As someone who has spent almost her entire adult life in education-related jobs, it is easy for me to see teaching as a valuable skill. I began my career as a high school mathematics teacher. After serving as a graduate assistant and a graduate student instructor, I then worked in a teaching and learning center before becoming an administrator in a graduate education office.
But what about the many Ph.D. students who go on to academic careers where they are not teaching a course, or the many who take jobs in commercial, nonprofit or government settings and never step foot in a classroom again?
In this essay, I make a case for why graduate students should develop skills related to teaching and learning, regardless of their field or discipline. I also support postdoctoral scholars developing the same skill set, but the opportunities for postdocs to gain experiences related to teaching and learning can differ significantly from those of graduate students. So, in this article, I am only focusing on graduate students, although I hope my advice can also apply to some postdocs, as well.
Based on my experience advising Ph.D. students how to make decisions about their careers, I see any skills that they can develop related to helping other people learn as indispensable and easily transferred to many different job roles that involve elements of teaching, mentoring, coaching and the like. In graduate career development, we refer to skills that can easily be applied across jobs and sectors as transferable skills. I argue that teaching—and knowing how to best help others learn—is a vital transferable skill, one that I encourage students to develop as soon as they can.
Dealing With the Myths
In a way, I feel silly writing this article, because I can easily see that many managers and team leaders help other people they work with learn vital knowledge and develop the skills required to do a job well. Good supervisors mentor newer employees in the knowledge, skills and abilities of a job. Training employees and conducting continuing education in science, business and other areas of practice is an essential corporate, academic, nonprofit and governmental job function.
Even if it is not listed in a job description, countless jobs require employees to help other people learn—including customers, co-workers and students, among others. For example, my ability to effectively manage a group of people working on a project with varying levels of knowledge and skills is directly tied to my ability to design and structure activities based on how people in general, and those people in particular, learn and develop.
That said, the act of helping others learn—of intentionally teaching by providing a structure to process and acquire knowledge and skills that are new to them—is often overlooked as a skill set that you can apply across work areas. In fact, teaching is sometimes berated as a second-class skill. The old saying “those than can, do; those who can’t, teach,” still seems to haunt the discussion around the value of teaching in contemporary American society.
That viewpoint can influence grad students in many ways—what courses they are encouraged or discouraged to take, what projects they are advised to be a part of or not, what career options they should explore or ignore. But as someone who highly values jobs that include teaching and training as key functions, I want to encourage both students and faculty members to consider the role that helping other people learn plays in a variety of career paths—and to recognize how developing that ability can significantly contribute to your future job success.
A Key Part of Many Jobs
The activity of teaching others—of structuring and aiding in the learning and development of others—is ever present in the workplace. In academic settings, faculty and senior scientists often mentor and train new scientists in essential laboratory skills. They also teach in their courses and otherwise influence the learning and development of students, postdocs and junior faculty. For their part, senior administrators coach junior administrators through scenarios related to management issues or advise them on challenging cases they may encounter. And outside higher education, for-profit companies have training departments focused on developing continuing education for employees—whether they work in in science, business or some other field. Even acts as simple as a developer effectively documenting their code so that someone else can understand what they wrote touches on an understanding of how others understand and learn.
The act of teaching and training is everywhere because the need for people to learn is everywhere. What matters is if, as scientists, administrators and trainers, we can do that task well in those various situations. I think, for example, of a former student who was heavily involved in teaching during her Ph.D. program, and while she no longer teaches as part of her job in the pharmaceutical industry, she uses what she learned while teaching in her management of her work team, in training new employees and in mentoring current team members.
Another student I know presented her experiences with teaching during her job search for a communications position as project management, as training a co-worker and as developing a plan and structure—a curriculum, in education terms—for employee development. That reframing helped her to present to potential employers the discrete experiences and skills she developed through teaching in a way that aligned with the job description. It also helped business-based hiring managers understand what she could bring to the position without her using education jargon.
As much as possible, I encourage graduate students to learn what they can about how other people learn in a way that aligns well with their career goals. While many of the opportunities to learn how to help other people learn are in the form of experiences like classroom teaching, that’s definitely not the only way to obtain such a skill set.
Developing Skills Now to Apply Later
If you are a graduate student, you can look for resources to develop such skills in several places. First and foremost, you can get involved with the teaching and learning center at your college or university. Called by many names, such centers exist on most campuses with the goal of improving the teaching and learning experiences of the faculty and students at that institution. I encourage you to identify your campus center, look at its website and see what programs you can participate in as a graduate student.
Sometimes campus resources are limited only to graduate students who are working as graduate student instructors or as teaching assistants, but not always. If your college or university doesn’t provide what you need, I encourage you to explore and investigate what other institutional resources are available to you. If your institution does not have resources readily available, you can maybe meet people who can help you at conferences in education-related sessions or on social media. While resources and services tend to be institution based, individuals at different organizations may be able to help you locate resources beyond your college or university that can help you develop teaching-related skills for the career path you are pursuing.
Fortunately, many departments and schools offer events and programs that are open to any graduate student or postdoc. Check and see if you can sign up for them. Also, there may be institutionwide resources that you can access if available. For example, our university is a member of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning network, and we have a campus Preparing Future Faculty program. While such opportunities may not be available everywhere, I encourage you to explore your institution and ask and see what is open to you in whatever role you have as a graduate student.
I hope if you want to develop your knowledge and skills related to teaching and learning while a graduate student, you will be able to do so. That can help you significantly as you move into the next step of your career journey.