The research that I undertook for my Doctorate in Education clearly indicates that the majority of PhD students dream of pursuing a research and teaching academic career, failing which, they might consider non- academic roles in industry and commerce. Going into a teaching-focused academic role is not the done thing for most PhD students. This is not surprising. Compared to the research and teaching academic role, the teaching-focused role has largely been a low status role with poor working conditions. In fact, it has only been in the past few years that universities have begun putting in place credible career pathways for academics on the teaching-focused pathway. However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is changing all that.
COVID-19 as a driver for change
Of course, it goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has been, and remains, a dark ominous cloud over our personal and professional lives. Nevertheless, just like any dark cloud of any significance, there is usually a silver lining. Within academia, that silver lining is that the pandemic suddenly brought teaching to the forefront of academic activity.
Within the UK, all academic teaching abruptly moved online at the beginning of March and has remained thus to date. This move was a shock to the entire university system, despite decades-long predictions that online education was poised to become a big part of higher education. Almost instantaneously, everyone within higher education – revered professors and early-career academics included – became novices in the new game of online and blended learning delivery. University leaders, fearful that teaching might implode at any time and imperil the entire fee-based university income, suddenly shifted their attention to teaching provision. The outcome was that long-deferred investments in online learning capability were urgently activated, and the entire university community became one large community of learning in online pedagogy and has since remained so.
The growing importance of teaching within universities
It has since become apparent that as universities seek to provide a good online student experience, recruitment for teaching-focused academics has surged. And not only that, the expectations placed on the teaching-focused role has changed. Whilst at one time, it may have been enough to demonstrate some experience or even just some awareness of teaching pedagogy to land a teaching-focused role, this is no longer the case, post-pandemic. Recruitment panels are now seeking individuals who not only have day to day teaching experience. They are now competing to secure the services of individuals who, in addition to having substantial teaching experience, also have demonstrable leadership and expertise across a range of subject-specific pedagogies. This can only mean one thing – the teaching-focused academic role has just become very important, and very attractive, and very competitive.
What this means for the PhD student
It is no longer enough for PhD students to focus only on research, or to do the least permissible amount of teaching in their departments. Teaching expertise is now highly valued, and PhD students should now invest in becoming credible professional educators, even if their future lies in research. Teaching is a significant income stream for any university, and now that stream is shaky. Higher education has become a seller’s market – the student is now in control, and the student experience is now king, whether online or face-to-face. And this is not going away, even if COVID-19 disappears. Anecdotal evidence suggests that since the beginning of the current academic year, six months after universities were forced online, the quality of education provision has never been better. Worldwide, universities have upped their game, and this has ushered in a new era of superior education provision. Students will not let this go, and it is very unlikely that we will ever go back to the taken-for-granted, sloppy standards of the pre-COVID-19 era.
Strategies for adapting to change
How then must a PhD student respond to this changing landscape? In 2016 , I wrote a blog piece entitled “Preparing for an Academic Role – Not Just a Job, but a Calling” in which I cautioned that the academic role has become so competitive that PhD students have to do so much more if they are to land a full-time role when they graduate. This now also applies to the teaching-only academic role.
As I cautioned, it is now critical that PhD students should seek to gain recognition as accomplished teachers within their subject disciplines. It is no longer enough to take up teaching support roles with a view to whiling away the time and getting paid. Take up these support roles as an apprenticeship in which you need to achieve teaching mastery. Take advantage of the professional development schemes within your university and invest your time and effort in improving your teaching skills. Seek to attain teaching recognition as a Fellow, or Associate Fellow, of the Higher Education Academy. Most universities in the UK run this recognition scheme, and outside of the UK, there are alternative schemes that achieve the same purpose.
And take the scholarly literature on education seriously. Before the pandemic, discipline-based education research was frowned upon – it was for those who were viewed as being on the “lunatic fringe” of higher education. Not so now. For instance, during the past summer, engineering education conferences and seminars have been swamped by an avalanche of new faces as academics at all career stages have been seeking to improve their pedagogic skills. Join the bandwagon, or risk never getting a foothold on an academic career. Teaching is no longer a cinderella activity – it now matters.
The university landscape is currently undergoing change, and it is unlikely we will go back to where we were before the pandemic. Indeed, education technologies to support novel forms of online and blended learning were already in place before the pandemic. However, it needed a lightning spark to set us onto the pathway to transform educational practices within universities. COVID-19 is that lightning spark, and a new future where teaching matters is beckoning.