Five years ago, I left university research for a career as a high school and junior high school science teacher. At the time, I felt like I was the only Ph.D.-level scientist who had ever gone directly from a postdoctoral position to a secondary school job. However, I have since met many others who are opting for this career path. With this essay, I hope to inspire others to explore this profession, or at least to ease the transition for those who have already made the decision. Although the salary is not as high as that of an assistant professor or industrial researcher, I have never experienced greater job satisfaction than I have for the last 5 years. And, hey, I get summers off!
After I received a bachelor's degree in biology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, I began to look at graduate schools. I was advised by one of my professors to put the following into my applications: "I would like to be trained as a Ph.D.-level scientist so that I may teach and conduct research at the university level." At this time, I could not imagine another career path for a postgraduate scientist, and no other options were presented to me. Upon entering graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, I settled into my thesis laboratory, where I studied chromatin structure and gene expression in Drosophila. I thoroughly enjoyed the graduate student lifestyle: making my own hours, having intellectual discussions with colleagues I liked and respected, and attending conferences. I even enjoyed the macaroni and tuna diet, supplemented by seminar food and lab potlucks.
My thesis project proceeded by fits and starts. Although I contemplated leaving graduate school when my project hit a dead end, my thesis adviser and the graduate program director encouraged me to remain in school and try a different project. Eventually, most of my work was published and I found a postdoctoral position at Yale University, where I began studying microtubule-based motor proteins. I had since lost a great deal of enthusiasm for laboratory research, but I hoped that working in a different field would reenergize me.
Instead, my experiences caused me to question my career goals. Although I still loved science, I decided that full-time bench work was not right for me. I began to consider two different careers: secondary school teaching and museum work. My thesis mentor is heavily involved in the science outreach programs in the St. Louis community, so she recognizes the value of excellent secondary school science education. She was extremely supportive of my decision. My postdoctoral adviser was initially surprised but realized that I was not making this decision lightly. He pledged to do whatever he could to help me as I searched for a new job.
Seeking experiences that would help me decide if teaching was the right career for me, I stumbled across a Yale University group known as DEMOS. DEMOS is a student-run organization that brings science-related activities to New Haven, Connecticut, elementary school students. I found this program to be immensely rewarding. The students were excited, and they transferred their energy to us. At the same time I was participating in this group, I began a teacher certification program at a local college, applied to the New York City Board of Education for provisional certification, and entered the job market by registering with a national, independent school placement service. Independent schools include parochial and nonreligious schools that do not receive the majority of their financial support from a religious organization or a state department of education. Formerly known as ?private? schools, these schools are now known as independent schools to better reflect their open admissions policies and increasingly diverse student and faculty populations. When a job opportunity presented itself at a new independent school in the city of Joplin, Missouri, I took the plunge and dived into the teaching world as a biology and chemistry instructor.
Many of my former teachers told me that you really learn how to teach on the job, and this was certainly true for me. Although I faced few serious disciplinary issues that first year, I did find that basic classroom management was still the most challenging part of the job. The students respected my knowledge of the subject, but they were determined to test me in other ways (the scissors in the ceiling being a good example). A mentor told me, "Never smile until Thanksgiving, and never laugh until Christmas!" This is good advice that is very difficult to follow. I could not predict which activity was going to work with a particular class until I tried it, lesson plans notwithstanding. A teacher often has to prod, tease, and entertain junior high school and high school students to teach them; lecturing alone seldom works as well as it does at the university level.
I made plenty of mistakes that year, including oversleeping on one of my first days! Nevertheless, I knew after the first month that this was the job for me. I found my 7th, 9th, and 12th grade students to be much more fun to teach than any undergraduates I had instructed during my graduate school days. The younger students asked more questions, and they were more excited about the subject. Soon, their accomplishments became my accomplishments. I had to create my own curriculum--a tremendous responsibility--and I found that my scientific training made me much more adaptable than I might have imagined.
Two years ago, I moved back to St. Louis to work at another independent school, Crossroads School, where I currently teach advanced-placement biology and introductory biology for 10th graders. My day typically begins at 7:30 a.m. and continues until 4:00 p.m., an hour or so after school lets out. Then, I might grade papers, watch the students compete in a basketball game, or view a school play.
Surprisingly, one of the things I found the most difficult during graduate school, multitasking, was not terribly difficult anymore. As a graduate student, I was often frustrated by my inability to work on several projects simultaneously. A typical independent school teacher is something of a juggler. I grade papers, set up labs, lecture, and monitor the students while they work in groups. Besides teaching my subject, I also have the additional responsibilities that come along with being an assistant baseball coach and a sponsor for the chess club. When I was first contacted to write this article, I was about to depart on a 5-day trip to Milwaukee with seven members of the middle school chess team--not for the faint of heart!
Liking kids is not the same thing as liking to work with kids. Have you ever been a camp counselor or a chaperone for a school field trip? If you liked those experiences, then you are headed in the right direction. Try to volunteer as a guest speaker or teacher's assistant at a local school, so you can see what students are like in the classroom. Your graduate school may have outreach programs similar to those at Washington University, which can provide some early and relatively nonthreatening experience.
If you are worried that teaching means you will never again work at the lab bench--it doesn't have to! After 5 years away from the university, I am still working as a scientist. Last year, I returned on a part-time basis to my former laboratory, where I performed some experiments related to my thesis research and wrote a paper. During the summer, I also worked on an archaeological dig with a group of teachers from Missouri and Illinois. I had a great time exploring a new area of science. Any knowledgeable administrator will recognize the value of a science teacher remaining active in his or her chosen field, and there are a lot of great research opportunities for teachers. Don't forget about your graduate school connections, either; these people are great contacts for sponsoring student-based research projects, serving as guest speakers, coming up with supplies in a pinch, and providing sound advice on scientific topics beyond your own area of expertise.
Don't think that high school teaching is a poor use of your Ph.D. training. You are not overqualified for that teaching job! Good teachers exhibit a passion for their field, and a doctoral degree demonstrates your knowledge and commitment to science. Should a Ph.D.-level scientist teach high school students? Of course!