May 29, 2018 | Atlanta, GA
There seems to be a stigma associated with grad school, especially in the STEM fields. Before I continue, I do give the disclaimer that this is in my personal opinion, and perhaps is even self-imposed. But in my first year in grad school, I have witnessed the development of a hierarchy amongst students, based on funding. We all chase after money. Every lab is after that one grant that will fund the best research project, and as a student, joining a grant means the world. You are a part of that research and the feeling of success that comes with it. After all, the stereotypical thing to do after completing a PhD is to go into research. If you get on a grant early, it feels as though you are doing something right; you were able to make it this far, and are clearly doing something right.
Well, in the first year of my program, I did not have that opportunity. I had to earn my stay here at Georgia Tech through teaching, and I’m here to argue that it is not nearly as bad as it may seem. Yes, it takes an insane amount of time. Grading is tedious, and students will drive you up a wall. Teaching may even conflict with classes for the first couple of years, making it seemingly difficult to stay on track for qualifying exams and other looming deadlines. It’s okay though. Teaching has its benefits, and can be just as rewarding as working on a funded project. With that in mind, I’d like to share my three biggest takeaways from teaching which I learned this past year.
First, teaching is not a waste of time- it’s a sneaky way to review. While it does take up many hours a week that could be devoted to studying for classes, writing that paper, or general thesis work, teaching is actually a great way to review basic material for the qualifying exam. In my first year, I have taught an ecology lab, and introductory biology lab, and a course in biostatistics. While I studied all of these topics during my undergraduate education, it takes a greater understanding of the material in order to teach it. It is a great review of basic concepts that may have been forgotten. In addition, classes are taught differently at different schools, making it an opportunity to learn new material that may be unfamiliar. There are hidden gems of information that come with teaching a course.
Second, teaching is a huge exercise in time management. On a small scale, you have to be able to organize lectures and activities in the classroom for the entire period. It is not particularly easy to keep a large group of people on task for an extended period. On a larger scale, you yourself learn to balance your teaching obligations with your studies. It’s not easy, but it’s also not impossible. Many people have done it before, and many people will continue to do it afterwards. It just takes time and some prioritization.
Finally, teaching enhances communication. Not only is it a great place to make connections for future potential collaborations, it tests your ability to communicate scientific ideas to different people. It is a chance to see how well you can explain difficult concepts to people who may not have any idea (or even worse, any interest) in what you are talking about. It hones your ability to keep an audience engaged and listening. While research is a huge component in the scientific field, it is not the only one. What is the point of discovering all of this new information, if we cannot communicate our ideas effectively? The classroom is a small scale arena where the goal is to communicate one idea with as many people as possible as quickly and effectively as possible.
While I may not have found my “diamond in the rough” grant in the first year of my PhD, I found something better. Teaching is rewarding within itself. You can interact with so many more people on a daily basis, and it is heart-warming to watch your students improve throughout the semester. There are so many opportunities to better yourself, and hone other skills in the process, while playing with ideas that eventually will earn you that grant. It’s a lot of work, but hey- it’s grad school. That’s what I signed up for, wasn’t it?