By Aglaia Kempinski |

In most disciplines, it is more or less expected that you should be tutoring at some point during your PhD. Now, there are two obvious reasons as to why that is a good idea. It looks good on your CV and you will get paid.

However, when you find yourself up to your neck in essays to grade, struggling to communicate concepts that you think should be painfully obvious to a bunch of innocent young minds, teaching can turn into a nightmare of stress and frustration. So without further ado, here is my list of how to turn those challenges around and make your tutoring experience both fun and actually useful to you.


Turn the drain on your time into an efficiency make-over

If you are teaching, say, three tutorials a week, it can seem like it is taking away time that could be better spent on your research. Between the actual teaching hours, attending the lecture, responding to emails, preparation and marking assignments, the accumulated hours are significant. When I first found myself confronted with this impingement on my time, I panicked. It seemed like I would never be able to get back into my own research. After a week and a half of despair, however, I buckled down and made myself a plan as to how I can use my time as efficiently as possible.

Once I applied this newly found urge of efficiency to all my areas of work I actually started saving time. Furthermore, having to get to a tutorial at a set time with the pressure to perform can really pull you out of the kind of rut that you might find yourself in when doing independent research. A little bit of accountability with regards to how you spend your time can really go a long way in getting you on a more productive trajectory.

relax with book

Once you have saved all that time you can take your vintage clock and your books for a picnic in the park


Let unresponsive students kick you back into shape

If you are lucky, all your students are visibly excited about what you are teaching and committed from day one. Chances are, however, that this is not the case. Once in a while, you will struggle to keep them interested – or worse, struggle to explain whatever it is you are meant to help them understand. When this happens, it is easy to just get frustrated and blame your students for their lack of passion or intelligence. Needless to say, this is not a healthy attitude to take – it is not only unhelpful but also conceited. Instead, try to appreciate the free of charge feedback you are being supplied with. Maybe you struggle to get people excited because you have become a little jaded about the subject yourself? Maybe you are having a hard time explaining because your grasp on the subject is not as firm as it should be? In either case, it is better to become aware of this sooner rather than later and you should be grateful to get this feedback implicitly from your students rather than explicitly from your viva examiners.

So when you sit down and reconnect with your passion and understanding of whatever it is you are teaching, don’t just think of it as being for the benefit of your students – it’s really for your own good.  Moreover, once you have invested some effort and creativity into how you can get your points across, it will not only make your tutoring sessions much more fun, it will also develop ability to communicate passion and knowledge to other people – an invaluable skill for an academic career.


Turn the abyss of marking into your personal writing boot camp

Now, make no mistake: by and large, marking essays is excruciating. Especially if the number of papers you have to grade is anywhere north of 50. When you see the odd first year essay which is completely devoid of citations except for a reference to the Daily Mail, you will want to tear your hair out in exasperation and give up on the education system for good. Of course, the majority of essays will be much better, but it is still easy to get judgemental and frustrated about how others write. When this happens, make sure you remember that these students have only just entered the academic world. Like you did when you were at this point of your studies, they still have much to learn. It is up to you to provide them with helpful feedback on how to conduct their research and structure their writing.

Chances are that having to remind people over and over again that they need to critically evaluate their sources might help you realise how to improve your own writing. In fact, just after a marking marathon you might, temporarily, become particularly apt at identifying incoherent structures and weaknesses in written arguments – the perfect time to revisit and improve some of your chapter drafts.


Back in the olden days, marking was done on actual paper. 


Finally, let your students humble you.

The best part of teaching, however, is the students. Undergraduates, by nature not as stuck into the subject as us isolated PhD students, can help you reconnect with the real world. More often than you might expect, your students will actually come up with ideas or perspectives you never even thought about. I have a number of students whose intellectual capacities are VASTLY better developed than mine were in my first year. Other students will impress you with their motivation and passion for the subject. Fortunately, you don’t need to be jealous because you already got to where you are. So you are free to just enjoy the deeply thrilling and satisfying feeling of being able to help on their path towards a more enlightened understanding of the world around us. While a sense of purpose might at first seem like a somewhat idealistic reason to tutor, if you let it, this feeling will creep up on you every now and then – ride that wave of satisfaction while it lasts. It can get addictive.


Aglaja is a third year phd student at Edinburgh. After training as a camera (wo)man during my undergrad years I haphazardly stumbled into a masters program doing Anthropology of Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I am now happily merging those two directions into my PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. I have no idea where this process is going but 8 years in higher education have provided me with enough faith in what is happening with my academic endeavours for me to know it is going some bizarre interesting place full of imposter syndrome and wonder.

(all images © Flickr)