Teaching vs. Research in Graduate School: Personal Statements

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I'm currently compiling materials for my graduate school applications this fall, and I'm having a bit of trouble deciding what to emphasize in terms of my experiences as an undergraduate, as well as my future career goals. I have a couple years of research experience (in computational astrophysics) that has culminated in a few poster presentations and talks, and I have certainly enjoyed working on these projects. However, my ultimate career goal is to become a professor at a university, and I feel as though my main interests are more steeped in teaching than research itself. I've worked for three years through the learning center at my school in both our supplemental instruction and tutoring programs (focusing on our intro to intermediate level physics and mathematics courses), and it's easily been one of my favorite aspects of my undergraduate experience so far. Even before I graduated high school, I taught a course in computer animation that met once a week to a group of other high school students, and I loved every minute of it.

All of this to say, how can I discuss my passion for teaching without it completely overshadowing my interest in research (which seems to be top priority in all of my grad school apps)? Is this a detriment to my application no matter how I spin it, or is there a way to use it to boost my chances of admission?

Thanks in advance for any advice!
 

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Dr. Courtney
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I'd take care with the balance of your words with 20-25% on teaching and 75-80% on research. The main purpose of attending graduate school is to learn to do research, and that's where most of your funding will likely come from over that time. But a few words on teaching might open some doors to teaching assistantships.
 
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FactChecker
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Emphasize your research because they want to know that you can survive the research part. Use the teaching if you are trying to get a teaching assistantship.

I have seen some very fine teachers who are working toward higher math education degrees. If teaching is really your desire, you may want to consider something like that.
 
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CrysPhys
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But a few words on teaching might open some doors to teaching assistantships.
Use the teaching if you are trying to get a teaching assistantship.
Perhaps I'm missing something here; and I'm talking specifically about physics grad school. I've never thought of a teaching assistantship as something you had to compete for or something you had to convince the dept that you are worthy of: it is the de facto default form of financial support for a dept who is interested in accepting you; a dept that offers you no support at all is probably not worth it. A fellowship is the most competitive because it is not tied to teaching responsibilities or to a particular prof's research funds. A research assistantship is typically tied to a particular prof's research funds (exceptions apply), so you need to convince a prof you are worthy. A teaching assistantship is purely a job: you are paid by the dept to help teach students. It is usually the least desirable assistantship because it takes time away from your own studies and research; I'm not dismissing the valuable experience gained as a teaching assistant, just the impact on completing your PhD. In many schools, research assistantships are not available until after you have passed your quals. I have known some students who have passed their quals and continued at least partially on teaching assistantships during their research because their advisors ran short on funds, but that's not a desirable situation to be in.
 
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Dr. Courtney
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Perhaps I'm missing something here; and I'm talking specifically about physics grad school. I've never thought of a teaching assistantship as something you had to compete for or something you had to convince the dept that you are worthy of: it is the de facto default form of financial support for a dept who is interested in accepting you; a dept that offers you no support at all is probably not worth it. A fellowship is the most competitive because it is not tied to teaching responsibilities or to a particular prof's research funds. A research assistantship is typically tied to a particular prof's research funds (exceptions apply), so you need to convince a prof you are worthy. A teaching assistantship is purely a job: you are paid by the dept to help teach students. It is usually the least desirable assistantship because it takes time away from your own studies and research; I'm not dismissing the valuable experience gained as a teaching assistant, just the impact on completing your PhD. In many schools, research assistantships are not available until after you have passed your quals. I have known some students who have passed their quals and continued at least partially on teaching assistantships during their research because their advisors ran short on funds, but that's not a desirable situation to be in.
The above is accurate in many cases, but reading between the lines suggests that no one at research schools cares about the quality of the undergraduate learning experience created by admitting a pool of grad students who all have little or no experience or interest in teaching. This is inaccurate at most schools. Most physics departments want there to be some teaching talent, experience, and interest among their graduate teaching assistants. Students who highlight their teaching abilities and experience may have some advantages over applicants who do not in cases where a pool of applicants in a given year is unbalanced and lacking in teaching interest. Further, the faculty to are most involved in large sections of intro classes often prefer TAs with more interest and experience than the bottom of the barrel admits.

I always got my top pick of possible TA assignments, because I worked hard at it and wanted to become better. Students I've mentored have found the same thing - effort and genuine interest in student learning are valuable assets. Sure, grad students who'd rather be doing research and mediocre at being TAs are tolerated, but faculty are not lining up or eager to work with them, and many departments have an upper limit on how weak a TA talent pool they are willing to tolerate.
 
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Andy Resnick
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Thanks in advance for any advice!
What do you want to study in graduate school? If you are really committed to teaching, are you looking at programs in Physics Education, or are you looking at 'traditional' graduate programs?

The end goal of 'professor at a university' is more nebulous than you may realize, but what is universal is that faculty members are expected to make scholarly contributions to their field- and that includes Physics Education.
 
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Thanks for all the responses!

I'd take care with the balance of your words with 20-25% on teaching and 75-80% on research.
That ratio makes sense to me. I've taken this advice and compiled a rough draft of a statement (a general one that I'll tailor to each specific school over the next couple weeks), and sent it to my advisor (also one of my letter writers) for feedback. It's also good to know that the experience may be a little helpful when it comes to teaching assistantships!

I have seen some very fine teachers who are working toward higher math education degrees. If teaching is really your desire, you may want to consider something like that.
I have actually considered this in the past, but after taking a few math courses (Abstract Algebra, Differential Geometry, etc.) I've found that I'm not a huge fan of all the proofs, and generally prefer the applications in physics.

What do you want to study in graduate school? If you are really committed to teaching, are you looking at programs in Physics Education, or are you looking at 'traditional' graduate programs?
I've been looking at more 'traditional' graduate programs, I suppose. I do have an interest in some areas of astronomy/astrophysics (my initial reason for deciding to major in physics), but after taking all the standard physics courses (i.e. quantum mechanics, e&m, particle physics, etc.), I've learned to enjoy a few other areas of the science as well. I was actually in a physics education research group during my freshman year before I switched to my current computational astrophysics group, and I definitely enjoy my current research more than the project(s) I was involved in during that first year. I enjoy doing research, for sure; I'm just at least equally as passionate about teaching (if not slightly more).
 

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