To teach or not to teach? Tips and insights on how to combine lecturing and research well
Published: Feb 17, 2017 By Seema Sharma
As an academic, the joint commitments of teaching and research can often feel at odds with one another. Applying for grants, undertaking research, writing publications and presenting your work to peers, require a significant commitment of time. Whilst these tasks underpin your success as a researcher, you may also have lecturing duties, as part of your role. So how do you balance the two? What are the pros and cons of a role with little or no teaching responsibility? Can teaching enhance your career and also, serve to benefit your research?
We’ll be exploring the answers to these questions, with input and opinions from Dr Hannah Batchelor, a Senior Lecturer in Pharmaceutics, Formulation and Drug Delivery at the University of Birmingham, UK, who has experience in making it work.
Most available academic research posts involve an element of teaching students. In turn, this part of the role requires significant time away from research activities, when you consider preparation time and the lectures themselves. Since institutional promotion opportunities and acknowledgement in your research field rely on your ability to research, publish and present your work — you’d be forgiven for wanting to minimise or exclude teaching.
The vast majority of posts on the market, however, do require teaching as part of the job. In many cases, the available positions where lecturing responsibilities are absent or limited tend to fall into the category of short-term postdoctoral posts. These may appeal to you, depending on your career stage and personal circumstances.
However, contract positions are not suited to everyone’s needs. They often come with the frequent necessity to move city or country, and the potential for financial instability.
One useful approach, before you conclude that lecturing and research are conflicting or indeed, dismiss any roles involving lecturing, is to look at the synergies between the two activities:
“If you do a direct comparison between how much funding is generated by research grants versus educating a large number of students, the latter pays a lot of the bills..”
Teaching: Synergies and advantages for your research
Presenting: Teaching students and communicating your research at conferences both improve your presentation skills.
Discussion and engagement with your research: Lecturing is an additional forum for the discussion of your research activities. A student’s question or research project input, may provide you with a new research direction.
Institutions are beginning to acknowledge teaching quality: Whilst it may not form a formal part of assessment, there is a growing emphasis on the contribution of teaching to career promotion. In the UK this will be formalised with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework, (TEF), in the coming year.
Organisation: Preparing lectures involves a good level of organisation and time management, both of which could benefit your research.
Case Study: Dr Hannah K Batchelor - Senior Lecturer, University of Birmingham, UK
Dr Hannah Batchelor has over 16 years research experience and has published over 40 peer-reviewed papers. She has an active interest in formulating medicines for children and has presented a TEDx talk and curates a blog: ‘Making medicines child-sized,’ on the topic.
Dr Batchelor’s successive academic positions as Lecturer, Research Fellow and Senior Lecturer, have all involved teaching. Here, she provides her honest insights and experience of striking a balance between her research and lecturing responsibility.
What has been your experience of teaching and lecturing to date?
Dr. Batchelor: “Generally, I enjoy teaching, but I admit that the lectures I find pleasure in the most, are those most closely linked to my research. For example in my current role, I find teaching Pharmacokinetics really interesting, but Pharmaceutical Packaging positively dull. One thing that we shouldn’t lose sight of is — the importance of teaching for institutional funding. If you do a direct comparison between how much funding is generated by research grants versus educating a large number of students, the latter pays a lot of the bills. In my experience, whilst there are some academic posts available that are research only, they tend to be on short fixed-term contracts like post-doctoral positions. These can present a challenge if you want a mortgage, have to balance your work life with a family, or if you take maternity or paternity leave. Most permanent academic positions in the UK involve teaching commitments.”
Did you ever feel like there was a conflict between teaching responsibilities with your research?
Dr. Batchelor: “Yes - all the time! I guess as stated before, teaching accounts for a lot of university funding but you get promoted based on your research. However, I think this might change in the future with the introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework in the UK. It will help considerably, as Universities will be rated on the standard of their teaching, as well as their research. Previously, the criteria were unclear and often it was the hours taught that were considered most important, rather than the quality.”
“Talking about current issues in medication to students, can often result in interesting questions that merit further research.”
How do you balance your teaching and research role?
Dr. Batchelor: “It took 5 years of hands-on experience to get the balance right. In this time, I learnt it’s important to allocate a set amount of time to prepare your lectures and not go over that limit. Time-management is a key part of it. It’s so tempting when you start out to keep tinkering with your teaching material. You have to draw a line and say it’s good enough. One thing that I found really helped was when I completed most of my teaching in one block — in just one term rather than spread throughout the academic year. One year, a colleague asked if she could switch her teaching commitments with me, as she was going on maternity leave. As a result, all of my lectures were completed in the first term leaving me to focus on my research for the rest of the year. I realised then, that although not always possible, teaching in one block really helped balance my responsibilities.”
“One thing that I found really helped was when I completed most of my teaching in one block — in just one term”
What do you think are the advantages of teaching responsibilities? Can they serve to benefit you in your research in anyway?
Dr. Batchelor: “I think there are several benefits. You are often bringing your research into your teaching. In fact, I can think of several times I have used my teaching for research and vice versa. For example, when I undertook my certificate in teaching for higher education, I carried out a research project to better understand how to teach mathematics to pharmacy students, and managed to publish this study. Talking about current issues in medication to students, can often result in interesting questions that merit further research. Sometimes, an outside view can really clarify the research question or even take research in a completely new direction. I find that the opportunity to discuss your research with students is an important conduit for public engagement activities. In addition, undergraduate students conduct final year research projects, where they are actively engaged in conducting research in your group.”“I find that the opportunity to discuss your research with students is an important conduit for public engagement activities.”
What are the disadvantages to teaching?
Dr. Batchelor: “Aside from time pressures, the way things are set up in academia means that you are promoted on your research output, not your teaching excellence. Whilst some institutions maintain they do take teaching into account, I feel there is a lack of evidence to support this. Certainly in my experience, the criteria for being promoted for your research are a lot more transparent and therefore, easier to follow.”
There are some roles available that are research only posts with minimal teaching, do you think they offer advantages for your research?
Dr. Batchelor: “Definitely, but it depends where you want to go in your career. I feel if you want to be a good academic you need to be a good lecturer. Teaching provides a prime opportunity to educate the next generation and we have an obligation to fulfil that as dedicated academics. Research is only useful when it is shared, teaching provides the best opportunity to share your research with the next generation of scientists.”
“Research is only useful when it is shared, teaching provides the best opportunity to share your research with the next generation of scientists.”
Finally, in conclusion, what would your top 3 tips be for those finding it difficult to balance the two?
- Be strict about preparation times for teaching material. Set a time allocation, (e.g. 3 hrs), and stick to it!
- Keep the learning objectives in mind, when writing lecture material. It will help you focus and cover the essentials.
- Remember you don’t have to talk for the full time. Allow time in your lectures for discussions with students and Q&A’s. This should help you cut down on preparation time and is also beneficial for student understanding.
Dr Hannah K Batchelor - University profile: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/profiles/clinical-sciences/batchelor-hannah.aspx
TedX Talk ‘Involving children in research’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DGbqLsY5J4c
Teaching excellence framework: www.hefce.ac.uk/lt/tef/
Can teaching enhance your career and benefit my research?