Learning to teach

I just got back home from giving my first ever real lecture. I’ve been bouncing around on adrenaline since 1pm or so, cycled there, did the thing, cycled home. Stumbled into the bathtub with a lot of chocolate and did nothing for the next hour.

To set the scene: I was to teach fresh MSc students all about molecular biology. Not a big deal, right? Trouble is, some of them did undergrads in medicine, some in basic science. Meaning that their existing knowledge was quite diverse. I tried to get them all to the same level by starting out with really basic things and slowly building up. I invited them to ask questions and make it all a bit interactive.

Interestingly, the slides I had expected to be difficult went down quite smoothly. Not many questions asked, but also no puzzled looks. The slides I thought were gonna be easy, resulted in more questions. Maybe because I was really well prepared for the difficult ones and less so for the easier ones? But of course – that I cloned a million plasmids doesn’t mean it’s easy for them to grasp, and that I’ve never handled an electron microscope doesn’t mean I can’t explain the basics. Some of the slides went pretty badly IMO, but maybe only because I know the techniques involved very well? I knew I was leaving out details, but they of course didn’t…

The interactive bit worked out quite well, so well that I didn’t have enough time to cover the last two slides and in the end had to resort to “okay, know what? Forget about this – we’ll not include it on the exam”. Which I could do, because I haven’t handed in the questions yet. Two of them grunted at this though – they were the ones with the most advanced knowledge who were a bit upset about discussing so many “basic” things and then skipping over the finally interesting slides…

Because I might want to develop a teaching portfolio, I asked them to fill out a short evaluation form. I’m happy, because on a scale of 1-5 on how well I explained things, I got only a few 3s, mostly 4s and even some 5s. Not too bad, for a first lecture, right?! They also liked the structure and material used.

Interesting parts are difficulty: even though the survey was anonymous, I can tell that the medics rated it as too difficult, the scientists either as neutral or too easy. No idea how to resolve that issue. It really went from “too difficult, so maybe split into two lectures” to “it was too easy, maybe include additional topic X”? Which isn’t really up to me to solve – that’s for the course director. Still interesting case to spend some thought on. And a great thing for a teaching portfolio – how would you best handle such a situation?

Which has given me a great solution to a first-world dilemma: I’ve decided to spend Christmas at my parents’. The first two weeks spent at my parents’ since early 2007….. I was afraid I would grow very bored, but now I can work on this portfolio there. Sounds good to me :)

The most important message for me right now though, it that this lecture reminded me that I should try to be less of a perfectionist. Of course I didn’t say everything I had planned, and yes, some explanations probably could’ve been better. But in the end that didn’t matter. The feedback tells me it was okay for the students, they said they understand the material and the exam will tell whether they actually learned something. For a first lecture, I should be happy. I’ve learned a lot, there are things I would do differently in the future. The students didn’t complain. What more can you really want?!

Lessons learned as a newly single postdoc in Oxford

You are special. Remember that. Each and everyone of us is unique and has their own strengths.

I remember the day when I heard I won a competitive fellowship very well. My supervisor came to me – obviously very emotional – and said: you know, no one in my lab has ever won anything that good. After a moment of silence, he added: come to think of it, you may well be the only one in the department.

I was on top of a cloud. A big one. Supervising multiple students at once. Writing papers that summarised the past 3,5 years of work. Winning this fellowship that enabled me to move to Oxford. I was the next big thing, you know?

Welcome to Oxford! My new lab has one PhD student in his final year and other than that, only postdocs with more experience than I have. People with fellowships can be found around every corner. There are no papers to write yet because I have to go through these struggles for data first. I started to appreciate the problems undergrads can have when coming to Oxford – from being the best, they go to being average.

Breaking up my long-term relationship at around the same time might not have been the best idea, but it did give me a lot of time for introspection at an important phase in my career – this infamous PhD/postdoc transit.

I reached a few conclusions after hours and hours of soaking in the bath and hammering away on the piano:

1. Stop comparing yourself to others. Yes, academia is competitive, but so is the top of every career ladder. Ask yourself what you really want and go for it. There may always be others that have a better CV – but can they bring the enthusiasm and passion you can, once you’ve found that special niche?

2. Take some time to listen to yourself, find out what YOU want. I realised I’d been compromising a lot to my BF. Being alone was scary, because I had to make all the decisions all the time! But I realise now that’s a good thing – at least for a while. Try for a second to ignore your supervisor, your peers, your parents, even your partner. What exactly is it you want? I’ve for example concluded I really enjoy teaching and even though my supervisor doesn’t, I’m going to build out my skills.

3. Find hobbies. This is repeated over and over again, but apparently for a reason! I’ve found life quite frustrating lately and hobbies help me relax. I often go swimming in the morning before work, which helps me start the day on a positive note. I completely relax in the water. After work, I often play the piano or guitar. It’s soothing and helps me calm down after stressful situations, enables me to approach them more rationally.

4. Learn to handle frustrating situations. I think there are two options: if it’s a situation you can change, change it. If you can’t change it: either you learn to live with, stop complaining about it and make the best of it. Or it you can’t live with it: leave! You do not have to stay in a lab for years on end, only because you started there. Yes, we do need letters of recommendation often, but just a letter of recommendation is not worth staying in a toxic environment for years.

In other words: take your life into your own hands and trust your own judgement :)


Today, I attended a seminar on “how to progress in academia”. Admittedly, I went because it was directly after lunch and they offered free coffee and cookies. Nice way to digest lunch and reload the batteries for another round of lab work I figured.

Lots of open doors…. Yes, publications, teaching, networking, we know all that. What I didn’t know though, is that apparently the Wellcome Trust has ‘grant advisors’. You can email them your CV and they can tell you whether it’s worth trying for a fellowship or not. That’s quite useful, right?!

Anyway. One of the points one of the speakers kept emphasising, is that you have to decide which way you want to go. And then go for it. Convince the world of your idea. Be prepared for plenty of rejections on the way. I was a bit relieved to hear this. So far, I’ve been too lucky I think with getting most of the things I wanted to achieve.

But this rejection stuff, I’m experiencing some of that at the moment. I’m applying for Junior Research Fellowships at Oxford Colleges. 3 applications went out so far; invitations for 3 interviews came back. I couldn’t attend one, because I was moving the last of my belongings to Oxford on that day. The other one went to someone with 10 years more experience than me. (eh, JUNIOR fellowship?) And for the third one I got an email yesterday saying it was a pleasure meeting me blabla but very high level blabla chosen other candidate.

That’s the thing you’re headed for if you’re going to stay in academia. Competition is going to be tough. You are going to be disappointed. Even though YOU were great, the others were even better. You have to find ways to cope with that. I’ve decided to regard the interviews I had as a great learning experience: during the last one, I explained my work in 10 mins to an audience of a historian, a lawyer and a literature expert. I’ve asked them whether they would be willing to provide feedback on the interview, so hopefully I’ll get something useful to take along to the next interview.

And in the end, I WILL get there.