Post-Graduate Teaching – Good for the Soul?

Karen O’Donnell

I came into my PhD study as a qualified secondary school teacher with a good few years’ experience of teaching Religious Studies, Philosophy, and Ethics to children of varying levels of inclination and ability. In some ways this has been both a blessing and curse when it came to teaching in Higher Education. A blessing in that I knew how to manage a small group of students and I knew that I could teach. I will never forget the fear I faced the very first time I stood in front of a group of year 9s to teach ten minutes on the Holocaust with no idea whether what would come out of my mouth would be any good or not!
But it hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition. boylisteningtheatreTeaching small groups of students for just a few weeks at a time is hard. Learning names is difficult in a short space of time and the kind of control I had in a secondary school classroom would be inappropriate in the university setting. Post-graduate teaching itself is not without its problem. Students are paying a considerable sum of money for their degree experience – can we justify allowing post-grads to teach when students are paying for ‘professionals’? Post-graduate students are often not unionised and without representation in larger discussions of teaching in the University. These bigger questions remain part of the reconstruction of the University in the 21st century.

I have to conclude, though, that teaching alongside studying for a PhD is an invaluable experience and one I would recommend for all PhD students.

girlslecturetheatreFirstly, teaching whilst studying is essential if you have any desire to find employment in an academic setting once the PhD is over. Competition for jobs is fierce. The number of people gaining PhDs increases year on year and the number of jobs available is incredibly low. A PhD alone is simply not enough. Publications have always been considered to be essential, but experience of teaching, whether that’s running a few seminars or giving lectures, is increasingly being seen as part of preparation for an academic career. If everyone applying for a job has, at the minimum, a PhD, then it’s everything else that you do that will set you apart.

Secondly, teaching reminds you of the breadth of your subject. As an undergraduate I studied modules from throughout a Religious Studies department (and indeed, in the Politics department). I didn’t know what I liked so I tried everything. As my studies continued I became more and more focused on the one particular area of Theology I wanted to concentrate on. I almost forgot about the other areas within the discipline! Teaching broadens your horizons. In the last eighteen months I’ve taught classes on philosophy of religion, Christian doctrine, and ethics. And whilst my PhD study touches on all of these issues, none of them are exactly what I’m researching. Teaching has required time out from PhD work to read and re-read texts and to plan discussions. I’ve had to think again about topics I’ve not thought about in a decade. It has reminded me of the incredible breadth of learning available in Theology and Religion.


And finally, teaching reminds you why you love your subject. It’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of PhD study and the frustration of research. Teaching reminds you why you began this journey. Faced with new students just beginning on the same road you took, it reminds you what it’s like to try to read Kant or Aquinas for the first time. It reminds you of your own puzzling over what a particular text, biblical or not, might mean. It reminds you of the delight of discovering new modules. It reminds you of the challenges of writing an essay. It reminds you of all the stages in your academic career that have brought you to PhD research. And it reminds you that you do love your subject.

So I would highly recommend post graduate students take every teaching opportunity they are given. Not just for the good of the CV, but for the good of the department, for the good of the students, and for the good of your own research. Being reminded of the breadth of your discipline and of the journey you’ve taken to get where you are rekindles a passion for your subject. And passionate research is surely more fun!

Karen O’Donnell is a PhD student at the University of Exeter, working on a theology of women and Eucharist which uses the insights of trauma theory.