#129: 10 excellent ways to get teaching experience

Teaching expertise is necessary when applying for a professorship or any other permanent staff position. Yet how are you going to pick up teaching skills if your current appointment does not include teaching or supervision duties? Here, we suggest 10 ways in which every PhD or postdoc can get into teaching and gradually expand their experience. 

Did you have a PhD education that did not involve teaching or supervision duties? Did you work in a research-only appointment as a postdoc, or have you been employed in research facilities or institutes where teaching wasn’t an option? Many early career researchers never had the opportunity to develop teaching skills. That can become problematic when you start to apply for permanent staff positions as a lecturer or professor where teaching experience is often one of the essential requirements for applicants. Without any track record in teaching, chances are scarce that you’ll land a permanent position at a university.

Hiring committees know that someone can’t be expected to take over multiple university courses and deliver first-class teaching without any prior experience. While it is good that there is a focus on teaching quality and experience for incoming staff, the big question is just how you as an early career researcher can develop teaching experience in an institutional environment that does not offer that opportunity for everyone. 

No one can just jump in and start teaching a full university course from scratch. Apart from actual lecturing, it involves many other tasks that have to be learned or trained such as designing the learning goals and curriculum, mastering various pedagogical approaches, setting exams, marking, evaluating your teaching, and corresponding with students, just to mention a few. 

Our advice is to start small and build up gradually as you move through your PhD and postdoc appointments. Luckily there are many ways in which you can get involved in teaching and hone the above-mentioned skills. It needs a bit of strategic thinking on your side and a consistent effort over the years, but don’t worry–you just need to start somewhere. One experience will lead to the next; you’ll gradually become more confident and more proficient and that will help you take on bigger teaching duties with more responsibility. Below we’ve outlined 10 excellent opportunities in which you can start getting teaching experience.

1. Approach your supervisors or mentors

Mention that you’re keen to get started with teaching and that you’re worried a lack of experience might otherwise hamper your chances of getting a staff position later on. Ask if you can volunteer for any activity within their teaching or supervision responsibilities, e.g. Can you co-supervise one of their Master-students or PhD candidates? Can you instruct them on a particular method or how to run an experiment?

2. Ask colleagues

Browse your international network and ask a few colleagues if you can deliver a guest lecture on your field of specialisation for their students. Some might be able to invite you on campus for a seminar or lecture, others might offer for you to speak online.

3. Summer schools

Check professional organisations and PhD programmes in your field to see if they have planned any summer schools. ‘Summer school’ is a broad term describing an extracurricular activity that is scheduled during the term break, often bringing together international staff and students around a certain topic. Ask if you can assist with the activities, with the general organisation, or deliver lessons.

4. Courses during conferences

Specialised short courses are often organised in conjunction with major international conferences– either pre- or post the main event. Browse the announcements of the major international conferences in your discipline. Contact the organisers and ask if any teaching activities are planned in conjunction with these. 

5. Your PhD graduate school or programme

If you’re a postdoc, check back in with the coordinator of your graduate school. You’re likely familiar with the courses that are offered in the programme and the scientists who teach them. Ask if you can help out with any of these. As an alumnus, there’s also the opportunity to be involved or speak at a career event.

6. Organise a workshop

Offer a workshop for students at your current institute or department. Discuss with the teaching coordinator or one of the professors and see if there are any obvious spin-offs from your research that undergrad or grad students would particularly benefit from. If it’s well received, you can repeat the same workshop for the next cohort of students. 

7. Assist professors and teaching staff

Approach professors and staff who do the bulk of regular teaching in the BSc and MSc programmes at your university and see if you can assist to gain experience with the multitude of organisational tasks around a university course. You could help with marking essays or exams, guide tutorials, instruct in the lab, co-teach one or more lectures during the term, help with excursions, and source material for the development of the curriculum. 

8. Host an (online) event

Get together with other ECRs and organise an (online) event together. It can be a mini-seminar series, a virtual workshop, or an introduction to a particular methodology in which you’re an expert. Announce your event on social media and through everyone’s networks for a wider reach.

9. Temporary teaching appointment

Apply for a temporary appointment as an adjunct lecturer or visiting professor. This can be an option to skyrocket your teaching if you’re otherwise ready to apply for a regular lecturer position or professorship (see Perdue 2013). Universities often advertise temporary teaching positions to cover for a permanent staff member who’s on a sabbatical, paternity or sick leave, in a secondment, or simply because they have a momentary shortage of staff to teach all courses offered to students. The appointments are often advertised for an academic year or even just one term, and you’ll be in charge of teaching regular university courses in your discipline. Since this is a teaching-only position, you’ll get bucket loads of experience that can take you from novice to experienced lecturer in a very short time frame. Combine this with a stay abroad and it’ll add to your international profile. 

10. Pedagogical staff training programs

Most universities offer staff training programmes or further education for postdocs or junior faculty. While many programmes focus primarily on pedagogic competencies for university teachers, they will also include a practical component. As part of the programme, you are allocated teaching activities so you can transfer your newly acquired skills to the classroom. Plus the programmes usually hand out a teaching licence or certificate at the end, which comes in handy when you need evidence of ‘pedagogical competencies’ in job applications. 

Document your experiences

As you can see, there are many ways in which you can demonstrate teaching interest throughout your PhD or postdoc years and build up the comprehensive teaching skills you’ll need later on. Here’s one more bit of advice from our side: With everything you do over the years, don’t forget to document it (see Smart Academics Blog post #33: Why a great academic CV is a work-in-progress!). This is extremely important so you can add your experiences to your CV or describe them in your ‘teaching portfolio’ when applying for a staff position. 


More information

Do you want to apply for an academic job? If so, please sign up to receive our free guides.