Teaching and the PhD student

I do quite a lot of teaching to supplement the income from my PhD Scholarship. Teaching for a bit of extra cash is fairly normal amongst PhD students – you may well be doing a bit of this yourself or be interested in taking on some teaching. But what kinds of teaching can PhD students get involved in and what are the pros and cons of different teaching positions?

There will obviously be some variability between institutions regarding the teaching positions open to PhD students and the relative pay grades of different types of teaching. At Sheffield PhD students can, in theory, teach pretty much anything but the positions open to us varies by department. For example in the Geography Department, PhD students like me tend to teach a lot of lab sessions and fieldwork alongside a few tutorials/ seminars, for which we are paid a slightly higher rate. We also do a fair bit of marking of first year courses but we tend not to give any lectures. However, PhD friends of mine in other departments do give lectures and may even mark second year courses.

If you are thinking of taking on some teaching work then it’s definitely worth finding out what training your university will provide for you. Sheffield has a full course of training available where you get certificates of competence in each type of teaching. Other universities provide similar instruction but you can also find a lot of guidance online.

Teaching in the lab

Like many types of university teaching, lab demonstrating can be very straight forward or horribly difficult depending on how well prepared the course organiser has been. A good course organiser will supply you with copies of the hand-outs ahead of time and may even arrange a session for you to have a go at the methods you will be demonstrating. They will be present during the lab itself, possibly along with some lab technicians, and your job will mainly be to provide an extra pair of eyes and ears to answer student questions. If you can get this kind of lab teaching then definitely go for it – it’s a fun and relatively easy introduction to teaching.

In some cases you may be left in charge of the lab practical, possibly along with another PhD student or a lab technician. This is quite a lot more difficult and may require you to give introductory and summary talks at the start and end of the lab. Make sure you find out if the course organiser will be present and what you need to do before agreeing to teach the session.

In my department we run both physical lab sessions and computer practicals. PhD students are often left in sole charge of computer practicals, without help from the course organiser or any technicians. If you will be teaching a computer practical then it is definitely worth quickly working through the tasks yourself, to find out where issues are likely to arise and what the solutions are. Bear in mind that the literature for the session may have been written some time ago and may be confusing or unclear!

Teaching in the field

Fieldwork is my favourite kind of teaching. It’s a lot like teaching labs but you will definitely be part of a team of staff and won’t ever be left to run a session on your own. Health and safety rules tend to insist on a particular staff to student ratio in the field – I think it’s something like 1:6 in my department. This means it is often very easy money because you are unlikely to have to do much actual teaching. Your role is more likely to be primarily crowd-control and answering a few questions.

One thing I can’t stress enough about teaching in the field is that you MUST have the right kit. As well as keeping yourself warm, dry and safe, you need to set an example to the students of proper fieldwork kit. This is particularly true for teaching first year undergraduates, who may not be familiar with fieldwork and are often poorly equiped. I especially recommend bringing a good-sized rucksack because you may be given safety equipment to carry, like a first aid kit.

Running tutorials and seminars

When you are leading a tutorial or seminar you are likely to be the sole staff member present. This present some challenges but also tends to mean that you are paid at a slightly higher grade. This can make tutorials a very lucrative type of teaching position, particularly as they are often only 1-2 hours per week compared to half-days or even full-days for lab and fieldwork teaching.

However, tutorials can require a surprisingly large amount of preparation time. These might be reading the required literature, marking essays, or even writing session plans. Ask the course organiser to supply you with tutorial outlines and reading lists well in advance, to help with your preparation. Before signing up to teach a course of tutorials, make sure to find out if you will be paid for preparation and at what rate. I wouldn’t recommend agreeing to teach tutorials without being paid for prep!


Marking can be a great way to make money over the summer period when fewer teaching positions are available. However, marking can be paid at ridiculously low rates. So be very careful to crunch the numbers and be sure that the pay will be worth your time.

This is particular important for marking large numbers of essays or exams. In my experience, university departments are quite bad at giving you a reasonable time to do your marking. It is not unhard of for 120 exam scripts may land on your desk on Friday afternoon with instructions to complete them by the following Friday. This amount of work could easily take you 20+ hours. So either you are working a long weekend plus some evenings, or you are not getting much PhD work done next week. If you sign up for a lot of marking you should be prepared for this to happen. Be especially cautious of agreeing to mark multiple courses that have exams or essay deadlines around the same time. The marking could easily take over your life for a few weeks!

When you do decide to do some marking, I recommend starting with a relatively small course to get some practice. This will help you learn to mark at a much faster rate when confronted with a massive pile of scripts! Also make sure to familiarise yourself with the mark scheme and any other important documentation, like guidelines for spotting plagiarism. You may be asked to use digital marking software, like Turnitin. These programmes take time to learn – make sure to factor this into your cost-benefit analysis of any marking position offered to you.

You may have noticed that I’ve not discussed lecturing. This is because I have not had to give any lectures yet and so can’t really comment on this particular type of teaching. Let me know in the comments if you have any lecturing tips.

Happy teaching!

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