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Careers Café

The relative value of teaching experience


Are you going to be teaching this semester? Perhaps you are a graduate student or you have recently earned your PhD but have not secured a tenure-track position. You might be teaching one class as a sessional instructor or a full-load on a contractually limited appointment.

Teaching experience is important to your future academic career.

Teaching is an important skill usually gained through experience, short courses, workshops, self-guided study, and mentorship. An academic career will involve teaching core courses in your discipline and courses in your specialist area. Part-time teaching can provide solid evidence for your application materials and eventual interviews.

That said, sessional teaching is low status work. Having lots of low-status work on your CV doesn’t make you look like a potential tenure-track colleague. So how do you manage this tension?

The more directly relevant to the type of tenure-track job you would like to secure, the better. Experience of teaching core undergraduate courses in a discipline can allay a future hiring committee’s fears that an interdisciplinary scholar will not be able to contribute to the main work of a discipline-based department. It can also situate a narrowly specialized dissertation topic in one of the broader fields of a discipline.

Teaching is only one aspect of your career preparation

Teaching experience will never substitute for timely completion of the dissertation and publications in respected peer reviewed journals. In some institutions, especially research intensive institutions and those with graduate programs, teaching experience is considered in a relatively cursory manner. They may hire people for tenure-track positions who have no teaching experience. Demonstrating that you can teach these core courses is good enough, there is little value in having done so multiple times.

Teaching takes a lot of time: classroom time, preparation time, office hours, dealing with e-mail requests from students, setting and marking assessed work, and administrative duties. You need to manage the time you take for these tasks so that you can also finish your dissertation (if you are still a student), write and submit articles based on your research, and complete other tasks more important to your ability to secure a tenure-track position.

If teaching is an important part of your career, keep in mind that having taught is not evidence of your commitment to high quality teaching. Go beyond the standard student evaluation forms. Find a mentor and have them observe some of your teaching and provide comments. Take relevant workshops offered by the Teaching and Learning Centre. Keep a portfolio demonstrating how you have used the techniques you learned in the workshop and what the impact on student learning was.

Use this support and reflection on your teaching to help you manage the time you devote to different tasks. What does that extra preparation time actually contribute to student learning?

In other words, make sure that the teaching you take on actually gives you useful experience. If the only thing you gain from the work is money to pay the rent, seriously compare the effort:reward ratio to other, non-academic, employment options.

Jo VanEvery is a career coach who specializes in helping academics. Find her at
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