Lilia Mantai tosses up her bonnet

Pracademics – Teaching during the PHD

Every once in a while, we’ll be asking Macquarie pracademics about their teaching scholarship and research. For this article we asked Learning Innovation Hub Senior Learning Designer and Teche regular Dr Lilia Mantai, who graduated on 21 September 2017 with a PhD on doctoral education (very meta) at Macquarie.

Tell us about your PhD

My PhD explored the role of social support (including networks, sense of community and belonging, collegiality and friendships) in developing as a researcher. It is no secret that it takes a village to raise a PhD graduate (I can’t list them all here but I want to thank my supervisors, de facto mentors, and colleagues for the millionth time) and it takes even more people to raise a researcher. One’s networks and communities, friends, family and colleagues all contribute to how one develops and views themselves as a researcher. What many in doctoral education don’t realise or appreciate enough is that becoming a researcher and actually developing an identity as a researcher is closely tied in with other roles and identities PhD candidates perform in activities in and outside PhD study. In my PhD I was able to pinpoint the kinds of events, activities and instances where PhD candidates developed researcher identities and beyond, based on conversations with 64 PhD candidates from two different universities. I want to thank every single one of them for sharing their stories with me  – they made this thesis possible.

What were some of your key findings with regard to the PhD and teaching?

Teaching, tutoring and working on other people’s research projects during PhD study was very important to many candidates I talked to. It’s those kind of activities they drew their confidence and motivation from, where they learned about what it means to work as an academic, put their newly developed knowledge and skills into practice, or learn something they could apply in their PhD study. Many PhD candidates juggle academic, researcher, teacher, student and professional identities every day. Gaining early teaching experience in the university was critical for PhD candidates, especially if pursuing a university or an academic career. The majority of PhD candidates still do want an academic career despite the persisting drought of continuing academic roles. For many of my research participants, teaching was a significant source of recognition, professional development and confidence building, all of which falls into their professional identity work. Sadly, although PhDs are doing much of the teaching, they are rarely recognised as such and teaching is rarely accommodated (and sometimes barely tolerated) in PhD candidature plans. PhD candidates are increasingly recognised as Early Career Researchers but less as Early Career Academics, whose current and future roles encompass research AND teaching. Also, for many PhD candidates is a convenient source of income.

What has doing a PhD on doing a PhD taught you?

So much! Here are a few lessons learned:

  1. Developing PhD researchers is about care. We need to acknowledge the diverse life and work experiences, unique circumstances and aspirations candidates bring to the PhD, and design PhD journeys accordingly where possible.
  2. Getting tenure in academia, as a woman, won’t be easy, but I’ll ignore this for as long as I can.
  3. It is the things I did ‘outside’ my PhD that made me (and made me feel like) a professional, academic, and researcher. Things such as organising  conferences, writing retreats, even a poster exhibition (at Parliament House); managing budgets; co-authoring reports and publications; teaching in International Studies; tweeting; attending workshops and seminars on campus; and all the corridor chats!
  4. Whatever career you aspire to, you need to take the initiative and be flexible. Be prepared to say Hi! to the person you want to work with and use opportunities that can widen your career horizons. You need to be your own professional developer.
  5. Education is reflective practice, we need to make space for reflection in any work, in and outside the university. There is hardly any learning without reflection.
  6. I know stuff and I can do stuff. I know myself and my skills better now.

Why is it important to talk about teaching during the PhD?

My research has shown the PhD to be a type of researcher development curriculum for fostering life-long scholarship, critical thinking and effective communication. Practice and experience as a university teacher boosts capacity and confidence in all these things. A further benefit is that as a current PhD student you are also perhaps more pre-disposed to applying a scholarly, reflective approach to your teaching. This means a research-based approach to teaching, i.e. What is best practice for student engagement? How to design assessments? What forms of feedback are most effective in what sort of spaces? What are barriers to working with undergraduate students on research? Universities as scholarly research communities can only benefit from scholarly teaching approaches.

I also see ‘teaching’ as broader than just teaching a class or giving a lecture. Teaching for me is communication and dissemination of research-based evidence, as well as the ideas, values and findings of a research area. This happens in any professional role (not just ‘teaching’), to any audience (not just ‘students’ or ‘pupils’) and in any setting (not just in a ‘classroom’ or ‘online’). In a way, teaching is ‘caring for’ and ‘carrying on’ one’s discipline. When I explain to my friends how doctoral education works I am educating them about academia, research, the system, the ‘academic game’, etc. So if we realise that essentially PhDs develop teachers and communicators as well as researchers, who go out into roles with industry, communities and government (and that’s a good thing!), perhaps we can re-evaluate teaching and make space for it throughout the PhD. More importantly, we can redesign PhD programs to develop strong and solid teaching competencies. I am currently working on the Reframing the PhD project which argues for the need to integrate teaching development in PhDs.

If the PhD is preparation for an academic career (this is currently being debated across many forums), it needs to include, or at least recognise, teaching and teaching practice as an essential part of its ‘curriculum’. And if the PhD is to be useful for careers outside academia, the major contribution that teaching experience can make to those careers, should also be recognised.

By Lilia Mantai in response to questions by Karina Luzia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *