://www.lifescied.org/content/12/3/316.full).
4. Get a mentor, be a mentor
Mentorship is such a large part of the academic experience and is crucial to career success. Yet defining good or great mentorship is often nebulous or assumed to be a matter of personal chemistry. Like most, my ideas of mentorship have been broadly shaped by experiences of being mentored and mentoring students, but I have also strived to draw from research on mentorship. Rather than a rigid, hierarchical relationship, I aim to use the “Friendship Model” of mentorship (Buell 2004). This model places the mentor and mentee as peers rather than in a hierarchy. The focus is on a collaborative, co-constructed relationship based on mutual respect. The learning process can be reciprocal, rather than just top-down. By teaching, you can become a mentor to undergraduates that in just a couple of years may be a graduate student working right along side you. You also have opportunity to observe faculty as they teach, and learn many soft skills in academia – like time management, conflict resolution (have you ever had to deal with a premed student that just received an A minus? yikes!), and the art of lecturing.
5. Stress yourself, and grow from it.
Teaching, especially for beginners, can be very taxing. I spent about 16 hours preparing for my first 50 minute lecture to an undergraduate class. At the end of the day, it wasn’t even all that great either. I thought at the time, it was a huge amount of stress to add to my already full plate. But not all stress is bad. This was a positive stress that made me think deeply, organize my thoughts, organize my desk, and read extensively on a topic. These are were all skills I took with me, and developed further and further. Ok, to be fair my desk is still a mess. But I use the stress of teaching to my advantage. The fear of standing up in front of a room full of people is motivation to get yourself in gear. For my part, I found that once I was in that gear, it was easier to keep going and get to work on other things as well.