In the first of a new series looking at how to navigate your career during uncertain times, we speak to a Biological Sciences PhD who graduated during the last recession, and is now a Science Teacher in a private secondary school.
- Tell us about your current role and organisation.
I work in a private school as a science teacher. At the higher levels I cover just biological sciences, but at the younger ages I sometimes cover more subjects. I also take on additional responsibilities for sports and arts clubs I’m interested in.
- How did you move from academia to your current role?
I’m not much of a planner, and I’d been so wrapped up in my research that I hadn’t looked ahead and thought about how to progress in academia. When I did, towards the end of my PhD, I realised I didn’t have any teaching experience whereas other PhDs did.
So I contacted people in my department who let me do a few guest lectures on their courses to fill the gap. I also got involved with a charity that puts researchers into schools. I was doing it just to have some more teaching experience on my CV, but I found I really enjoyed the whole process! I realised teaching in schools would offer me the stability and people-contact that academia wouldn’t, so I started to consider that as my plan A and academia as my plan B.
While researching teaching, I was surprised to learn that private schools didn’t always need their teachers to take a teaching qualification, which was appealing as I didn’t fancy more study at that time. So I applied to private schools, and after making me deliver a teaching demonstration, one of them took me on.
- Did graduating into a recession have an impact on your career path?
I think there might have been something about the stability and recession-proof nature of teaching that appealed to me because of the credit crunch. Maybe that wouldn’t have meant as much to me if the world had felt more stable at that time. Also, I probably would have found the PGCE teacher-training route a bit more appealing if I’d felt more secure in getting a job afterwards. During that time it felt important to be earning money and not to go back and study again.
- What does a normal working day look like for you?
My days are very full. I’m up early and teaching students most of the day, and then a lot of evenings are taken up by marking or prep work, and some by extracurricular activities I run for the students. I like to think of creative ways to teach, which is fun, but it adds to the prep time! Obviously adapting to online teaching over the past year or so also took a lot of prep.
- What are the best things about working in your role?
There are lots of great things. I like working with people, I find it really energising. I missed that in academia, and so that’s probably the best bit for me. I also like still being in touch with science, and in a broader way than academia allows.
I went to a state school myself, and I never imagined I would work in a private school. But there are some particular perks to it that are worth mentioning. The pay is very good, and as I’ve progressed and taken on more responsibilities – both extracurricular and within the science department – it has increased. It sounds gauche to talk about, but I’m earning a lot more than my colleagues who remained in academia – even the very successful ones. Some private schools even throw free accommodation into the package! The holiday is also unbeatable. Of course all teachers get lots of holiday, but private schools often have even more holiday than state schools, so that’s been really nice, especially for those teachers who have young families. And just like academia, travel is one of the unexpected perks! Outside of pandemic conditions, some private schools send their pupils on fantastic field, sporting, and social trips, which always need teachers to supervise, so I’ve managed to travel to some amazing places for free – although obviously I’ve had to spend a lot of the time working!
- What are the worst bits?
The flip side to the amazing holiday benefits is that it’s difficult/impossible to take holiday during term-time, and during term-time the workload can be very heavy, especially if you take on extra responsibilities as I have. That way of working – very intense followed by long breaks – suits me, but it probably wouldn’t suit everyone.
- Is a PhD essential for your role?
A PhD isn’t essential, but the organisational and communication skills I developed during the PhD help. Having the PhD may well have helped me bypass the PGCE route too, and the teaching experience I had picked up during the PhD was obviously valuable. I also think it adds some extra credibility for the pupils and their parents, who often have very high expectations of the school.
- What’s the progression like?
There isn’t quite the same pressure to “progress” as there is in academia, which I actually like. But there are still lots of opportunities. You can become a head of department, and then of course a deputy head/head teacher. And some people move away from teaching to work on the educational policy side or in educational charities.
- What top tips would you pass on to a researcher interested in this type of work?
If you think teaching might be for you, give it a go – you’ll soon find out! There are lots of opportunities to work-shadow teachers and deliver sessions in schools, so seek them out. Teaching experience at university level will help you too, but it’s fairly different, so you really should get a bit of experience in schools to see if you’d like it.
I’d also advise getting involved in as many different things as possible, especially if you’re not sure where you want to end up, because you never know where they may lead – look at how I ended up in teaching!
- Are there any specific tips you would give to people graduating into a recession?
I think people have to go with how they feel. The recession made me nervous, so I went for a stable well-paid job to reduce that anxiety. Not everyone will need to do that though. I suppose when I look at all of my PhD peers who also graduated in the recession, they’re all doing fine. So maybe my advice would be, don’t worry too much about it. You have the highest qualification you can get, and you’ll have developed loads of useful skills along the way, so you’ll be employable even in a recession, you just might have to compromise for a bit depending on what you want to do.