If you work in an academic research role it’s likely that teaching already takes up a significant amount of your time, but have you ever thought about going the whole hog and switching to science teaching as a career? Following last week’s announcement of the 2011 US Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, Naturejobs spoke to three of the awardees who chose teaching over traditional research. What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of this career path, and would it necessarily mean the end of your interest in original research?
Moving from research to teaching does not make you any less of a professional, emphasises William Wallace, a former molecular biologist who now teaches physiology and research methods in biology at Georgetown Day School in Washington DC. “You can be a leader in the field and you can be challenged intellectually,” he says. “I’ve had as much professional satisfaction teaching as I did being a research scientist.”
Joan Christen from Beatrice High School in Nebraska, who gained her PhD in entomology while working as a full-time high-school teacher, agrees that there are distinct parallels between the two fields. “[Teaching] can be a very rewarding and very frustrating experience, just like traditional research,” she says.
One of the most important things to consider about a career in teaching, says Wallace, is whether or not you genuinely enjoy working with children and young people. “If you don’t particularly like kids but you love science, you’re going to have a tougher time,” he says.
Scratching the research itch
Retaining a degree of academic freedom can be a critical factor for scientists considering a career change. Wallace, who works at an independent school, and Christen, who works at a public school, have both been able to design their own classes focused on the scientific method. Michael Frank, who teaches primarily biology at Empire High School in Tucson, Arizona, also says his students design and carry out original research and do a lot of practical experimentation. “I want my students to learn the process of science,” he says. “I scratch my research itch that way.”
Students in Christen’s independent-research class have studied a wide variety of topics, including the effect of garter-snake venom on cell lysis and the transpiration rates of transgenic corn versus non-transgenic corn. “I feel like I still have a research career, albeit not the traditional [one],” she says.
The ability to retain a hands-on role is a major draw of teaching for many. Wallace progressed to faculty level in his academic research career before becoming a teacher, and made the move partly due to the politics he encountered as he climbed the research career ladder. Frank also became disillusioned with the thought of a faculty position. “I wanted to teach and do research, not be a manager,” he says.
Like research, teaching is subject to funding constraints. “Budgets are being cut every year,” cautions Christen. Frank also highlights the challenges of keeping under-18s in check. “If you think you might want to make the switch to teaching at the pre-college level, be sure to spend some time in those sorts of classrooms,” he says.
But despite the potential drawbacks, all three teachers enthusiastically recommend a career in education to scientists at all levels. “This is a great career,” says Frank, while Wallace believes he has made more difference to society as a teacher than he could have as a research scientist. “There is a need for good teachers to motivate the next generation,” says Christen. “If you have a passion for what you do and enjoy working with kids, I would recommend a move into teaching in a heartbeat.”
Thinking about a move into science teaching? Or have you made the switch already? Share your thoughts and experiences below.