The start of my second year of graduate school has brought some refreshing changes. I no longer walk into the lab with the paralyzing fear that I do not know anything or how to do anything. Now, I at least vaguely know some of the lab’s techniques, I know where to find most supplies, and I can usually follow along for a good portion of my colleague’s presentations at lab meetings. All of these things are great accomplishments in hindsight, after thinking about where I was a year ago.
Most importantly, in the past year, I have been able to learn a lot of biology, which (as mentioned in my previous columns) was really important for me because I did not gain a strong biology background in college as a biomedical engineer. While I now feel at least some level of comfort talking about biology with biologists, I have also been able to bring skills from my engineering training to the table, which has been a valuable asset. In particular, as biology generates more large data sets, I appreciate having learned to program and handle large data sets as an engineer. While there is no official metric for where you should be or how much you should have learned by the start of your second year of graduate school, I (likely naively) feel good about where I stand.
In parallel with my gains in knowledge and experience during the past year, I have taken on a couple of teaching roles by serving as a teaching assistant (TA). Other than completing a particular number of courses, serving as a TA for at least one semester is one of the few additional requirements that I have to complete prior to graduation. Regardless of the requirement, teaching is definitely an experience that I wanted to be a part of my graduate school experience, especially because I would like to teach at some point in my future career. My feeling is that the goal of M.D./Ph.D. training is to become a triple threat: clinician, researcher, and teacher. I am not convinced that it is possible to do all three well any more (because of the fast pace and complexity of modern research), but I think it is still the goal nonetheless.
My teaching experiences thus far have been with middle and high school students as well as graduate and medical students, but nothing in between. Each of these two groups presented its own unique challenges. For the middle and high school students, it was often very tough to make science interesting, relevant, and/or “cool.” This made it difficult to get students to buy into what we were trying to teach and difficult to hold their attention. For the graduate and medical students, it is basically the opposite problem: students are too interested and inquisitive, so I am always self-conscious about my level of knowledge and my ability to both accurately present information and respond to questions. Regardless of the challenges, I have enjoyed teaching and want to continue to do it. Just like all things in life, I am sure that practice makes perfect; the more experience I gain, (hopefully) the better I will get. I also would like to gain experience teaching at the undergraduate level, which I think would be really fun.
As mentioned earlier, while becoming a triple threat is the goal, it seems that you must choose either clinical practice or research and ultimately devote much more time to one or the other. I often hear the phrase the “80–20 model,” which refers to when you make either clinical practice or research 80% of your time, and then the other will get the remaining 20%. In either case, it seems possible to add on teaching. The teaching could take on a variety of forms, from lecturing in large undergraduate classes to the individual training of graduate students or residents to teaching a classroom of younger (precollege) students. Apparently, I am far enough into my degree programs to now be routinely asked, “Do you want be a doctor or do research?” Aside from the odd phrasing that this question usually takes, it always makes me think about how I can combine clinical practice, research, and teaching into my career. For now, I do not worry much about this question, since I still have many more years to figure it all out.
The only consideration about trying to gain more teaching experience is that it takes away time and focus from the lab. At the end of the day, any time spent teaching beyond what is required for graduation will not help you graduate (and if anything will only delay graduation). Therefore, it can be a difficult dynamic to balance: being in the lab enough to generate enough data to satisfy my principal investigator and thesis committee while still pursuing an experience that I wanted from graduate school (teaching). But like all things in life, if it is something you want to do, you will figure out a way to make it work.