Working as an academic at a teaching focused university

Working as an academic at a teaching focused universityWe recently hosted an inspiring speaker – Jim Sullivan –  a former Cambridge postdoc who worked as a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, a senior lecturer and now a Director of Studies at our neighbouring Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).  Jim gave some great insights on what it’s like and how to get in.  Here are some highlights.

Teaching ‘focused’ unis might not want to see themselves this way

At the Postdoc Careers Service we bandy about terms such as ‘research focused’, ‘research intensive or led’ and ‘teaching focused’ unis. While these terms have their use as broad brush definitions when you are researching future employers, our speaker pointed out that teaching ‘focused’ unis might not want to see themselves this way. While they are teaching focused—they literally have a lot of taught students relative to researchers–these institutions aspire to be more research led. So take care using our indelicate definitions when talking to future academic employers.

Over the last couple of decades, teaching was perceived as a poor relative of research, but the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework gave it a ranking boost

Teaching’s profile has increased

Over the last couple of decades, teaching was perceived as a poor relative of research, but the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework gave it a ranking boost. Suddenly universities’ teaching was being formally assessed and graded nationally, a situation that schools have long lived with. As a seasoned lecturer, Jim said that he has seen a shift in the recognition over the past years. The true value in good university teaching is being recognised, and that’s rewarding for the committed lecturer.

Teaching experience is important but it’s not always a deal breaker

At lectureship entry level, formal HE classroom teaching experience isn’t a must but the potential to be a good university teacher is. This is assessed at interview so make sure you pitch your practice lecture for 2nd year undergrads if that’s what they asked for, not for 3rd or 1st years. Experience of lecturing and giving tutorials is a definite advantage and for senior lectureships, experience in course design is required. Being able to disseminate your knowledge of teaching practice and methods is key too. So if you have designed or done something new or different related to teaching – even if it’s not an official course–don’t keep it to yourself, share with colleagues and gain evidence that you’ve done this.

HE teaching qualifications come in different shapes and sizes

Your new employer will expect you to do a higher education teaching qualification when in post. School level teaching qualifications or a fellowship at the Higher Education Academy are acceptable alternatives. Check out the opportunities to gain HE teaching qualifications and experience while you’re at the University of Cambridge.

Research skills can inform teaching and you can propose new modules based on your research expertise.

You will bring valuable ideas with you too

You may feel that you’re too research focused. Jim stressed that you will be bringing valuable ideas to the table. Your research experience will be appreciated if it fits into the institution’s research agenda. Research skills can inform teaching and you can propose new modules based on your research expertise. Research into good teaching practice – pedagogy – is sought after and might be a nice change from your current research field. Don’t forget you will have student projects related to what you teach on the go–undergrad final and masters –which will help push your research agenda.

Jim sees academic roles being a tripartite of research, teaching and administration.

University employers will love your inner administrator

The stereotype of the chaotic academic belies the importance of strong admin skills and how attractive they are to academic employers. ARU were very interested in Jim’s admin experience in health and safety at Queen Mary, and not long after he joined ARU, he became the biological safety officer writing uni policies in H&S. Another recent speaker Catarina Gadelha of the research led University of Nottingham agrees. Catarina has tons of teaching experience but you know what made the difference in her opinion? The ‘unusual’ –unglamorous teaching admin. She trained new tutors unfamiliar with the tutorial system, supported open days, attended committee meetings. “Those activities really impressed the Nottingham panel”, she said, “because teaching administration is much more important to a university! “

Not all lectureships are the same in the same institution

Jim sees academic roles being a tripartite of research, teaching and administration. Indeed a lecturer role in his institution can be based on varying proportions of any of the three e.g. 75% admin, 25% teaching. Promotions happen across all combinations and are not solely aligned to research output. Not that those years training are wasted if you don’t do much research. Jim finds his research skills – information finding –strengthens his effectiveness in academic admin.

How to get experience and a foot in the door

Owing to its organisational complexity, getting lecturing experience isn’t easy at the University of Cambridge, so looking at ad-hoc lecturing at other institutions is an option worth considering. ARU have associate lecturer roles – teaching on fixed hour contracts or marking assessments. They’re rarely advertised so you are advised to send a CV to the relevant head of School. And don’t let short-term contracts, eg maternity cover, put you off. It’s a foot in the door which usually leads to longer term options

If you don’t like it, you can leave

A teaching focused job might feel like a radical move from a postdoc at a research focused uni. If you think you’ll like teaching and all the rewards and complexities it brings, try it, says Jim. If you decide you don’t really like it, you are not stuck there.

By Anne Forde

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