Scrabble letters spelling the word teach.

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, like, 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 we could improve for PG students. There’s a conversation we need to have as a 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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