The biology departments at the university I attended for my MSc and the one I just started at for my PhD both have courses for new grad students that are meant to be an introduction to the skills they will need to be successful in grad school and beyond. One is called “Basic skills for a career in science,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The other is called Professional Skills Development
“Philosophy and methods” and is “intended to be a forum for students to enhance their current skills and understanding of how to do ‘good’ science and to discuss some issues that they will encounter as scientists.” One used to be optional and is now mandatory; the other used to be mandatory but is now optional. (updated)
The course I took included writing grants and abstracts, making scientific posters and presentations, effective data presentation, time management and advisor-advisee relations, the publication process, and ethics. The one I haven’t taken appears to cover somewhat similar topics. Neither mentions teaching, which I’m pretty sure is an essential skill for a career in science.
To be fair, there are other opportunities to learn how to teach. At my old university there was a voluntary TA training day each semester, with several 1-hour sessions devoted to a variety of different topics. Some of these sessions were great (some not so much) but there was not much incentive to attend*. (If it’s voluntary, doesn’t that imply that it’s not strictly necessary?) And so most TAs at my old university do not get training on how to teach.
At my new university there is a mandatory TA training session for all new TAs, but the session at the beginning of the semester filled up before I could register, so I will not have access to this training until I’ve already been teaching for at least a couple weeks. I did already have the opportunity to attend a 1-hour mandatory training session on being a TA for labs, which was basically about how to make sure your labs run on time, understanding your contract, and included a lot of anecdotes about how chemistry students screw up a lot and how you can’t trust students to come to lab prepared. It was not especially useful, nor did it provide much at all in the way of training on how to actually teach. (I will report back once I’ve had the opportunity to do the general training session for new TAs – hopefully it will be more useful.)
Most grad students will have to teach during their degrees (some will have to TA most semesters), and if they continue in academia they will definitely have to teach. Even if they go on to non-academic careers, everyone has to teach sometimes, although it may not be in a formal classroom setting. Grad student TAs do a substantial amount of the teaching that goes on at universities. Shouldn’t they be trained to do so effectively? TAing is a job, and every other job I’ve ever had has required training. Teaching university students is certainly not simpler than serving coffee, or selling theatre tickets, or teaching kids and adults how to row, or working the polls for elections – I’ve done all these jobs and for all of them I got fairly intense (paid) training before I was left alone to do them on my own. On the contrary, teaching undergraduates is a lot more difficult than the other jobs I’ve done (it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it? no – it’s much more complicated). So why are grad students routinely sent off into the classroom to teach with little to no training? Why is teaching so often treated like an optional skill, only for those who want to take their own time to learn how to do it better?
Isn’t being a teacher – both in the classroom and out of it – a really important part of being a scientist?
(How) does your institution or department train graduate student TAs to teach? Do you think training could or should be offered by individual departments in “basic skills for a career in [field]”-type courses, or some other way? I’d love to hear your opinions.
*Technically, the hours you spent at these TA day sessions were deducted from the hours in your TA contract, but in practice most people I know ended up working many more hours than they were actually paid for when TAing, so it really just translated to extra unpaid hours.