Is teaching expertise really necessary for an academic career?

Young scientists often get contradictory advice about whether they need teaching expertise to become professors. Every university will confirm that teaching is the core expertise of a professor; however, successful researchers may see teaching as a waste of time and unimportant in getting a position.

The experiences are mixed!

There is a lot of contradictory advice because the experiences are very mixed depending on the country, the university, the faculty, and specific positions. There seems to be a tendency for smaller and regional universities to value teaching more, while the bigger and more prestigious universities focus more on excellence in research. Choosing a smaller or a bigger university is always a complex decision. Read more here: Should I choose a big or a small university?

Every university will firmly state that teaching is the core task of a university and its professors, and every university will promote the best lecturer of the year on its website. However, most universities will also underline that a professor must also be excellent in research.

Excellent teaching will probably not compensate for a weak publication list

If professors are selected, they often have to give a test lecture to show they know how to teach. Often this is more a formality, especially when a candidate has an excellent publication list and big grants. 

There is also considerable doubt whether one single test lecture, which may be prepared for months, is representative of the teaching expertise of the candidate.

However, excellent teaching qualifications, fantastic student evaluations, and prizes as the university’s best lecturer may substantially help improve your profile – but these attributes will probably not compensate for a weak publication list. Read more here: Do I need nature or science papers for a successful career in science?

Excellent research without teaching skills may lead to a professor position.

In most universities in the Western world, the following is true: If you have an excellent publication list and big grants, nobody cares about your teaching expertise!

In such a case, only a minimal level of teaching skills has to be demonstrated. Academic expertise in teaching is simply taken for granted.

But – and this is a big but – an excellent candidate may be “killed” by a selection jury member if there is a considerable lack or absence of teaching expertise

Many universities also include student representatives in the selection juries, who are eager to choose a candidate who is not entirely inexperienced in teaching.

If a university has to choose between candidates with a great publication list or candidates with primarily great teaching expertise, the better publication list may be the winning asset. It is also possible that the vacancy is closed without a candidate and opened again to find a candidate with both qualifications (research and teaching).

Specialized or expert teaching skills may lead to a professor position.

Some positions include substantial teaching tasks, e.g., in anatomy. These positions are great for persons who are specialized in that niche. Specialists may beat even persons with a much better publication list if the university desperately needs somebody to take over a heavy package of specific lectures and courses.

Can you become a professor without teaching experience?

“Pure” teaching professorships are rare.

In rare cases, there are professor positions that focus exclusively on teaching. In selected domains, such as anatomy or biophysics, the teaching expertise may be so specialized that it cannot easily be added to the tasks of another poor colleague in the department.

In these cases, pure teaching professor positions may be opened, but often they are only part-time. They also may have limited career opportunities if their performance over the years is benchmarked with professors who do research. These positions may be explicitly limited to grow only to a defined level, such as assistant professor, because for higher levels (associate or full professor) good or excellent research output is demanded.

If you want to become a professor, make a clear career decision!

To prepare well for a career as a professor in science, you must decide which type of career path you want to follow. There are two extremes in the spectrum of possible academic careers: either you focus on becoming a “High impact factor professor” or a “Specialist professor.”

If you decide to become a “High impact factor professor,” it is no surprise that aiming at very high impact factors is essential. The advantage is that you can plan your career, go to an excellent lab, and focus on publishing very highly. 

The disadvantage is that there is a lot of competition, and acceptance of your publications in high-impact journals can be very unpredictable.

On the other end of the spectrum, you find the “specialist professor.” These experts have to ‘juggle’ their teaching specialization (for example, as an anatomist) on the one hand and their publication track record on the other. The advantage is that the competition is much more limited.

The disadvantage is that the specialization in teaching and the topic in research may be unrelated (= you teach in one field and do research in a completely different field). It may be an internal struggle to prepare well for teaching and reduce the time and effort for research, or the other way around.

Here are some guidelines on how to find your dream job in science: The 8 best tips to find your dream job in science

Finally, I want to emphasize that you may not be the best lecturer in the world to get selected by a selection committee and become a professor – but to do the job, you definitely need teaching skills for the following reasons.

  1. Most professors spend a considerable part of their working time on teaching activities.
  2. It is embarrassing to give bad lectures and receive negative feedback and complaints from the students and teaching representatives of the university.
  3. In many universities teaching performance is monitored for example via student surveys and evaluation forms and may have an effect on future promotions.

Thus, you may become a professor without sufficient teaching expertise, but you will need teaching skills to be a professor and to do your job well.

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