Teaching

Teaching

For many students, teaching offers a new and exciting skillset to develop during graduate school. Being a teaching assistant (TA) may be a one-time requirement for completing your degree or a continual means of financial support throughout your graduate education, but many graduate students will be a TA at least once during the course of their degree program.

Accordion Items: 
Policies
  • The main policy page for graduate assistantships, including TA positions, for 2017-2018.
    • Your department may also have a TA Handbook with additional information specific to courses in their department (examples: Mathematics, Chemistry).
  • Time commitment: Some weeks will take more hours and some weeks may take fewer hours, but a half-time (50%) TA position should average out to 20 hours per week across the semester. A quarter-time (25%) TA position requires 10 hours a week on average.
  • Language requirements: You must have meet a minimum level of English proficiency to be a TA. Learn more about language requirements and ESL courses.
  • Sexual harassment prevention training and FERPA training are required before being a TA.
TA Training
The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL)

CIRTL stresses the use of successful, evidence-based strategies proven to promote active learning and to help STEM students from all backgrounds succeed and complete their degrees. Teaching strategies include: connecting classroom topics to real-world situations, promoting inclusive learning, encouraging teamwork through shared projects and study groups, continually assessing student progress, and using research skills to advance effective teaching practices. Graduate students and postdocs can achieve 3 levels of CIRTL proficiency to document on their CVs and use when discussing their teaching skills. See Iowa CIRTL for more information).

Certificate Programs

Graduate certificate programs related to teaching are a minimum of 12 credit hours each and will be included in your official transcripts. These certificates are exceptional additions to your CV or resume and expand career options.

Teaching & Careers

Teaching experience can be relevant to most future careers, whether the connections are direct or indirect.

  • Faculty jobs in higher education almost all involve some degree of teaching.
    • Tenure-track faculty jobs at research-emphasis institutions will often require teaching in a classroom and/or teaching in the form of mentoring students (undergraduate or graduate).
    • Tenure-track faculty jobs at teaching-emphasis institutions (including liberal arts colleges) will generally require more extensive independent teaching experience than you may obtain in a TA position.
      • If you have held full responsibilities for classes as a TA (lectures, syllabus design, picking readings, developing assignments, etc.), you will need to indicate this on your CV.
      • If your TA duties have been primarily grading and office hours, you will need more independent teaching experience to be competitive for faculty jobs at teaching-emphasis institutions. Ways to get more experience can include seeking out more intensive TA positions, a teaching practicum through a certificate program, CIRTL, and/or teaching a single additional course at a community college (during or after your graduate degree is completed, as time and your responsibilities allow).
    • Non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty jobs include visiting assistant professor (VAP) positions (1 year temporary positions), lecturer positions (longer-term renewable positions that do not have research requirements), and adjunct positions (teaching that is paid on an individual course basis). Shorter-term positions (VAP and adjunct) can be useful to develop more independent teaching experience.
  • Education-related careers can also include academic advising and student services in colleges and universities, K-12 teaching, online teaching, and developing educational materials. More information on this subject can be found at Versatile PhD.
  • Careers not directly related to education can nevertheless utilize the communication, interpersonal, and organizational skills you developed as a TA. Being able to explain complex concepts to people who are learning about the topic for the first time, developing and delivering detailed presentations, providing writing and editing feedback—all are examples of “transferable skills” that can be used in many settings beyond a classroom.

Job materials related to teaching

  • Teaching philosophies (or teaching statements) are required for many faculty job applications. This is typically a 1 page summary of your teaching goals, examples of actions you take when teaching to meet your goals, and ways that you know your actions were effective (assessment). Link to Center for Teaching resources & link file.
  • Teaching portfolios are more extensive collections of teaching-related materials, which can include summaries of student evaluations and example syllabi. They are usually requested only for teaching-emphasis faculty jobs. Link to Center for Teaching resources & link file.
  • Cover letters for faculty jobs should usually include 1-2 paragraphs about teaching (past experience, overall approach, and specific classes you’re prepared to teach at the new school). Place these paragraphs earlier or later in the cover letter depending on how strongly the job emphasizes teaching (place earlier for more emphasis).
  • Resumes or cover letters for careers in other sectors (industry, government, clinical, etc.) can include or exclude a description of your teaching to the degree that you can present those teaching activities as relevant (and similar) to the activities you would do in a new job.
Accordion Items: 
How do I get a TA position?

TA positions are assigned through individual departments (e.g., Anthropology, Music) based on the department’s teaching needs. There is no central listing of all open TA positions because they are decided internally in each department. You will need to contact the department that organizes the classes for which you would like to be a TA.

  • Generally, you should check with the department that runs your Ph.D. program (e.g., Sociology) or the department of your Ph.D. advisor if you are in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program (e.g., Genetics program, Biology department).
  • If you would like to be considered for TA positions in a different department, you will need to contact that department directly. However, be aware that departments will generally prioritize graduate students in their own programs for TA positions.
  • Rarely, TA positions can be listed on the GA listing page.
What’s the difference between being a TA and an instructor?

Instructors have full responsibility for everything in the class—lectures, discussion/lab sections, writing the syllabus, designing assignments, developing content, grading, picking the textbook/readings, office hours, proctoring exams, maintaining the course website, etc.

TA duties can vary widely. One extreme is to have only grading and office hours. The other extreme is to do everything described for instructors. Many TA positions will be between these extremes. Your CV can concisely indicate the additional levels of responsibility you held as a TA besides the “universal” aspects (e.g., grading, office hours, exam proctoring) to more accurately reflect the amount of independent teaching activities you’ve done.

How can I get more teaching experience, especially with more independence or higher levels of responsibility?

Before the course begins, ask the course supervisor if they would be willing to let you do a guest lecture or develop a workshop for later in the semester. They may say “no” if they already have their plans finalized, but they may say “yes.”

Let people in your department know that you’re interested in additional teaching opportunities—they may be the first to let you know if they hear about an opportunity at UI or elsewhere in the area.

Teaching single courses at community colleges in the area (which can include evening or weekend classes). However, be sure that the extra time commitment is ok with your advisor and any department policies about outside employment.

If you are currently supported as an RA doing full-time research on a faculty grant, talk with your advisor to see if your time could be reallocated. Be cognizant of the need to meet any short-term needs for the grant’s research goal as well as balancing your long-term needs for both research development and teaching development.

I want more teaching experience, but my advisor wants me to only do research. What can I do?

Note that you will still need to balance research and teaching to some degree as a graduate student, as (A) research is needed to finish your degree and (B) even jobs that don’t involve “research” will often still use your understanding of how research is done. That said, the way you will balance research experience and teaching experience will depend on what is most useful to you for your career interests and at your stage in your grad program.

If you have not yet had a discussion about your long-term career interests with your advisor, there potentially could be miscommunication of your advisor assuming your interests are entirely based in research by default. Having a discussion about your career interests—and how you will balance short-term research project needs and your long-term professional development needs—may be productive. (However, do “test the waters” first by listening for hints about your advisor’s attitude toward teaching careers.)

If you have already spoken with your advisor about your need for more teaching experience and your advisor is still reluctant, try to identify the underlying needs of both parties that need to be met: both you (teaching development, research development, finishing your degree, etc.) and your advisor (your finishing the degree, grant on a timeline, their stresses if they’re pre-tenure). Developing a plan for how you would manage both the research and teaching aspects may help tangibly demonstrate that both sets of responsibilities can be met (in a way that is acknowledging everyone’s key needs).

  • If this idea is still met negatively or just isn’t feasible at this time in your graduate program, consider teaching professional development activities that requires less time investment than being fully responsible for a course (e.g., workshops, reading literature about teaching methods). There will be other opportunities to gain teaching experience later.
I got bad feedback on my student evaluation forms. What do I do now? What can I do to improve?

If you want to improve, you are not a bad teacher! It means that you are still learning and are probably still inexperienced. See the Center for Teaching for specific suggestions about specific improvements.

Separate out (1) what worked well vs. what didn’t work well, then separate each of those by (2) what was in your control vs. what wasn’t in your control (for 4 total categories). For example, if the students all hated the readings, but you had no say in what material was used, you don’t have to blame yourself for that (but still keep it in mind if you are later in a position to choose course materials). Prioritize what is in your control to change and look for ways to improve there (either directly altering your responsibilities or adapting around aspects not in your control.)

Also consider that some feedback will be positive and specific (‘the overviews at the end of each class were really helpful!’), some will be positive but not specific (‘good’), some will be negative but specific (‘makes everything way too complicated’), some will be negative and not specific (‘I hated this class’), and some will be irrelevant (‘you should change what you wear more often’). Focus on the feedback that gives specific indications of what worked well (and can be continued) and what did not work well (and can be improved).

I don’t want to teach in my post-grad school career. Do I still need to treat “Teaching” as an important professional development competency?

Many careers involve communicating complex concepts to other people so that they understand the content—training new staff members, describing your business pitch to a potential investor, giving a presentation about a new product, science policy, writing or speaking to public audiences, to name a few. Public speaking, organization, supervision, attention to detail—all of these aspects of teaching develop “transferable skills” that can be useful in many settings besides a formal classroom. See Versatile PhD for ways PhDs have incorporated their teaching experiences into some of their non-academic careers.

I don’t like teaching, but I’m required to be a TA to complete my degree program. Are there strategies I can use to make the experience easier?

See the previous FAQ for ways to think about other skills you’re developing that could be used in other settings you like better.

Consider whether the aspects you don’t like are due to feeling unprepared or unsure how to be most effective (e.g., if you are afraid of public speaking). If so, learning new skills—whether communication in general or specific teaching techniques—may help you feel more comfortable.

Look for ways you can incorporate topics of personal interest to you into the material (e.g., mention a way the day’s topics connect to current research in your field and/or to outreach topics.) Don’t change the course into “65 minutes about your personal favorite topics”, but an optional post on the course website may help you feel more connected (and help the students see ways the topics are relevant outside of the classroom!).

Keep a file of small “thank you” notes or positive feedback you hear from students in person or by e-mail—it’s easy to feel bogged down at times, so reminding yourself of the appreciation people have for your work can help reenergize you.

Seek advice from peers who have been a TA for this class before—they will probably have practical tips from experience to make the experience easier (‘this step in the procedure always has this issue,’ pet peeves of supervising instructors, etc).

Try to think of “teaching” as multiple individual types of activities, not just an umbrella term—some people (dis)like discussion sections, some people (dis)like speaking at the front of a classroom, some people (dis)like lab trouble-shooting. It’s ok to like some components of teaching but not others.

What do I do if being a TA takes me far more hours a week on average than it’s supposed to?

First, document how you’re spending your time each week to identify if there’s a specific step that’s taking most of your time.

Second, try to find ways to be more time-efficient at particularly time-consuming steps without compromising quality (try new strategies yourself, ask peers for advice, ask faculty for advice). Remember that you’re likely still training to become a more effective teacher, so these steps can take longer when you’re in the learning process.

Consider working with someone in your department or the Center for Teaching to develop a plan.

If you’re already as time-efficient as you know how to be, have a tactful conversation with the instructor about how much time each step is taking, what measures you’ve already done to try be more efficient, and any additional methods you could use to be more efficient. Acknowledge and maintain the needs of the course, but be realistic about your other responsibilities that you are balancing.

The Graduate College partners with the Center for Teaching which supports teaching and learning excellence across campus.

To request a teaching-related workshop for your department or group from the Center for Teaching, contact Morgan Iommi at morgan-iommi@uiowa.edu.

Example topics for workshops include:

  • Facilitating discussions
  • Motivating students
  • Assessing student learning
  • Challenging conversations in the classroom
  • Using instructional technology (such as ICON, MAUI, Clickers, etc)
  • Maximizing TA positions as professional development
  • Creating and refining teaching philosophies
  • Other custom topics upon request