April 18, 2006

Someone in this room will have big shoes to fill...

group1.jpgLast June we had the one year anniversary of our Women in Science lunches and our final meeting of the year. Our guests were Pat Bronskill and Roula Andreopoulos, lecturers in the biochemistry department. Since Pat would be retiring at the end of the next school year we thought it fitting that she and Roula would join us for this celebratory lunch meeting. Over pizza and cakes, they told us about the experiences they’d had starting from graduate school and leading to their current positions.

Roula earned her MSc and PhD here at U of T. She went to Athens, Greece for her postdoc, but due to limited money for education and research there she came back to Canada. She applied for a part-time lecturer position that was posted on U of T’s biochemistry website and got the job. She was also working part-time as a postdoc at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She was soon promoted to full-time lecturer.

She was originally given the administrative responsibilities for the second year introductory biochemistry course (BCH 210) which now has about 1400 students enrolled and says that with a PhD you can go on to teach in a course like this. She’s busiest during the fall when setting up exams and dealing with students’ concerns. Exam time can be so hectic that afterwards she sometimes falls ill and needs a few days of recovery before it all starts over again.

roula.jpgShe also maintains the departmental website and considers it very useful to be computer literate. U of T offers a variety of computer courses for those interested. During the summer, courses are revamped and she says that a strong research base is important and will help in the redesigning of experiments.

She found it difficult to do research (during her postdoc) while teaching and admits that she misses the research sometimes, but that in the end teaching is what she really wants to do.

Pat graduated in the 60s and earned her MSc with Jeff Wong. She had her daughter while in Germany where her husband was doing his postdoc. She had her son after coming back to Toronto and returned to work in Jeff Wong’s lab as a research assistant, where she stayed for 20 years. Although she never received one herself, she helped a lot of other people obtain their PhDs, including her own daughter. She says that you can land a lecturer position with an MSc - what’s necessary is to be able to communicate and interact well with others. Her early responsibilities included a lab course in biochemical techniques (BCH 370). The 3rd year biochemistry lab course (371) and the 4th year advanced biochemistry lab (471) were later added to her job duties.

At 60 years of age and 16 years in her current position she felt it was time to retire even though she found her job very rewarding. She suggests that you need to be firm, but fair when dealing with large classes and that the 371 and 471 classes are enjoyable to teach because they’re smaller and students are more serious about their studies. As for these lecturer positions she says there are opportunities in other U of T departments, at the high school level, at smaller universities and colleges, but there aren’t a lot of them. At one time departments were getting rid of their lecturers in favor of coordinator positions, but Pat remained.

pat.jpgWhen asked why she teaches versus doing research she replied that she favors the flexibility with teaching and the time she gets to spend with students over the grant applications and 16-hour days that come with research, and the quotas inherent in the pharmaceutical industry.

Both Pat and Roula admit that you have to search for these types of jobs and that there may be better opportunities in the U.S. Both of their positions started as part-time and they recognize that these positions are mostly filled by women - a circumstance they call the “pink ghetto”, because women are more likely than men to take on part-time positions.

For those interested in teaching, there are a few training opportunities offered by U of T. Teaching in Higher Education (THE 500), is a non-credit half-course for PhD students to prepare them for academic careers. The Teaching Assistants' Training Programme (TATP) is a free peer-training programme for graduate students working as TAs at U of T. Also, there are several TA positions within the department that, in addition to a bit of extra cash, will give you teaching experience and help you decide if this is something you would enjoy as a career. Positions range from invigilating and marking exams to assisting in a lab for two days in a semester, or an afternoon every week for the entire year. Take advantage of your position as a TA to observe the course coordinators and see how much running around they have to do - could you see yourself in their shoes? To get more teaching experience outside of being a TA you could oversee a project or summer student in your lab. Also, attending conferences will give you experience with presentations and communicating your work.

group3.jpgSome of the more challenging aspects of these positions include dealing with unhappy students, complaints and bad evaluations. You will sometimes act as a guidance counsellor to some students - they may come to you because of a bad grade or because of personal problems. While you’re not actually allowed to give advice, you can direct them to the help they need. Students will also come to you for references, but Pat and Roula don’t give them out unless they know the student well, and feel confident giving them a good reference.

Their final advice is to be proactive - go talk to people in these positions, and to people in-the-know about the future of their departments.

Posted by Susan at April 18, 2006 12:27 AM
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