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The balancing act of teaching and Phd-ing: my experiences and top tips for others


My role as firstly a PhD student, and very close secondly as a postgraduate teaching assistant, is at times somewhat like juggling many plates, whilst balancing on one leg and counting backwards. I am learning, as I progress through my second year of five, and as my workload in both aspects becomes ever more demanding, that this steep learning curve is far from levelling out any time soon. So, I keep an open mind, and constantly seek to improve and learn. I look forward to seeing how far I have come by the end this role. I hope that my advice with help others who are considering combining doctoral studies with teaching, or just starting out in this role.

However a steep learning curve it may be, it does have its benefits. The duality ensures that I often switch between roles (I’d like to say fluidly, but I’m working on that…) which is often useful, especially if there are lulls in the PhD side. Having the luxury to step back and focus on teaching, can be refreshing. Not only does it allow for a welcomed break, but it also allows for perspective to be gained. Often, I’ll be in the middle of preparing for some teaching work and suddenly an idea will come to mind for my studies. Learning to keep note of these fleeting thoughts is key. Alongside allowing some breathing space, teaching can provide an additional sense of purpose. This sense of purpose can be vital when PhD-ing feels at a stand-still.

How my studies benefit teaching

My experience is that each role has an impact on the other. Through being a PhD student, I am deemed more ‘approachable’ to students. I have had feedback from students saying they feel more comfortable asking what they deem ‘silly’ questions, to someone nearer in age. As I was an undergraduate student here too, I can relate my experiences of being a student on how to deliver my teaching to others, and I feel it makes me more helpful to the students. However, I am sometimes conscious of distinguishing myself from the students, as it can be hard to get the balance between being the lecturer whist wanting to seem relatable. I feel this is a skill I will develop with time.

My own experiences of writing and learning often inspire me to suggest different ideas for helping students too. I’m currently enrolled on a writing course and I am finding the course is giving me ideas to suggest to students that can help with their planning, for example.

However, it is important to say that the distinction between being a postgraduate researcher and a member of staff is a challenging one. For example, seminar attendance can be poor compared to my more senior academics completing the same seminar with different students. I have once or twice been mistaken as a student by other members of staff, so there is a challenge of being taken seriously or viewed as a member of the teaching staff.

How teaching helps with my studies

Teaching is really useful for refreshing areas such as statistics, which in turn can be used in my studies. Re-explaining a method of analysis to a student helps to solidify this in my own mind. Similarly, I have found it easier to look at my work more objectively when editing as a result of marking other people’s work. However, this can be counterproductive, as I have become even more critical of my own work. (Note this very post took me a lot longer to write than it should). Creating and delivering lectures has helped me enormously with confidence in creating and delivering presentations at networking events or conferences for my PhD.

As I say, I am still learning to juggle. However, finding ways to make life easier is a source of constant reflection. And, I guess these could be useful for any student, not just a PGTA (and also to remind myself…)

My top 5 tips are:

  1. Make notes that your future self will understand… Always have a notebook on you for brain dumping. I have one for PhD and one for teaching.
  2. Accept that switching between the two roles will take time
  3. Meditate: 3 minute breathing spaces are really useful for switching mind sets (See meditation 8:
  4. Keep track of your time and how you spend it – so in future you can go back and reflect on whether you have got the balance right (I’m not great at this). Remember that each role is part time which equate to one full time job, not 2…
  5. Be protective of your time, be aware of how many hours you are allocated for teaching tasks. If you are asked to do other things, make sure it’s feasible.

What’s next?

I think it is vital to ensure that our little PGTA community supports one another in any way we can. I write reflections each semester on specific teaching duties. These include how certain tasks went and how I suggest it could go better. So for example, when conducting statistical computer support sessions, I make notes on aspects of the worksheets (such as areas students found confusing, or sentences that could be clearer) so when it comes to the following year, we can amend them accordingly.

Building on my experiences, I hope to make the transition from student to PGTA much smoother, through providing support to my colleagues through a shared online resource. It is important to appreciate this role is slightly novel and inevitably, as we approach new responsibilities, there will be new challenges. So the peer support is really essential. Furthermore, there are plans to start regular PGTA meetings and offer some support groups (such as mindfulness).

So if you’re considering a PGTA role, I hope this helps you in deciding if it’s for you, and a taste of what it’s like!

Cristina Harney