Upset About Teaching in Graduate School

Nioka Burns

Forced to Teach while in Graduate school? Take advantage of the System

Teaching takes away from research, but here are some ways to get the most out of your assistantship.

I was naïve when I started graduate school. No one in my family had gone to college much less graduate school. I interviewed at a few places and when I heard the phrase “guaranteed pay for 6 years” I was sold. I left Texas to start at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I quickly learned that there were a few different sources for graduate student stipends.

Assistantships are an arrangement in which financial support is given to a graduate student who engages in teaching and/or research to further the university’s academic mission. Ph.D. and master’s students may be awarded assistantships, which typically fall into three general categories: Teaching Assistant, Research Assistant, and Graduate Assistant. Labs with little funding rely on teaching assistantships to provide stipends for graduate students.

I started teaching my second year. It didn’t take long for me to become bitter about teaching. It required a lot of my time. It interfered with my research and I received the same stipend amount as graduate students who didn’t have to teach. My third year in graduate school it became obvious I would likely be teaching until I finished my Ph.D. I decided that if I was going to be required to teach, I should at least try to get better at it. The Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning offered resources to help teachers and provided teaching certificates to document the extra effort. Here are the two certificates I decided to pursue. Details for certificates will vary depending on your University.

Graduate Teaching Certificate

  • Participate in either the Graduate Academy for College Teaching which includes topics such as active learning, grading, leading discussions, lesson planning, and relevant campus policies.
  • Teach two semesters at U of I.
  • Arrange to have a faculty member or CITL consultant observe your teaching and discuss the observation with you. Write a reflective essay on what you learned from the process.
  • Collect Informal Early Feedback (IEF) from your students at mid-semester and formal feedback (ICES) at the end of the semester. Meet with a faculty member or CITL consultant to discuss the student feedback. Write an essay reflecting on the use of student feedback in your teaching.
  • Attend a minimum of six hours of teaching development workshops

Teacher Scholar Certificate

  • Complete the Graduate Teacher Certificate.
  • Teach a minimum of three semesters at the University of Illinois. Achieve a minimum of 4.0 on (ICES) item #1 in at least one class.
  • Submit an example of an original lesson, activity, major assignment, project, or lab that has been assessed by your students or peers. Write a reflective essay about this work.
  • Complete one of the following activities.
  • Write a review of pedagogical literature in your discipline that is based on five to six articles.
  • Take a college teaching course.
  • Participate in a regularly scheduled reading group or seminar series on teaching.
  • Engage in a minimum of five hours of service (teaching other instructors, performing committee work on campus, and engaging in discipline-based community or professional service) and write a reflective essay about what you learned from your experience.
  • Write a Teaching philosophy statement

The Graduate Student Certificate is the “get your feet wet” certificate. Attending the Graduate Academy for College Teaching was a requirement of all teaching assistants and required no additional effort on my part. Although the classroom observation was not something I looked forward to, it greatly helped my teaching. The faculty member who observed my teaching provided useful feedback and suggestions. For example, I was “presenting” information to students rather than teaching students. I took this feedback and incorporated some of the suggestions into my lectures. I didn’t have to wait long to find out if the changes were effective thanks to the informal early feedback that I had been required to collect. I was able to compare student feedback from early in the semester with the feedback provided at the end of the semester and see that these changes had been noted by my students.

After that semester, I looked into the requirements for the Teaching Scholar Certificate. I had already completed the first three items on the list so it seemed reasonable to continue working with the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning to attain this advanced certificate. I found the additional requirements of this certificate to be very rewarding. The most notable was my engagement in a discipline-based community service. I chose to volunteer for Expanding Your Horizons, an organization that promotes STEM fields to young women. I created a display of what it meant to be a Biological Psychologist and volunteered at a conference that was held in Bloomington, Illinois. The Teaching Philosophy Statement that I had to create as a part of this certificate was probably the most valuable part of the certificate. I met several times with CITL consultant to edit and talk through my teaching statement. I didn’t know at the time that this document would be needed for job applications in the future. Once I started applying for faculty positions, many of the positions had teaching requirements and a teaching statement was required. I was confident in my teaching philosophy statement because of the help I had received from the teaching center.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed becoming a better teacher and soon I actually enjoyed teaching! It’s easy to be bitter while in grad school, but if you end up teaching for multiple semesters, take advantage of the system. Do everything you can to improve your teaching skill set. Many of the items required for the teaching certificates are also required when you apply for academic jobs that have a teaching component. If you end up leaving academia, your teaching experience and the additional certification you will receive, can be used as valuable experience on a resume that might otherwise convey over-educated and under-experienced. Check the resources available at your university to see what types of certificates are offered and then start working towards the easiest one. Having something to show for your hard work might make you appreciate the teaching experience (after you have defended).


Written by Nioka Burns