POSTGRADUATE, STUDYING

Life as a PhD student who teaches

Teaching is single-handedly one of the most rewarding and terrifying things I’ve ever done.

Like lots of PhD students, I have had to teach whilst carrying out my studies at university – you might have even been taught by a PhD student and not known it.

For many, teaching experience is vital for continuing with an academic career. For others, it’s a bit of extra money. Whilst, some of us teach as a requirement for thesis funding, others pick up extra hours separately to this.

For all of us though, it’s a big responsibility, and a steep learning curve.

Helping impart new knowledge and understanding, guiding someone through a subject area, grading their assessments and trying to offer feedback to help them improve – this is pretty weighty stuff, especially for people that, often enough, were on the other side of the lecture slides not that long ago.

When I first started teaching I remember distinctly, thinking I’m not ready, I’m not knowledgeable or skilled enough to do the job, and that I was going to mess up somehow. I remember my nerves, my dry throat and my acute awareness of how young I looked at the start of my first seminar as a tutor. Some days I still feel that way, and I imagine, so do many other PhD students teaching for the first time.

But most days, I’m filled with a sense of how lucky I am to have that responsibility. I love my subject. I teach Politics and in our lectures and seminars we get to discuss some of the biggest ideas there are:

  • What does it mean to be free?
  • What is justice?
  • What do we want our society to look like?
  • How do we want society to work and be structured?
  • How do we decide who gets what?

On a personal level, I get to see students thinking through these ideas, developing their knowledge and building their confidence in being able to approach and articulate their own answers. What’s more, it’s a two-way process – I learn and grow in those seminars as well, hearing the different views and understandings and experiences of my students. That’s how education should work – not a top-down process but a collaborative one, where we all learn from one another. To be a small part of that process, where students form their own ideas about right and wrong and what the world should be, is a great privilege.

I still worry that I’m not doing the best I could for my students – I probably always will. I remember the first time I was set marking and agonising over what marks to give, spending hours scrutinising marking criteria and internally debating the difference between a 65 and a 66. But I’ve grown, just as my students have, and learnt important lessons about learning along the way.

When I was an undergrad I’d obsess over the exact mark I got back on an assignment – as the marker now, I realise the feedback and the guidance on how to improve is far more important.

As with anything, there are a few things I think need improving for PG students. There’s a conversation we need to have as a university community about the support, training and recognition we give our postgraduate teachers and early career academics. Addressing these issues could ease some of those fears and early worries I experienced as a new associate lecturer. This should matter to all of us because postgrad teachers are a vital part of our community. Therefore, as a postgrad community, please use your experiences in teaching, grading and giving feedback to help others in similar positions.

It’s a community I feel honoured and privileged to have been a part of, and I’ve loved every minute (except perhaps when I’ve been marking) of my time as an associate lecturer.

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Meet the author

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Bradley Allsop

Final year PhD student studying youth political engagement - interested particularly in British politics and democracy. Keen gamer, hiker and writer.

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