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Teaching as a PhD Student

Written by Ben Taylor

Many PhD students teach during their doctorate as a way of earning money and gaining valuable experience. Some of the main responsibilities for PhD teachers include leading undergraduate seminars, marking assessments and providing laboratory demonstration or supervision.

This page will give you an idea of what to expect from teaching as a PhD student, including details on graduate teaching assistantships and tips to help you make the most of your time as a teacher.

Teaching during a PhD

Teaching during a PhD is an excellent way to expand your horizons as a doctoral candidate, putting your knowledge into practice in a new environment. You’ll be given plenty of training and support, and certainly won’t have to teach anyone until you’re ready.

Most PhD teaching takes place from the second year onwards, so you’ll already have a year of doctoral experience by the time you take on extra responsibilities. These duties as a PhD student teacher will largely depend on your research specialism.

If you’re within an Arts, Humanities or Social Sciences department then you can expect to:

  • Lead undergraduate seminars and tutorials, helping students to analyse and discuss the reading material for that session
  • Set tasks and reading for the following week’s seminar
  • Provide grades and feedback for essays, exams and other assignments

If you’re working in STEM, your teaching responsibilities are more likely to be laboratory-based, demonstrating scientific methods and techniques for undergraduate and Masters students in a supervisory role.

Whatever your specialism, it’s unlikely that you’ll be expected to give any lectures.

PhD student teachers are usually employed on a semesterly basis via fixed-term contracts. However, many universities offer graduate teaching assistantships, which are normally longer term.

Do you have to teach during a PhD?

Most universities in the UK offer opportunities for PhD students to teach, but it’s unlikely that this will form a compulsory part of your doctoral programme. Instead, teaching is viewed as a useful extracurricular activity that gives doctoral candidates an extra string to their bow.

Elsewhere in the world, it’s more likely for PhDs to include a mandatory teaching element, particularly in the USA. PhD candidates are treated as university employees in some countries (the Netherlands, for example), which usually entails some teaching responsibilities.

Graduate teaching assistantships

If you’re passionate about teaching, a graduate teaching assistantship (also known as a PhD teaching assistantship) could be a great extracurricular opportunity during your PhD.

Graduate teaching assistantships (GTAs) are usually more formal and long-term in nature than the semesterly teaching responsibilities offered to PhD students.

GTA status and responsibilities sometimes form part of a student’s overall funding package. Alternatively, teaching assistantships may be offered as competitive schemes or vacancies that you apply to during your PhD. These opportunities can usually be found in the jobs section of your university’s website or by contacting your department.

As part of your GTA contract, there will be a minimum number of hours of teaching that you’re expected to complete each semester / academic year. There may also be some administrative duties for you to fulfil, as well as mandatory pedagogical training sessions.

In return for these extra responsibilities, you’re likely to receive a combination of the following benefits as a graduate teaching assistant:

  • Tuition fee waiver
  • Salary
  • Living stipend
  • Support from a teaching mentor

Applying for a graduate teaching assistantship

The advantages that come with a GTA mean that applications can sometimes be quite competitive. University departments will each have their own requirements and desired qualities for graduate teaching assistants, but these are likely to be among the priorities:

  • Excellent grades at undergraduate and Masters level
  • Research interests that align with the material you’ll be teaching
  • Good communication skills (written, spoken and presentation)

You should treat it like a job application, making sure your CV is up-to-date and supplying a compelling personal statement why you’re the right person for the scheme.

Tutoring tips for PhD students

Becoming a PhD teaching assistant can seem like a daunting prospect, particularly if you don’t have any previous teaching experience. But you shouldn’t let nerves put you off, as it can be incredibly rewarding (not to mention the financial benefits and transferrable skills for your CV).

Here are a few tips for new PhD teaching assistants:

  • Ignore impostor syndrome and remember that, even though it might not feel like it, you have more than enough expertise to be teaching university students
  • Don’t be afraid to overprepare for the first couple of sessions and know that as you become more experienced, things will become easier
  • Plan extra activities and talking points for seminars, just in case your group isn’t particularly talkative

Above all, try to take pleasure (and pride!) from the fact that you’ll be inspiring groups of students in your academic discipline.

Doing a PhD

For more information on what it’s like to do a PhD, read our guides to research proposals, dissertations and the viva. Or, head to our course finder to search the latest PhD opportunties.

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Last Updated: 16 December 2020