The (Pedagogical) Limitation of Training PhDs at Research Universities

The training that PhDs don't get -- and why it matters

Research intensive universities, designated as “high” (R2) or “very high” (R1) research activity by the Carnegie Classifications, earn their designation by their faculty earning research grants from prominent funders and by training the next generation of PhDs. These institutions are where the majority of research funding flows and scholarly outputs occur, and are predominantly our state’s flagship universities and other large state institutions. In 2019, R1 and R2 universities accounted for 266 of the more than 3,000 higher education institutions in the United States (depending on how you count ‘institutions’.)

Because by definition research universities are doctoral-granting universities, it means that all the PhDs that teach at colleges and universities across the country – research universities, masters institutions, liberal arts and bachelors institutions, and community colleges – are trained at research universities which make up less than 1% of higher education institutional ecosystem. Whereas this is hardly a problem for research training, this is a big problem for teacher training.

Today, most higher education institutions require a PhD to teach (a terminal master’s may be acceptable at some community colleges and primarily undergraduate institutions), which means that the vast majority of teachers across our nation’s diverse institutions of higher education were trained at research universities. But teaching training is not often the priority within doctoral programs. Trainees learn primarily by experience in the classroom, first by observing faculty and then by leading their own classroom. This presents a problem for the teaching training that the majority of doctoral students receive, however.

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Why? Because the research university classroom is markedly different from the classrooms across the diverse types of higher education institutions. Here’s how:

  • Research universities are often selective in admissions, meaning that the student population is not representative of the general higher education student population, which is more diverse and lower average income than the majority of students at research universities.

  • Research universities typically select for a higher-income demographic, corresponding to the student populations average K12 experiences. These experiences are often what we would consider ‘good’ and help students at such institutions to be more ‘college-ready.’

  • Research universities have better funded technology, infrastructure, and resources available to their students and teaching staff.

  • Students are less likely to have a job while at research universities, more likely to be fresh from high school, and less likely to have children, therefore having more outside class time to devote to their studies.

These differences have implications for the training that graduate students receive at research universities. Because trainees are teaching a non-representative sample of students, their benchmark of what to expect from students and how effective their teaching practices are, is skewed. The problem is when these PhDs get a job at non-research institutions, they enter their new classrooms with inadequate training and biased experiences to guide them. Their students suffer and the new instructors are unsure why their information-packed lectures aren’t landing with their new students.

To make these problems concrete, I want to share with you how each of the bullet points above manifested in my own teaching experience. I trained at an R2 university, but taught simultaneously at a community college my final year of study.

Here are how my classrooms differed between the institutions:

  • My training university was located in the top 4% of cities by median household income with an 89% white population. The community college was in the top 30% by income with a 70% Black/African American population.

  • The prior knowledge I assumed of students in my introductory class at my training university could not necessarily be assumed of my introductory class at the community college given difference in the high school curricula.

  • I taught classes at my training university in the newest buildings on campus, whereas the classrooms at the community college still had signs up reminding student to turn off their pagers.

  • Nearly all my students at my training university were 18-22 years of age and fresh from high school, whereas at the community college had an even mix of typical college students and working adults. And only students at the community college took advantage of my ‘parent policy’ in my syllabus that allowed students to bring their children to class with them.

Because of these differences, I had to adjust my teaching strategies – I had to do my job better. I learned better teaching through my experience at the community college because the impact of my teaching strategies were readily apparent: my teaching mattered here relative to my R2 training institution. I was not taught how to teach diverse student populations with heterogeneous prior educational experiences by my R2 university, I had to figure it out through experience at a different type of institution.

Research institutions select for homogeneity in their populations, and the students that fill up classrooms at these institutions already ‘know how to do school’ for the most part when they arrive on campus: it makes students at research institutions more robust to mediocre teaching. In other words, a passive lecture with text-packed slides may be boring to your students, but they are likely good enough note takers, have a strong academic social network, and the time to devote to drilling down into the material during their study time.

The average student at community colleges doesn’t have those luxuries. Teaching strategies need to be more robust to accommodate the varied level of prior knowledge in your classroom, you need to provide more structure to your class, and be less reliant on tech as a means to succeed in your class. Importantly, your approach to teaching needs to exude positivity and engagement to help change their perceptions of what teaching and learning can be.

The limitations to pedagogical training at research universities are not readily apparent until you teach in a different environment. We may not be able to change where PhDs receive their education, but we can change the teaching experience for our trainees.

If you’re department chair, graduate training director, or have any sway in such decisions, here are some things to consider that can provide better teacher training for your doctoral trainees.

  1. Hire tenure-track teaching professors to teach in your department and lead graduate training in teaching.

  2. Limit teaching assistantships to only professors in your department who are using evidence-based practices in their classrooms.

  3. Encourage or require trainees to engage with the university Center for Teaching and Learning (or whatever variant of is available on your campus).

  4. If your department or college does not have these experts to supplement teaching training, make it a priority to bring them in for your students. (The best teaching workshop I attended was by Diane Ebert-May, Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at Michigan State University, that our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning brought in for an afternoon workshop – bring her in she’s amazing!)

  5. Forage connections with your local community colleges to provide teaching opportunities for your trainees, especially those that want a teaching career (this would be HUGE for their success on the teaching job market).

  6. If your university bars funded doctoral students from seeking outside employment, work to change the rule so that teaching-focused students can adjunct at community colleges or other institutions to gain the necessary training and classroom experience they need.

Not all doctoral trainees want to teach, and many exit their training with only a class or two under their belt when they enter the job market. Although this is fine if they desire to work at a research university or in a research focused industry career, as you move to primarily undergraduate institutions and especially to community colleges, your student’s lack of teaching training and experience will absolutely hurt them on the teaching market (I lost out on a full time community college position precisely because I did not have the necessary years of experience the position required, despite the hiring committee loving the rest of my application).

If you cannot overhaul your department’s teaching training, then make sure you identify the students that are committed to teaching and make sure the inherent pedagogical limitations of being trained at a research university doesn’t put them behind in their career path.