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I'm currently an undergraduate student at a university in Canada. Over the past couple of years, it has become very clear to me that I want to pursue teaching as a career. My issue is that the level I want to teach at is the university level, as I feel that I am more likely to encounter students who are interested in and passionate about the material they are learning, just as I have a passion for knowledge and sharing that knowledge with others.

I have been fortunate enough already to have had opportunities to teach and lead study groups ranging in size from one-on-one sessions to larger groups of 40+ individuals, and I have experienced firsthand the joy of helping someone come to a realization, of using a great illustrative analogy, and facilitating someone else's discovery of knowledge. I mention this in an attempt to illustrate the passion I have for sharing knowledge with others.

I have also been lucky enough to develop good relationships with faculty at my institution, including instructors who have a definite focus on teaching above research. However, my understanding is that these faculty are still required to dedicate a significant portion of their time to working on research, and generating output. I have discussed my ambitions with them, and they have been supportive, but I also worry that they are perhaps painting a more fanciful picture for me than reality would warrant.

I have not yet had an opportunity to take on undergraduate research projects, but I hopefully will be able to do so in the next year or two. I am pursuing a double major in biology and physics (with an emphasis on biophysics), and am hoping to be able to undertake research projects in both disciplines.

My concern is that the academic world is very competitive, and I am not certain that I will be well-suited to the networking and politicking that such a career would require. I am aware that it is possible to get contract positions as a sessional lecturer without a PhD, but these positions are inherently unstable, and perhaps not as rewarding.

The other area I have considered is attempting to find work as an educator in the public or private school systems. However, I worry that this work would not be as rewarding, being as many high school students do not have the passion for knowledge often found in higher-level undergraduate or graduate students.

As mentioned above, I am in Canada, but I am not adverse in concept to relocating, either for purposes of study or permanently. English is my first and only language.

So, at the end of it all, my question is: what advice would you give someone hoping to find a stable, secure job teaching in biology or biophysics at the university level?

  • I don't think your question summarizes all the points you mentioned. – jak123 Jun 1 '15 at 7:19
  • The final question is in an attempt to grab people who skip to the end looking for something to answer. It was my intention that people who read the entire statement would be able to provide more useful feedback, but my current biggest concern is placed prominently so that people who skim will still encounter it. Any advice as to how to improve the question is welcomed, I'm new to the StackExchange system. – u18 Jun 1 '15 at 7:28
  • Thanks everyone, I think I'll give it a go, at least. Feeling a lot more confident because of this :) – u18 Jun 2 '15 at 1:21
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This answer pertains to the United States

Given your interests, a possible avenue to consider is a college dedicated to teaching, such as Harvey Mudd and the other SoCal colleges, Haverford, Swarthmore, and the cluster of teaching colleges in western Massachusetts (Smith, Mt Holyoke and the like).

In all of these places, your primary job is to teach. You will also have a chance to do research, and your research productivity is valued, but the amount of research you need to do, and the amounts of grant money you pull in, have very different expectations from a typical R1 university.

You will still need a Ph.D. You will still have to do all the usual networking required to get a job. But you won't need to do battle for grants in the same way, and often teaching at an undergrad college can confer a slight advantage when it comes to asking for grant money.

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In Sweden you don't have to have a Ph.D to teach but you really need to be very knowledgable in the subject. I know five people at the faculty of my department who only have master's degrees but still teach courses at the undergraduate level. One of them is my program coordinator, he's been here for 25 years.

But, they are not allowed to teach graduate level courses although one of them has been a thesis advisor for some students opting for a master's.

This is at the Computer Science Department though. I have never heard of a non-Ph.D teacher in the Physics or Math Department.

I know you're based in Canada, but English only courses is not uncommon in the EU. Although migrating here could be a huge hassle with paper work.

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In my part of Europe a teacher at a university is obliged to have a PhD (although the law defines also a "sufficiently large contribution to the field" to warrant an employment without a doctorate, however this is very rare and usually reserved for artistic fields, e.g. a successful writer teaching a literature course). This does not apply to teaching/research assistants which are commonly on a PhD track. One can't stay an assistant until retirement though, so you are looking for a professorship.

On the other hand, I know a number of professors who are primarily devoted to teaching (I hesitate to say exclusively) and that is not uncommon at all. They are also required to publish, but, as they receive no grants, the pressure is minimal. And that amount of papers, they are required to publish by university law, typically comes from collaboration with other faculty.

To summarize, I expect that you do need a PhD (and the required research that goes with it) to get a professor position. However, once you are there, I think you'll find it easy to keep up with the minimal requirements required to keep that job. This career path is not so stressful and competitive as you fear. Good teachers are very important to universities and they are also entitled for tenure.

  • You should say what part of Europe you refer to, since my impression is that some countries in Europe are actually quite different from what you describe. – Tim Jun 1 '15 at 8:03
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    Just one caveat, but a big one: In order to get a professor position, you need to publish – a lot. – henning -- reinstate Monica Jun 1 '15 at 9:05
  • @henning for a research position, sure, for a teaching position, not so much. keep in mind that that "a lot" of publishing occurs before you become a professor (at graduate and post-doc level), that is something you can't change, you need to do research to get a PhD, postdoc position and finally a teaching job, but not that much to keep it. – user3209815 Jun 1 '15 at 9:55

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