This is the second post from Dr. Emelee, a former Big 4 employee who is in process of obtaining his PhD. Read his first post here.
Now for the second statement, “The PhD is not really about teaching.”
You know how you thought those professors you only saw two days a week were chilling out the rest of the week? Well, some are. Especially if they have tenure. Being a professor can be a cake job, but to get to the gravy you still have to grind out around five brutal years after getting the doctorate. Many of the professors you only see two days a week are not chilling out. They are working somewhere else where students and bored colleagues can’t come by to bother them every half hour. They are at home working on research papers. And you now know that means they are reading up on psychology theory and thinking about how to design an experiment to see if financial compensation alters people’s risk tolerances. Or they are out teaching CPE to professionals hoping that some of these same professionals will allow the researcher to administer experiments to their employees. Or they are working with a dataset with millions of observations and spending weeks cleaning it up just to get it ready for some brutal statistical analysis. Or they are using multivariate calculus, sometimes with just a pencil and lots of scratch paper, to make sure they understand the behind-the-scenes workings of an econometric technique they are applying.
You’ll notice that teaching isn’t connected to any of that. Universities vary, but professors typically teach between one and three classes during a given semester. If profs only teach two or three classes each semester, you can do the math and see that the majority of their time is, in fact, not spent teaching. That’s why publications are the backbone of getting tenure at a university- because research truly is the main part of being a professor.
It makes perfect sense that the average person’s preconceived notions of the PhD are off the mark. Think about why people go to college. People go to college to learn to do something they don’t know how to do. For accounting, people learn the accounting rules as undergrads. They then go on for master’s degrees to hone their skills even more. So, if the undergrad and masters were about becoming better accountants, doesn’t it make sense that the PhD teaches you even more about accounting and… you become…. a Super Accountant!?!? Or even a Super Accountant that’s also a Super Teacher?!?!
This line of reasoning may make sense, but that’s not at all what happens in a PhD program. Your first classes as a PhD student will teach you about experimental design, threats to validity, the scientific method applied to social phenomenon, measurement theory, and statistics.
What about taking classes on how to teach? Do PhD programs at least train PhD students to be effective in the classroom? The answer ranges from not at all to not really. Some doctoral programs require PhD students to teach and some do not. The programs that require teaching may just make the PhD student teach without first taking any formal classes about how to teach. There are programs that require PhD students to do teaching mentorships or even take classes on teaching, but this is still rare. When classes about effective teaching are required, they are still a small fraction of what the PhD student focuses on.
But let’s be a little more precise, shall we? If a PhD student has to take one class about being an effective teacher, what portion is this of the PhD program coursework? Required coursework in a PhD program is somewhere between two and three years, between three and four classes each semester. At a maximum, 1/12 is spent learning to teach or a whopping 8%. At a minimum, 1/20 is spent learning to teach or 5%. In either case one can see that learning to teach is not a real focus of a PhD program.
Next time, I will talk about the admission process and mistakes to avoid as a new PhD student.