My cousin decided to study Biology just like I did (same university, hence same program). While she wants to go on a different research subject, so far she also wants to follow an academic pathway, and so she has asked me a lot of questions to subjects I wished I knew more about when I was starting. These will be a series of posts based on that premise. Please keep in mind all these posts will be based on personal experiences
What my cousin actually asked me was: Do I need to give classes if I want to stay in research? What I thought she was asking was if you need to be a teacher/professor, but what she was referring to was to be teaching assistant or aide (TA). Today I would like to address both.
Let’s start with being a TA. The truth is that you don’t HAVE to be a TA to stay in research, but I would say it is a worthy experience. Being a TA, especially for a class that you loved gives you not only the opportunity to share the knowledge and the love you had for that class, but also it allows you to practice your communication skills. Just the same way not all teaching methods worked for you, you will find a way to accommodate your speech to a bigger, heterogeneous audience. This will encourage you to find different ways to explain a similar concept and will broaden your knowledge of the it at the same time, since you will have to do some preparation for the class. Another advantage of it as usual is that it gives you another field of experience for your CV, which off course, doesn’t hurt.
Things that you might want to consider for this is that it’s going to take part of your time. Just like joining a research team early on is going to be demanding, so will be taking a TA position. The load of work you might get will depend not only on the class size, but the type of class and off course the availability of the teacher to begin with. Also keep in mind that not everyone is good at teaching. Over time you realize that you might understand a subject, but transmitting it to someone else is a different story. Everyone’s thought process is very unique, and sometimes things that completely make sense in your brain, might not be properly translated to others. There is a part of this that can be improved with practice, but it is something to keep in mind.
I personally have never been a TA. I applied for the position during my B.Sc., but was never selected, and at the institute where I did my M.Sc. and my PhD we don’t have undergrad students, which means there are no TA positions. I’ve had summer students, and that was fun. I was still able to pass some knowledge, work on my communication skills and all that in a smaller scale. If you really want to be a TA, I would say go for it!
Now, what about being a teacher/professor. It really is going to depend on where you are working, or rather where you establish your lab. If you are working with in industry, a private lab for example, chances are that you won’t be required to do so. However, if you are working with a university or an institute this can change. Depending on the system of your country and university, a principal investigator (PI) or research director might be adjunct, visiting, full-time, associate or assistant professor. All of these “levels” are related to your tenure level and to the amount of hours you might be giving to the institution. But even two tenured professors at the same institute might have widely different teaching schedules. My PI is a full time professor here, but is also an associated professor of another university in the city, which means he teaches in both, even though his lab is only associated with one of them. In a very particular case, he also has to go at least once a year to Brazil to give a 2 week course, as part of a grant. However, there are teachers here at the institute that also have the title of full-time professors, but never give classes, or are only in charge of one class a year.
As you can see, either as a student (no matter what level) or as a research director, you don’t NEED to teach to do your research. However, it is through teaching others that knowledge can be passed on. Keep in mind that teaching is not only giving classes. If your goal is to have your own lab, you will also have to be able to teach your students how to work in the lab, particularly when you are starting and there is no one else to show the way. So trying the waters of teaching through TA positions or even tutoring is a great way to tune your teaching skills and test if you have it in you to teach others.
Teach your Children by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young