Universities require a doctorate degree to apply for a faculty position which involves both teaching and research. Even if the professor did not receive any formal training in pedagogy, it is expected that they will pick up a few things over time.

If a graduate student who does not have a doctorate degree, nor has any formal training teaches a course, wouldn't it be unfair to the students? In many situations, there are no quality/standard checks in place before a graduate student is allowed/asked to teach a course.

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    I think this is very dependent and field specific, and can also be advantageous for students in some cases. Take math for example. A first year calculus course is pretty standard in content, and the graduate student could deliver this material very easily and potentially be more social and relatable to current students than the professor. In the latter case, I would argue that you’d get a better education. – GrayLiterature May 17 '20 at 13:22
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    I’ve had horrible experiences in classes with professors who could not teach to save a day in their lives, and then gone to YouTube for a non-PhD to explain a concept. What medium then offers the better education in that instance? I think the nuance in your question is important. – GrayLiterature May 17 '20 at 13:24
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    Note that in many aspects of life, instructors do not have doctoral degrees. Most yoga teachers, language teachers, painting teachers, high schools teachers have not -- and still can teach valuable courses (in some cases even without peadagogy courses). – user111388 May 17 '20 at 15:15
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    Another side remark: While I find the idea that people teach in high schools without peadagogy or similar education completely bonkers, in this forum I have often read "What can I do after my math study?" --answer: "You can always start teaching in high school after the phd", so apparently in the US one can even teach in high school without peadagogy training. So it is probably not too far off for uni instructors.. – user111388 May 17 '20 at 15:18
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    Not all universities require a doctoral degree to teach, or even to apply for a faculty position. – Morgan Rodgers May 17 '20 at 16:28

Since cultural differences may be important here: I'm in .

As you say, the teaching staff in academia learns teaching mostly in a form of training on the job. Pedagogy training for university teaching staff is a rather recent advance here, and I'm not sure how widespread that is done (read: likely still rare).

Within that system, you have to start at some point: said professors would lack teaching experience if they had not started accumulating this experience as grad students.

Here, grad or PhD students start their "teachin career" by first teaching "low impact" courses: settings where bad teaching doesn't do too much harm. E.g. a single experiment in a labwork practicum. Or a seminar that discusses homework (i.e. the excercises that all students should already be able to solve on their own). As they accumulate experience (also experience with oral presentations in general), they advance step by step: teaching internal seminars to the group, at some point teaching a single lecture for a colleague. Someone teaching a whole but still small course (typically on subjects related to their research specialization) is typically advanced postdoc/PI level. All these are still under the official supervision of the professor. Finally, teaching university courses without any supervision (i.e. in their own responsibility) is typically achieved after habilitation.

What about quality checks? The professor stays responsible for the teaching. So while they can ask a grad student to help with the teaching, they must make sure that this teaching will be at an acceptable quality.


Yes, it is ethical, but it can't be done in a vacuum. You don't just throw an unqualified person at a group of students and expect anything good to come from it. But, where this is done, there are normally some controls in place.

For example, a graduate student given sole responsibility for a course will probably have TA'd in the course previously, working with a regular faculty member. It is also likely that there will be a regular faculty member responsible for some oversight. Most such courses are elementary, where the graduate student can be assumed to be thoroughly familiar with the material, at least, if not with pedagogy.

Also, there is normally a selection process in which some thought is given to who should teach these courses. Again, normally, the students will be somewhat experienced and will have seen a lot of professors and will likely get some sense, imperfect of course, on how to go about it.

But, I think it would be extremely rare for a grad student to be completely responsible for the course design and delivery. Likely the syllabus and learning materials are chosen by others. The exams may be graded collectively if there are a large number of such "sections" of a course. Student complaints would be taken seriously.

And some grad students do get a bit of practice in lecturing, at least when a prof assigns them the task of preparing and delivering a lecture on some topic in a course they are taking. I had this (unsettling) experience as an undergraduate, actually.

In the US, it is rare, in fact, for a new Assistant Professor of mathematics to have any formal training at all in pedagogy. I think this is different in EU, as colleagues there have expressed a bit of horror when they learn of this. New faculty struggle along and hopefully don't do too much damage.

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    I'm not sure "formal training in pedagogy" is common in the EU. I think by now, one can get some training if one actively looks for that, though. – cbeleites unhappy with SX May 17 '20 at 13:37
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    "a graduate student given sole responsibility for a course" in Germany (and in my field), I know of cases where professors got in trouble for less (having too many individual sessions in a first-year lecture held by his PhD students). – lighthouse keeper May 17 '20 at 14:32
  • My wife was given sole control of history course, with some oversight, while she was a grad student. Although that involved a slightly unusual situation with the tenured professor that normally taught that course having passed away. – TimothyAWiseman May 18 '20 at 21:13

If you ever run a large department or institution or similarly large organization, you will discover that every decision that you make (and you will make lots of decisions, every single day) has many consequences and is strongly interrelated to many other decisions you have to make. Some of those consequences will be good (say, saving money, or allowing an inexperienced employee to gain experience with some essential professional skill), and some will be bad (say, compromising the quality of the work product generated by the employee-in-training).

With each decision you make, imagine someone coming along, pointing out a single bad consequence Y of a single decision X taken in isolation of all the other consequences and interrelated decisions, and asking “is it ethical to do X when it leads to bad consequence Y?”

This is what you are doing. Yes, it’s ethical. In fact ethics has nothing to do with it. You are applying absolutist logic (“professors have PhDs, therefore only people with PhDs can ethically teach undergraduates”) where it doesn’t apply. Allowing graduate students to teach is simply a natural device that can be used to achieve multiple positive goals within an academic institution. It inevitably involves making some compromises about certain things. But that’s true for all decisions made anywhere by anyone.

Look at the big picture, and you’ll see that universities function well overall even though they are regularly engaging in this supposedly ethically problematic practice. And if you think you’ve got a better system figured out, try to found your own university and show everyone how you can produce well-educated undergraduates as well as highly trained graduate students, on a budget that’s competitive with other universities’ budget, without using the problematic practice. Then we can have a discussion about ethics. But remember, to do this you’ll have to take all the details of the entire organization into account, not just a single consequence of a single decision.

  • I don't think I am being absolutist here. If you see my question, I am qualifying the ethical decision based on placing proper quality checks. If a professor delegates teaching duties to a graduate student because he/she doesn't care about teaching (which is nor rare), I think it is an ethical issue. You say Universities function well overall. I think this is true when it comes to research. But the average 6 year graduation rate is 60% (nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=40), which is too low in my opinion. I don't think Universities are "functioning well". – Eracnet May 18 '20 at 12:16
  • @Eracnet sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about. It sounds like you misunderstand how the system works. The decision to let grad students teach courses is made by the university administration not by individual professors. At least at my institution there are quality checks and a mentoring system. But that’s beside the point, if some other university is poorly managed then that can mean the people running it are incompetent. But incompetence and unethical behavior are two completely different things. And even the conclusion of incompetence is suspect, it’s more likely that ... – Dan Romik May 18 '20 at 12:41
  • ... it’s simply not as easy as you imagine to design the utopian university of your dreams. – Dan Romik May 18 '20 at 12:41
  • FWIW -- this question seems to assume that people with PhDs are good at teaching, and people without, are not. Or at least they are correlated. In my experience this is not the case -- in fact, being able to teach something like an Intro Calculus course is more about being willing to emotionally engage with it, and that seems negatively correlated with experience, in my experience. Younger teachers do a better job, because they're not sick of it yet. So in that sense -- it would be unethical to have a full professor teach it. – Richard Rast May 18 '20 at 23:12

In the UK, there are teacher training programs and courses for teachers at a school level or university level.

However, one can still teach without those qualifications, if one has relevant experience of the material - more likely at university or college level but not so likely at school level.

To teach in schools, the school is likely to check on your background as any convictions related to minors will mean they will be concerned for the children in their care...

The UK has a government website where those registered are listed with certain details, so that may help schools or universities looking to employ in some cases.

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