What’s Involved in Being a Teaching Fellow?

Judith Lock is a teaching fellow at the University of Southampton. She specialises in the areas of ecology, evolution and animal behaviour. Her role also involves improving links with local organisations to promote opportunities to enhance student employ-ability within conservation careers and beyond.

Why do you work in Ecology and Conservation?

I grew in Somerset in a small village in the middle of the countryside, and have always enjoyed being outside. When I was seven I went on my first trip to London and visited the Natural History Museum, and knew at that moment I wanted to be a Zoologist. I remember going there and being quite amazed by all the exhibits.

What’s involved in being a teaching fellow at the University of Southampton?

I’m very student-facing. I run a number of university courses in ecology, evolution and animal behaviour. On a day to day basis, I have various different things to do: I might be giving a lecture or preparing for lectures, organising practicals, tutorials with my tutor groups, or running field courses.

I’m also involved in increasing the employability of our students. I’m currently helping to organize a careers event in biological sciences, working with the student society BioSoc. We have a couple of careers panels at the event, where the students invite speakers doing jobs which they would like to do.

Finally, I’m the Programme leader for our MRes Wildlife Conservation, which is run in collaboration with Marwell Wildlife located 11 miles away near Winchester. It’s an interesting and new type of Master’s Degree as most of the teaching is done at Marwell Wildlife (or Marwell Zoo as people know it) by their conservation biologists. We hope the course will produce the next generation of conservation biologists.

Click image to watch interview with Judith talking about the MRes in Wildlife.

Click image to watch interview with Judith talking about the MRes in Wildlife.

What’s the best part of your job?

There are lots of rewards doing it. Students are really good fun to be involved with, and I have lots of students telling me that I’m quite easy to approach.

The student interaction is the big benefit – particularly on our field course, and seeing people enjoying their subject so much and seeing them develop. I recently saw my first cohort from Southampton graduate this July past.They had changed so much and developed and they all wanted to introduce me to their parents, which was lovely. With things like Facebook and Twitter they can stay in touch and I can see where they go in their careers. Hopefully some of them will come back and talk in student careers panels in the future.

What’s the worst part of your job?

There are a lot of deadlines. Obviously students are used to working to deadlines, and we have to be ready to provide feedback on their work too. It’s pretty constant and sometimes can be very busy. It’s all about looking ahead and trying to manage your time.

The other difficulty in being a teaching fellow is there’s not much time for research. I enjoy science and like doing research, but teaching always comes first. However, this does mean we won’t have the pressure that others have to publish research.

The benefit of teaching in a university is you get to stay in touch with the latest science and research. Teaching in a school means you might get left behind as science progresses.

What key steps in your career you have taken?

I did Zoology for my first Degree at Manchester University which I really enjoyed, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay on do a PhD. However, Manchester offered an MRes, which at the time was funded by research councils, MRC and BBSRC. During it I didd three research projects, all of which I enjoyed and one led on to a PhD on behavioral ecology, looking at parent-offspring conflict in burying beetles. There were little bits of fieldwork, but most of it was observations in the lab.

Whilst I was doing my PhD I did a lot of demonstrating to undergraduates, including several field courses. At the end of my PhD I was looking round for jobs and found it hard to get post-doc position in Behavioural Ecology as there aren’t that many. However, I got a job as a lecturer at an agricultural college, Hartpury College, an associate faculty of the University of the West of England. I taught Animal Science modules and was programme leader for BSc (Hons) and FdSc Animal Behaviour & Welfare. My teaching load was incredibly high! I was teaching about 15 or 20 hours per week, and I didn’t have any time for research at all. This dictated the way my career went after that.

Luckily for me the teaching focus has grown quite a lot within universities. I think it will continue to receive a greater focus because our income is greater from students than research. There is a growing awareness, that having staff dedicated to teaching is really important. There is a growing number of teaching fellow roles in lots of universities.

At the University of Southampton we have Mayflower 4-year PhD Scholarships. These students have to do 25% of their time involved in undergraduate teaching. They have a real wealth of experience by the end of their PhDs and they can feed into these teaching fellow roles, which provide a career path to move through if you’re teaching focused. This seems to be the case for teaching fellows at other universities too.

What advice would you give someone wishing to follow in your footsteps?

You’ll need to do a PhD to ensure you’re teaching at an appropriate level for undergraduates. Whilst you’re doing a PhD it’s worth doing a certain amount of teaching and gaining the experience where you can. It’s worth exploring if your university has something like our Mayflower Scholarships available.

When you’re job hunting, don’t stick to research-led universities. I went from Manchester University to a small agricultural college in Gloucestershire with a farm and a dairy. I also did my PGCE in Higher Education. Don’t limit yourself to same type of institution that you’re used to.

As you progress keep the links which you’ve made with people and places, whilst also broadening your search network into new areas.

How important is a Master’s Degree before a PhD?

We have a mixture within our PhDs students. Many of those that do PhDs without a Masters were undergraduates here, so staff knew them. If you’re looking to do a PhD at a different university then a Master’s might be useful. Doing a Master’s also gives you an extra year of being involved in research, to see whether research is really for you.

When I did my Masters I didn’t know if I wanted to go into a PhD, so it offered me more time and knowledge about what I wanted to do.

If you’re looking at a conservation organization a Masters would help, as it’s so competitive. It’s become more popular as a career as more people can see the value in helping wildlife, and be passionate about. For some people being able to make a difference to the world is very important, instead of making lots of money. However because more people are looking to work in the sector, and organisations can become pickier about looking for particular skill sets in their staff. It’s not always possible to get all these aspects within an undergraduate degree, and I’d always encourage people to go out and get as much practical – as well as academic – experience as possible. In your first year you might be busy settling in, and in your third you’re focused on finishing exams, but your second year can be great opportunity to take advantage of local organizations and special interest groups which expert knowledge.

It’s very easy to say I’m interested in something, but you need to provide evidence that you are in interviews and on your CV.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Educator