Why aren’t grad students taught how to teach?


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.

18 thoughts on “Why aren’t grad students taught how to teach?

  1. Great post! There’s a long list of stuff I was never taught to do, and it now makes up about 99% of my job.

    One possibility: your average science faculty member can probably teach you something useful about writing, about grantspersonship (is that a word?), about giving a seminar. But whether we’re good at teaching or bad, I’m not sure how much we can teach you about that! This would be fine, if we would then go get people who do know how to teach teaching to do it in out stead. But we seem to be, as a rule, deeply suspicious of the teach-teaching folks in our Education departments, etc. I think this attitude has faded somewhat since I was at the start of my career, and that’s a good thing. My university offers a “Diploma in University Teaching”, which a fair number of grad students take – but as an additional credential, not as paid training for their TA “job”. (Whether TAing is really a “job”, or whether it’s an apprenticeship, is a whole other post and a complex matter).

    • Thanks for commenting, Stephen! Yes – I was just talking to my supervisor yesterday about how professors aren’t ever trained to do most of the things that they do, like mentoring students, managing grant $$, etc. (as well as teaching). My old university also offered a certificate in teaching, but it was geared toward almost-finished grad students wanting to pursue a career in academia/teaching.

  2. I was never taught to teach during graduate school. Of course I had had lots of experiences in classrooms as a student and I was fortunate to be a TA for field courses as a graduate student (everyone, with or without grant support had to TA in the labs for UG courses for an academic year). That was a fabulous experience and very empowering.
    When I started teaching at an undergraduate institution with a heavy teaching load, I used my own experiences as a student to try to recreate the best teaching experiences I had had as a student (my favorite assignments, the style of lectures, the kinds of lab experiences) in my classrooms. It has worked for me. I would have been offended that I would have to take a course on teaching after years of experience in a classroom as a student.

  3. The Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning (CIRTL) Network of US universities focuses on preparing STEM grad students and postdocs for careers with a teaching component. To reach people beyond the 23 universities in the network, CIRTL created a MOOC about teaching and learning in higher ed. It runs on coursera and starts Sep 28. It’s really good and Co-leader Derek Bruff is excellent. Check it out at


    If you’re on Twitter, follow @CIRTLMOOC and #STEMteaching. More about the CIRTL Network here:



    P.S. There’s a good chance CIRTL will expand into Canada within the next year – watch for it!

  4. Andrea, I agree with you that having the opportunity to TA in grad school is a fantastic experience. I also think we all use our experiences as students to inform our teaching. However, I personally don’t think that being a student myself and observing good (and bad) teachers was sufficient training to become an effective teacher myself. I’ve sought out additional teaching workshops and resources online, but I still think I could benefit from a solid formal introduction to best practices in teaching. Perhaps a lot of folks agree with you that they don’t need formal training, and that’s why voluntary training sessions don’t get a lot of participants.

    I also think that being required to take a course about teaching when beginning a teaching job ought not to be offensive to anyone – one hopes that teachers are constantly learning and open to new information that helps them to become more effective.

  5. I had a very similar experience during my PhD, because the graduate school offered a large number of workshops and seminars on time management, different soft-skills etc. but almost none regarding teaching. Only after 2 years in my PhD, I realized that there is another program at the university which offers a teaching certificate and that I could have attended those workshops as well. This other program is however mainly oriented to PostDocs and because all PostDocs who want to get their habilitation at my uni have to have this certificate, it is extremely difficult to get a place in the workshops.

    As far as I have heard from the PostDocs at my lab, they not only covered ‘good’ teaching styles in the workshops but also some legal aspects, e.g. when grading the exams.

  6. I’m feeling a little bitter because I started my grad career by getting very minimal training on how to teach, but I lucked out and got a good teaching mentor (as well as working with a few people who taught me about what not to do) and now after 3 years of nonstop TAing in the spring and fall, I’m pretty comfortable in a classroom and I’m definitely comfortable managing a group of students.

    Unfortunately, I just picked up a new class with a special designation this semester, and everyone who TAs for a course with this designation for the first time has to go through this informal teaching training thing which involves meeting weekly for an hour and a half, observing each other teach, and writing weekly reflections on our classes. I’m really frustrated with it, because it’s a big time suck and I am genuinely not learning anything new from it. I’m certainly not the only experienced TA teaching this course for the first time, either, since the course deliberately recruits experienced TAs who care deeply about teaching!

    I’m also frustrated because I’m now in my fourth year and my university is pushing us hard to graduate after five, in a program where the average is 6.5 years. I’m feeling really pressured to get my actual research program rolling as fast as I can. There’s no nice way to say “I know this stuff, this training came at a really unhelpful time for me, and you are my last priority even though more generally I think this is a good idea and wish it had been around when I was a first-year when I could have used it.”

    I guess the thing that’s bugging me is… where are we supposed to find the time to do teaching well and research at the level that’s expected out of us, and deal with any course work, in the shortest amount of time possible and with minimal support? In my field, there just isn’t the money in most labs for RAs outside maybe getting summers off. There certainly isn’t always good support for grad students when it comes to teaching or research. Including more education on how to teach for students does come at the expense of other things that I could do with that time, and I’m not necessarily sure that all branches of administration or research have a ton of… shall we say, respect for how much a grad student should be working. It’s been my experience that administrative decisions about what grad students “should” be doing tend to be made without an understanding about what grad students should skip in order to get the new thing done.

  7. Erin – I can definitely understand your frustration. Being obligated to spend time doing training that’s not useful is crappy. Ideally there should be useful (and timely) support for TAs.

  8. My PhD-granting institution had a semester-long, once-weekly TA training seminar that covered an array of topics, including subjects like creating an inclusive classroom. I wish it had been more in-depth on teaching about writing, but I was also lucky enough to participate in an intensive program on writing across disciplines as an undergraduate.

    There’s probably a self-perpetuating cycle at play. Who will teach the “Teaching Biology” course?

  9. I was very involved with the structuring of TA training at my university as a grad student (I graduated in August). Part of the problem, as Rebecca leads into, is that Universities are usually not equipped with the personnel to provide what I would consider more of an upper level training (teaching about writing, for example) that some future faculty desire. Typically TA positions (in my experience) don’t have much training for their specific courses because TA’s typically re-hash what has been done for years anyway. Faculty just hand you last year’s lab manual and say go for it.

    My university had a single faculty member in the Center of Teaching dedicated to graduate student professional development. One professional trying to reach out the the hundreds of TAs. Even if she could reach all of them, it gets stuck at a lower-level (which I would consider something like a workshop on how to design a syllabus) simply because of logistical restraints. With that said, other than the TA training (which was a one-day ordeal), graduate students seeking additional development attended weekly workshops and seminars organized by a graduate-student organization. It’s run by graduate students passionate about disseminating knowledge about good teaching practices. I am glad the organization existed, it was overseen by above-mentioned faculty member. and it provided alot of opportunities for me. However, at the deepest level it made me sad/frustrated that these opportunities had to be provide by fellow graduate students and not the university itself.

    I echo remarks about CIRTL.

    Other than workshops at the university which can be hit or miss for their usefulness depending on the topic and presenter. the most productive sources of professional development for teaching I have had have been (1) blogs, (2) informal conversations with others passionate about teaching. If you want more, my two cents is to go find it, because universities won’t be able to provide it.

    Related: I am hoping this topic comes up over and over until things change. It hurts future faculty and the undergraduates we are attempting to teach as graduate students. We can’t have “Vision and Change” unless graduate students are on board and prepared too.

  10. Also I have noticed in the job market more and more teaching/educational research positions. Maybe that’s a clue that soon we will have more folks at our colleges and universities that can serve as resources fill these gaps. However, I would like to think that one doesn’t have to have training/publications in the educational research field to do so. Teaching using “evidence based practices” (provided by education researchers) is important but experience (i.e., number of years teaching and intentionally trying to improve one’s craft) could (should?) have equal weight in determining who exactly should be hired to help.

  11. I’m actually in the middle of a teaching course as part of my Phd. I’m at a Swedish university for my Phd and we’re expected to take the Academic Teacher Training Course if we’re teaching. I understand (although I’m not sure) that we’re supposed to take the course before teaching, although this wasn’t my experience, especially since I was a TA when I did my MSc in Canada. I also did find that it was difficult to get into the course in the first place (3rd application’s the charm), which is part of how I ended up teaching here before having taken the course. To be really honest, the course has some really useful tips, but, I can echo other’s comments above, that parts of it are at a basic level to make sure that everyone is on the same page. That said, it’s a really useful venue to put us in contact with the pedagogy researchers, and with folks who we could ask questions of in the future. I don’t know what other European universities are like on this, but this seemed standard in Sweden, I think.

  12. Eryn, I guess this is your excuse for not joining us at the science communication course :) But you saved me from writing about the system here which I was just about to do. Although there are pluses and minuses, I think it is great that there is a requirement to take a teaching course. I had been a TA at 3 universities before I had one (late in my PhD). Although I had great mentors along the way, it is really useful to get some specific training in the craft of teaching. It would be good if more programs did this (although in a way that doesn’t waste everyone’s time, of course).

  13. You have training courses available? We don’t even have that much support. I was thrown into a classroom in my first semester (they were desperate for TAs) and was basically told ‘good luck.’ This is my second year and I can’t say that I’m a talented teacher, it’s honestly my lowest priority due to my own GPA and research taking priority.

  14. I was handed a class without ever meeting someone face to face. All that mattered was that I was enrolled as a student, and… had and email account. I’m surprised that hasn’t bitten the department in the ass yet.

    Learned a lot, but I feel kind of bad for the students that had me that first semester.

  15. We didn’t get trained how to teach, at all. All the times I was an undergraduate TA (both for mandatory and elective courses), all that mattered was that I got good grades in the course I wanted to teach. That lead to some TAs being very knowledgeable on the course material, but not too effective in transmitting said knowledge. To TA you had to pass a written test: for Animal Biology Lab, for example, you were shown some specimens/slides and were asked to answer some questions regarding taxonomy and anatomy, and later some theoretical questions regarding phylogeny, anatomy and adaptations. Not once were you asked to stand up in front of people and explain a certain topic or answer questions, so you basically learned on the go. It’s no different in grad school; for some subjects I just attended classes with the professor and graded papers (another thing for which I was never formally trained, and should have), but other times the professor simply gave me the student list and the course outline, and asked me to hand in the final grades at the end of the trimester.

    Fortunately the courses I’ve had so far respond to my teaching style, but I was never taught how to deal with students who failed to grasp concepts the first few times you explain it, how to objectively grade papers/presentations, how to make a good slide presentation, how to avoid fillers, how to reduce stage fright, and all those other things that can mean the difference between enjoying and dreading a class, for both TA and students.

Leave a Reply