The 411 on How to Start a Successful Career in Teaching and Education

By: Caitlyn A. Moore, M.E.

Panelists in the Teaching and Education session at “What Can You Be with A Ph.D.” discussing the ins-and-outs of being a professor at an undergraduate university. From left to right: Dr. Victoria Ruiz, Ph.D.; Dr. Jessica Allen, Ph.D.; Dr. Nathan Lents, Ph.D.; Dr. Matthew Marcello, Ph.D.; Image credit: Caitlyn A. Moore


Alumni Hall A was packed on a Saturday morning with WCUB attendees eager to listen to the panel discussion on Careers in Teaching and Education. Dr. Victoria Ruiz, Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Francis College, moderated a panel of 3 fellow professors: Dr. Jessica Allen (Assistant Professor of Biology at Columbia College in South Carolina), Dr. Nathan Lents (Professor of Biology and Director of the Honors College at John Jay College of Criminal Justice), and Dr. Matthew Marcello (Assistant Professor of Biology at Pace University). The panelists spoke candidly about their experiences at the front of the classroom, offering sage recommendations about how to be the architect of a successful teaching career at an undergraduate institution. Here are their best suggestions for how to prepare for such a career:

Get into the classroom

It may seem obvious, but there is no number of teaching hours that will magically transform you into an enticing applicant or effective teacher. Therefore, it is essential to get as much teaching experience as possible as a graduate student or postdoc before applying for your first big teaching gig. “People don’t fall into teaching jobs like our PIs anymore,” Lents insists. “You want lots of little things on your resume that point toward why you want to work at an undergraduate university.” All the panelists agree that by filling your resume with diverse teaching-related activities, you prove that you are serious about teaching and willing to put in the effort to improve your classroom skills. Such activities include, but are certainly not limited to: adjuncting, guest lecturing, being a teacher’s assistant, mentoring, outreach, or curriculum planning. The best ways to find these positions are through your professional network and online university job postings. While you are trying things out, remember that no one starts as a pro. “First is the worst,” assures Marcello. You need these experiences to learn how to be your most effective in the classroom, so keep your nose to the grindstone and you will improve in time.

In addition to building your classroom skills, getting involved in teaching activities allows you to make important connections in the field. Networking is an invaluable step toward getting your foot in the door to a full-time teaching position. For instance, Ruiz shared that she secured her current position by networking with Lents.

Do some soul-searching

Teaching comes with loads of responsibilities (think: lesson planning, grading, mentoring, office hours, grant writing, budgeting…). One of the most appealing aspects of teaching careers is their flexibility in structure. Marcello advised that you “consider your life as a unique individual… taking into account what kind of scientist you want to be.” Teaching at an undergraduate institution allows you to integrate your professional and personal lives in a way that best suits you. The panel divulged that this career path affords them to build a life that fits their unique needs, whether that includes picking kids up at preschool early in the afternoon, being home for dinner each night, acting as an advisor or mentor, or participating in committees.

The next step is to figure out what type of institution is the best fit for you. Do you want to only teach? Do you want to primarily teach and work solely with undergraduates in your lab? Do you fit in at a large state-funded or small privately-funded institution? Answering these questions will lead you to the job that meshes best with your aspirations. Additionally, Allen advised that as your life inevitably changes, for better or for worse, you reassess where you stand.

After all this, you decide to continue your research, start to figure out ways that you can do “good research that’s cheap,” according to Lents. Research is not funded generally through large grants at this level, which makes it crucial to reimagine your research in a way that you can address the overarching scientific question head-on. This enables you to keep your budget tight while you tackle specific gaps in your field of interest. As you plan your approach, don’t forget to think about potential collaborators. Leveraging collaborations allows you to dive deeper into your research without hiking up your budget.

Crush the application process

Once you have narrowed down the type of institution that is best for you, you will need to prepare application materials that showcase you in the best light. To do this, all panelists highly recommended customizing cover letters and applications to each institution to which you apply. This helps the reviewers gauge your fit. The panelists gave handed-down loads of sage advice, including to: tailor your relevant experiences to those that are relevant to the position, repurpose buzzwords from the job posting in your cover letter and don’t be afraid to use underlined or bold text, and reach out to people in your network who are affiliated with the institution to which you are applying and ask what is most important to include. They also recommend that you absolutely know what the institution is offering you, figure out how you can leverage your existing relationships to get your research where you need it to go, and present potential collaborations as a strength. Lastly, though it may seem obvious, be absolutely sure that there are no typos in your cover letter and application. Have friends or colleagues look over your materials before you submit them. And, because the fit is a very specific aspect of a job hunt, it is likely that you will need to apply to several places to find your perfect fit. “Don’t get frustrated, keep rolling the dice,” advises Marcello.

The panelists urged that you be prepared for anything when it comes to interviews. Depending on the institution, you may have to give a sample lecture or research talk tailored to undergrads or to an interview committee, or you may have a phone interview. For even more of a flavor of your competency, some schools even throw you into a classroom and have you give a lecture to a real class. Through all of this, remember to make sure that you convey that you are focused on the students above all else.

Another way to prep for success: knowing the latest literature in science education. As you would for research journals, subscribe to science education journals to keep current on cutting-edge strategies for increased engagement, retention, and learning. Marcello suggests CBE Life Sciences Education. You will be sure to impress interviewers when you drop certain buzzwords and know exactly what they mean.

Teach because you love it!

Teaching strategies and syllabi may differ, but teachers can all agree on one thing: teaching is not just a job. According to Ruiz, “it’s an obsession.” “How to get students engaged, grading, dealing with students—you have to love all of it since it’s a majority of your job no matter how much research you’re doing,” urges Allen. Marcello agrees. “It’s not much money and it’s a lot of work, so you have to have the drive and be happy.”


Keywords: teaching, STEM education, career advice, how to apply

Author: Caitlyn is a 3rd year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, NJ where her research focuses on breast cancer dormancy in the bone marrow. Email: 

Editors: Stephen Madamba, Tristan Fehr