Talking to a PhD supervisor on the stress of teaching

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Nick Mayhew is a third year PhD student at Jesus College, working in the department of Slavonic studies. He teaches two translation classes and runs supervisions for the first-year Russian culture paper.

So how did you get involved with teaching undergraduates?

In theory, it’s meant to be part of our professional training. In your second year, they’re likely to ask you to do teaching, because they think that it’s important for your professional development. We could potentially just sit in a room for three years and no one would want to employ us. I can’t remember how it came about, I think Rory [Head of department of Slavonic studies] probably just sent me an email.

How do you find teaching as part of a PhD?

I think I was excited to do it. Surely academic work is also about teaching? – what’s the point of learning something if you can’t also explain it to somebody? Additionally, because I was taught by people who I really respected, in some way being asked to teach is legitimising. It implies that somebody has confidence in you, and that’s quite nice. But I think I found it stressful to start with, because initially I wasn’t really sure how to do it. I wasn’t convinced that I would be good at doing all of it or any of it. There’s quite a lot of room for paranoia, I think. But when I got into doing it, I understood that it didn’t matter. You can admit that you’re wrong about something.

It’s also quite a good source of revenue. So, for me it works quite well, but I think the University, and universities in general, can be kind of exploitative of people who are not full time members of staff, who they get to do a lot of teaching, but they have on zero-hour contracts.

Do you feel it’s a big time commitment that takes you away from your research?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no. It depends on what you’re like as a person. I actually don’t spend huge amounts of time on it, I think it’s a matter of efficiency. But in my experience, just having your research to do, doesn’t mean that you will do your research. I’m much more productive when I have a variety of things to do, when I’m actually busy; I’m more likely to actually do my PhD. It helps to have structure.

Do you know of other people who are having a much better or a much worse experience?

Some people don’t like it. One of my peers did the same teaching as me last year and this year basically said that she doesn’t want to do any of it because she found it very stressful. I think many PhD students might feel insecure teaching, because they don’t necessarily have confidence. 

It’s also to do with students. The way in which students engage with PhD students would be different to the way in which they would engage with a professor, and I don’t know whether that’s for better or for worse. In some ways, it’s more difficult for a PhD student, depending on their age to forge the same professional relationship with their students because the age gap is quite small.

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