Balancing Teaching and Research in Graduate School (and Beyond): The Myth of the Zero Sum Game

27 May 2018 12:00 PM | Anonymous

By Jared W. Keeley, Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University

Graduate school places a lot of demands upon your time. There are many balls to juggle, including classes to take, research projects to finish, work for your assistantship, engagement in applied practica (for some), and likely some sort of teaching experience. With all of those demands, it can be hard to find time for essentials like eating and bathing, much less taking time for yourself to “have a life.” With so many balls in the air, it is natural that it can be difficult to prioritize each of them.

Unfortunately, many graduate students have received the message (either explicitly or implicitly) that teaching is a low priority on that list. The typical argument is that time spent on teaching takes away time from something else that is presumably more important, like research.

Doctoral training programs typically exist in research-intensive universities, where the institutional climate often overtly values research over other professional activities. Faculty who are training graduate students have likely had to internalize this value in order to survive in that climate: the proverbial publish or perish notion. In that model of academic success, a person’s time is assumed to be a zero-sum game: time spent on something like teaching is time taken away from research.

However, I argue that this idea is a myth, albeit one that is grounded in some reality. It is true that there are only 24 hours in a day. A person can only do so much. However, the myth is predicated on the idea that time spent on teaching and research are independent and mutually exclusive. In other words, time spent on teaching is irrelevant to one’s research, and time spent on research is irrelevant to one’s teaching. To break the hold of this myth, one simply needs to find ways to overlap the two.

Thankfully, creating overlap between one’s research and teaching interests is not so hard to do. The simplest way is to teach courses that are related to one’s area of research. Reviewing a topic as part of preparing a course is a great way to generate new ideas for next steps in your own research program. Covering topics related to your research in class gives you a broader and firmer grasp of the field. Reading assignments for class could be papers that you needed to read anyways for your next literature review. Including your research can also help improve the quality of the course. Sharing your own work with the class provides a real example for your students about how the field works. Sharing examples from your own research brings the topic to life in a way that talking about other people’s studies rarely does. You can share your own passion with your students, which is one of the best ways to get them engaged in a topic. Indeed, the whole model of higher education came from the idea that people who are on the cutting edge of knowledge generation (i.e., researchers) should be the ones best suited to teach others about that topic. While that idea is incomplete in that knowing how to teach effectively is not inherent in having knowledge about a topic, the kernel of truth is that researchers are specially poised to know more about a topic than most anyone else. It is a strange and counterproductive taboo that we do not spend more time talking about our own research in our classes.

While teaching a class in one’s research area makes creating overlap easy, you do not always have control over what classes you teach, nor do you only teach classes that are in your specific research area. How then can you create overlap between teaching and research in other kinds of classes? The solution is to engage in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). As psychologists, we are all scientists, and scientists gather data to improve what they are doing. When part of your professional life includes teaching, it makes perfect sense to gather data to evaluate your teaching and suggest ways to make it better. By doing so in a principled, systematic way and then disseminating the results, you have engaged in SoTL and gotten yourself a research product along the way! In that case, course prep becomes research prep and vice versa.

There are many other factors that engender the message that teaching is not where you should spend your time as a graduate student. There is a real disparity in how teaching and research are rewarded within academia, although that disparity is more prominent at certain kinds of institutions than others. Shifting the value system of higher education is no small feat. However, not engaging in the myth in your own professional life is a good first step towards creating change.

Jared W. Keeley, Ph.D., is a Teaching Associate Professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University. Dr. Keeley's primary research interest involve the classification of psychopathology, especially as used by mental health professionals. Having formerly served as a GSTA Chair, Dr. Keeley continues to be invested  in the scholarship of teaching and learning as well.

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