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Career Advice

5 steps to help you become a successful teaching professor

Once a hotly debated position in academe, the teaching-only stream is become more commonplace on campus.

BY SHAWN XIONG | NOV 01 2019

Once a rarity, teaching professors now play a pivotal role in the academic life of our students: teaching a wide variety of classes, advising students, leading course-based research experiences, and serving as deans of colleges, just to name a few. As more universities across North America compete for highly qualified teaching professor candidates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows often feel unprepared and less qualified for the growing teaching job market.

Based on my personal experiences, I’ve compiled some advice for those on the path to a career as a teaching professor. Here are the five steps I recommend.

1. Teach whenever you can. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s actually difficult to fulfill if you are a graduate student or a postdoc, who are tasked to spend almost all their time in the lab. There are two ways to get around it:

  • Build-in program – Many graduate schools and some postdoctoral fellowships specifically engineer teaching as part of the professional development. In such a program, you will naturally be exposed to teaching opportunities; and often this serves as a gateway for teaching orientated trainees to continue on teaching.
  • Hunter-gatherer style – if you are like me, who worked in a research institution, you know teaching is not part of the package. In this way, you, the trainees, have to actively look for available teaching opportunities like hunters and gatherers looking for food. This can be unpleasant at times, because the scarcity of the opportunities and the difficulties of working out a deal with your supervisors (as some supervisors still refuse their trainees professional development opportunities). My deal with my supervisor was that I could assist in teaching (at most) one course per semester; and I would then compensate the hours invested in teaching during my personal times, including nights, weekends and holidays. In this way, I was able to teach continuously from 2014-2018 whilst publishing three first-author papers and two co-author papers, eventually landing an assistant teaching professor job at the Pennsylvania State University without a postdoc experience.

2. Just teaching is not enough, you need to develop a unique teaching style. As you become more experienced in teaching, you should ask yourself: what makes me a unique teacher? This question is essential because:

  • It gives you an opportunity to reflect, grow, and mature as a competent teacher;
  • It’s a question employers often ask you in the form of your teaching philosophy – a.k.a. why should you be hired over many other excellent candidates?

As a senior teaching assistant at the University of Toronto, I became known as the “storytelling dude” because of my implementation of storytelling in science education, which I continue to benefit from. In my most recent annual review, my departmental head, Wendy Hanna-Rose, remarked that my storytelling skills as “both effective and novel at transforming banality into sparks.” Don’t be scared by the word “philosophy”, start drafting your teaching statement today and you will benefit immensely.

3. Engage with your university teaching centre to develop pedagogical competence. This is not a requirement, but an asset. In Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book The coddling of the American mind, the pair expertly explained how good intentions and bad ideas could set up a generation for failure. Teaching can be that kind of “coddling” too. In fact, many pedagogical techniques are controversial, but if used properly, can be extremely effective. For instance, blatant cold-calling is bad; but if students are given time to prepare ahead of time and use the cold-calling as a review technique, studies have shown cold-calling is beneficial to learning.

4. Networking can set you on a straight path. Meeting people in the same teaching circle can help you:

  • Learn more teaching and pedagogical techniques to help you to grow;
  • Advertise yourself to others who might be hiring;
  • Know the trends and needs of the higher education sector so that you can customize your development to meet the demand;
  • Acquire insider knowledge of the teaching positions that have not been wildly publicized.

People get hired all the time through networking, and teaching is no exception. Several of my colleagues are excellent teachers during their PhD or postdoc training; and in the end, they were asked to stay on as teaching professors. Sometimes, by learning the need of a school, you can create a position for yourself.

5. Target your net to the “school of fish” rather than aimlessly spreading your net wide. Despite of the increasing number of teaching professor jobs, the slice of the pie for teaching professors remains at less than five percent in the postsecondary education sector. This means, if you are serious about teaching and you don’t have direct connections through networking, you have to spread your net wide but with a specific aim. When I started job hunting, I was so anxious that I ended up applying for everything, including high schools. Despite the large number of applications, I did not hear anything back. Then, I refined my search to target only public universities with a reputation of teaching excellence, and I got interviews from four out of eight universities I applied to.

Many graduate students and postdocs have concerns about their career path – specifically the increasing number of PhDs and the stagnant number of professorships. The problem is in part due to over-focusing our trainees on the traditional track. Academia in large needs to concede that a PhD in biochemistry can be more than just an excellent biochemist on the bench, they can also benefit the public through teaching, consulting, trading, governing, entrepreneurship, etc.

Shawn Xiong is an assistant teaching professor and departmental advisor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University.

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  1. Helen / November 12, 2019 at 18:46

    It would be interesting to see how implementation of these suggestions works for early career PhDs and those who have spent the entirety of their careers going from contract to contract due to lack of permanent positions.

  2. Helen Miliotis / November 22, 2019 at 11:59

    These are great tips not only for teaching stream job-seekers, but can supplement the applications of all those seeking traditional research/teaching faculty positions as well (especially points 4 and 5).