Letter from the trenches

I have received a letter from a student who obtained their doctoral degree with me a few years ago, and after one postdoctoral appointment decided that their heart was really into teaching.
They wrote me to let me know how things are going, and gave me permission of posting their letter here (I am withholding the person’s name). It may be of interest for those who might be considering switching from research to a teaching career. Currently, only a tiny fraction of doctoral degree holders take that path.

Dear Massimo,


Here is an update about how things are going for me now.
First, the teacher education program is definitely intense (largely because of the quantity and pacing of work), and we are into the final stretch of formal study. After this, we head out to do some supervised practice teaching for several weeks – I’ll be teaching mathematics this time.
The first practice teaching session for me was grade 12 physics and grade 10 science. It was awesome. The curriculum leaves teachers with a lot of flexibility, so I am able to teach through the lens of social justice, philosophy, and global awareness when there is a fit. Plus humour and “crazy stuff” permeates everything (which is why I think I had zero behavioral issues – bizarre science can beat text messages and chatter).

Covering material in biology and chemistry was a ton of fun, in addition to optics and general physics. One grade ten student is a philosophy buff, which I used to sell him on some of the biological content that underpins certain aspects of psychology, which in turn have philosophical implications. It was also a thrill when another grade 10 student asked me about time travel during a computer lab activity on optics (speed of light stuff): within a few minutes, I had most of the 30 students engaged in spirited conversation about teleportation, space colonization, and “orders of magnitude” issues (we reviewed exponent laws, and I think the topic came alive in this context).

I see it as using non-curriculum content to get students motivated about curriculum content, which eats about as much additional time as the behavioral stuff that is mitigated (and at least in the former case the students are learning something extra). With about 60 grade 10 students (2 classes) and 15 grade 12 students, my whole term – almost two months – went without any discipline problems. They were also very successful in their formal assessments, and my tests were not easy. Anyway, they became “my kids” and I am darn proud of them.

Having a PhD (and postdoc experience) are definite assets in terms of standing out from the crowd, but there is a proviso. Unlike most of the other teacher candidates with a doctoral degree, I prefer to let folks find that out on their own, instead of behaving like ‘having a PhD means the world owes me something, and that everyone better well know it’. Many teachers with an MSc rarely fail to work that fact into conversations, and I can see why principals and other admins are grossed out by it. I do share my enthusiasm for my grad studies and postdoc experiences when someone else brings it up (i.e. I am not “ashamed” of it), but it seems to count for more when such a discussion is not self-initiated, and when it is discussed in the context of enriching the educational experiences of students (not in how “qualified” or “smart” I supposedly am). Seems obvious, but apparently not.

Another advantage I have is that physics departments produce so few graduates, and few of those go into secondary teaching. In my province, each education student qualifies to teach two subjects – say biology and french, or chemistry and physics, or math and biology; in my cohort of 2012 BEd graduates, 115 have biology qualifications, 60 have chemistry qualifications, 36 have mathematics qualifications, 35 have environmental science qualifications, 65 have general science qualifications, and 11 have physics qualifications.
These considerations aside, the educational and research experience of a doctoral program has really really really helped me accelerate my growth as an educator. I do a lot of evidence-based planning and lesson design, and my formal research training provided me with the mindset needed to design unique material for my students (as well as for the eyes of other stakeholders, who get impressed by such materials far more than is probably warranted, considering that everything I do is predicated on merely integrating the work that others have done in a different way). I have developed several apparently unusual demos and experiments, as well as structures for collaborative learning, that I will be teaching to experienced teachers next month at a workshop. One can easily see a trend forming for this teacher education route.

Teaching has been an excellent choice for me (mostly on the basis of personality), and I want to thank you for being supportive of this. Things could still be bumpy regarding employment (e.g. a few years of supply teaching), but I am pursuing this at full force. I don’t know if you could tell, but my pursuit of the higher education world was far from spirited. Especially in post-PhD research employment, I felt like an outsider.
Cultural fit is important, as are intrinsic internal drives. I am very socially, and, to some extent emotionally, driven. While I think many physicists individually share these qualities, the public culture of science research is antagonistic toward such things.
One element that draws me to high school teaching is embodied by the life stories of some of my students (which come to the fore in smaller classes) – one was kicked out of her (abusive) home and was sleeping in a crawlspace until a relative took her in. She still came to school, still tried to do her school work, and successfully applied for and held down a part-time job. You take someone who isn’t eating properly, doesn’t have a home, and has suffered terrible abuse, and become their advocate and a rock. My top physics student had to work for 6 hours after school every day in order to help support his parents and siblings after his father lost his factory job. Helping these students almost becomes a sacred obligation for me, and I feel whole in such a role. It is like oxygen.

The only part that I dislike is dealing with preening parents who think it a crime that their child gets anything under a 95% on anything (almost any other form of parental involvement is a blessing). My goal there is to deal with parental issues myself as much as possible, so as to offload to or otherwise involve administration as little as possible. Their plates are full enough.
Physics research is still interesting to me (I indeed will continue with research – I have some ideas re: H2 that I hope to tackle over the summer), but not in the way that keeps me up at night wondering, or wakes me up in the morning with a fierceness to start the day.
So that is my report. I am busy, face some challenges up ahead with respect to entering this vocation, but I’m extremely satisfied.

Hoping you are well,

[Name withheld]

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6 Responses to “Letter from the trenches”

  1. Schlupp Says:

    You made that up. And badly, too. Everybody knows that:
    (a) All jobs except research scientist are easy, so there cannot be any “challenges”.
    (b) People in all jobs except research scientist are desperately unhappy, especially if they are unlucky enough to hold a PhD in physics.
    (c) Every PhD (especially in physics) who does not end up as a research scientist strongly regrets having gotten the Phd (+ a postdoc!!!!! the horror!!!!).

    Really, you should not have assumed that anyone would be fooled by a letter as implausible as that.

    • Massimo Says:

      Darn, you are right, now that I re-read it I can totally see how I went way over the top, which made it simply not believable.
      I think I did myself in when I alluded to “jobs outside physics research”, when we all know full well that there are no jobs for physics PhDs outside research — and that is because any job that one does not care for does not exist, as a matter of simple logic.

    • Douglas Natelson Says:

      Schlupp, I think you meant to say “Every PhD who does not end up as a full professor at Harvard strongly regrets….”

    • Massimo Says:

      Well, Doug, let’s cut Schlupp some slack here, after all, she wrote “research scientist” and, come on, where else can one carry out any kind of scientific research if not at Harvard ? We all know that the goal of all other universities is to produce every once in a while someone good enough for Harvard…

  2. mareserinitatis Says:

    Your student is obviously an extrovert. It’s obvious that s/he is really getting into it, though. That’s great because those are the kinds of teachers who make a big difference.

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