One way to earn additional income as a PhD student is to do some demonstrating. For me this means helping out students in undergraduate labs. I’ve just completed my first stint on BS1005 – the first year genetics module. For 5 weeks I was assigned the same 20 students each week to help oversee their lab work, show them techniques and try to help answer their questions. This takes up 3 hours of my week (9-12 Thursday AM), plus the additional time it takes to mark worksheets (unassessed work) and lab reports (assessed work). We also get a briefing the day before the practical about what the students will be doing that week. Before beginning demonstrating there are a few things you need to do:
1. Undertake all the required training for teaching. When you’re demonstrating in labs this works out as 4 different 2 hour courses. 3 are mandatory for anyone teaching and are run on the same day (small group teaching, assessment and feedback and supporting student learning). The fourth is for those specifically demonstrating in student labs. I would recommend getting these done ASAP so if a demonstrating opportunity comes up you can begin straight away. I personally found the assessment and feedback session really useful however the small group teaching felt slightly unnecessary as I also did the demonstrating course and the two overlapped a lot.
2. Register with Unitemps. Unitemps is how you are paid. You register online, fill in some forms and take a copy of your passport to Unitemps (there’s a Unitemps office in the Student’s Union). After that you’re all set up and whoever you’re demonstrating for will register you as demonstrating for that unit. They will also tell you how many hours you should be logging on your timesheets, this will cover the hours spent in the practicals and also an allocation for marking.
At first I was nervous, the unit covers the genetics of bacteria, fungi, Drosophila and humans – and I’m strictly a bacteria girl! How was I going to be able to teach students about something I didn’t know about, they were expecting me to be an expert! My big fear was the Drosophila, I’m sure I remember telling the males and females apart as being a huge ordeal as an undergraduate! Turns out it’s really easy and I had no problems, the briefings definitely helped me with anything I was unsure of. The staff are really supportive; before the unit started we had a meeting and were given all the same information as the students plus extras such as model answers and bench assignments (so we knew which benches to supervise). I’ve been reading the model answers the night before and it’s really helped me make sure I’m pointing the students in the right direction, without just giving them the answer. The aim is to give them the knowledge to work it out on their own.
BS1005 is a huge unit with nearly 300 students! It requires a lot of organisation from the staff who are in charge and also a lot of demonstrators, I think there are 15 of us in total. There are plenty of opportunities to demonstrate if you’d like to – the units can’t run without the help of PhD students, especially when there are so many undergraduates taking a single course. That said not all supervisors are as happy with their students demonstrating as others, as it can take up quite a lot of your time, so always check before agreeing to demonstrate. For me I’ve been making some of that time up by coming in early and getting an hour or so’s work done before the practical starts at 9am – it’s all about planning. It is time consuming and I definitely don’t plan to demonstrate on more than one unit at a time as I think with the marking it’s going to take up too much of my time, but I am really enjoying it. I’ve had a really good group of students that have for the most part worked pretty hard, they haven’t been afraid to ask questions (and proudly I think I’ve done quite well answering them!) and I hope they think I’ve been helpful for them. For me marking has definitely been the most difficult, I much prefer being in the lab with the students, but I’m sure the more practice I get the easier marking will hopefully become. Teaching is a really good skill to develop and if nothing else it’ll look good on your CV, for me I also add the hours to my Society for Biology CPD (to find out what this is have a look at my blog post about professional registration) under supervising students and colleagues.
Basically don’t worry – you have to remember you have a good background in the subject and you’re given a briefing on what the students will be doing so you know what to expect. You will always have academics on hand in the labs as well if you really do get stuck. I’m a bit gutted I haven’t managed to get a picture of me in my blue demonstrators lab coat, hopefully I’ll get another opportunity. As I hopefully demonstrate on some other units I will post about these and how they differ as I’m sure each unit has its own setup. If you’re thinking about demonstrating and have any questions feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to give you a good answer.