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The Black Hole

So, you want to be an educator when you grow up…


If you’re in graduate school or beyond, you have a wealth of experience to draw upon when it comes to assessing quality of educators.  Some were engaging, inspiring, and really understood how to teach, others were boring, incomprehensible or simply not qualified, while still others were clearly unimpressed that they had not yet retired.

Along the way, you’ve almost certainly been involved in educating as well as learning.  Whether this was formal (e.g.: university teaching assistant, MCAT preparation courses, etc) or informal (e.g.: training the new person in the lab, tutoring a friend in mathematics) you can probably answer the following set of questions based on experience:

1)  Do others understand you?  (i.e.: do you have to explain yourself multiple times or do people just “get it” when you are the teacher)
2)  Are you satisfied when someone learns from you?
3)  Do you take pride in the success of others?
4)  Have others commented on how well they learned from you?

If you have answered yes to all four, then maybe a career as an educator is something you could consider.  Importantly though, this process of consideration should not just be primary and secondary school teaching (great career choices in themselves, but not the only option for those with a passion for educating).  Below I’ve tried to catalogue some of these options, not meant as a comprehensive list, but merely to stimulate some ideas for people that may not have explored all of these options to satisfy their desire to educate.

Primary/Secondary School Teacher
The highest proportion of formal educators would still find themselves employed as schoolteachers.  If you’ve finished your Masters or PhD, you certainly would not be the only one who has tried.  It is becoming more and more common to have M.Sc. and PhD grads teaching at both the secondary and primary levels.  Additional training before you can apply is almost a given and education degrees at various levels (Bachelors, Masters, PhD) are plentiful across Canada.

Education Research
As I mentioned above, alongside the acquisition of your highly specialised training, you have been exposed to a number of educators and teaching methods.  Were they all useful to you?  Probably not.  Did you ever ask why they didn’t just teach it “this way” or “that way”?  Perhaps…  if so, then education research is worth a shot.  At its core, it tries to understand and then improve upon methods in education a task for which you certainly need to have a good understanding of the material being taught.  Physics departments appear to be at the leading edge in this type of research and much effort has gone into figuring out how to better assist high school and undergraduate learners in their understanding of basic physics principles.  A great example of innovative teaching ideas in Canada is through the work of Nobel laureate Carl Weiman  who has spearheaded projects such as PhET (which are online “interactive, research-based simulations of physical phenomena”) and more recently at UBC Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative.

If you like such projects, then you should read this great article from Science Careers on Education Research.  I think anybody exploring a science-based career outside of bench research would be foolish not to visit the Science Careers site.

Organization/Program Development
Many organizations require top level scientists to help develop their programs.  In this category I am talking about either doing science education or helping to transmit complicated scientific information to others for organizations like the AAAS, the Society for Science and the Public, Let’s Talk Science, or Youth Science Canada

There are also a huge number of non-governmental organizations that require scientists to do a lot of heavy lifting in building up background research and then finding effective ways of transmitting that information to the public.  Think about careers with the Pembina Institute, the Fraser Institute, the Manning Centre, or the Suzuki Foundation depending on your political leanings.

Museum Scientist / Educator
We often only think of museums as those places you go when you have no idea about the city you’re visiting or a place to kill a few hours on a rainy day.  While I could go on for days about how fascinating and inspiring museums can be, this article is about educators and make no mistake that museum staff members from across the globe are often gifted at educating.  Clearly a science background helps out at science-based museums like the Science Museum and Science World, but you might be happy to know that many “regular” museums also have scientists and educators on permanent staff.  For example, the British Museum has many scientists and educators who run excellent programs like Young Explorers.  If you think you’d like a research/education combination, read this article on the position of museum scientist.

College Instructor
Yet another excellent article on the Science Careers site that  chronicles the life of a community college instructor and his passion for teaching – a necessity for career satisfaction in the Instructor position.  When I was in Ontario between 1999 and 2003, it seemed that colleges were given a bit of a hard time (this may or may not still be true), whereas in Vancouver it seemed like a much more vibrant and engaging option for recent high school graduates – a place that a few of my graduate school colleagues decided was the type of place for them to build a career.  Some examples “out west” where instructor positions are to be had are the British Columbia Institute of Technology, Langara College, and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.  Permanent instructor positions are also available at some Canadian universities, though the numbers are not high and the arguments are plentiful about the impact and reasons behind such positions.  We’ll have a blog entry on the “university instructor” position in the coming months that will directly discuss these issues.

Popular Media
Educating people that you cannot see and don’t often hear back from.  This is perhaps one of the most difficult forms of educating in my mind and it’s done extremely well by television and radio shows like the Daily Planet and Quirks and Quarks.  You could try and work with one of these excellent teams of people or become a science writer with a specific slant on getting high quality scientific information into mainstream media.  I think the limit is your own creativity when it comes to finding a role in society that allows you to embrace your passion for educating – don’t restrict your thinking!

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Shannon / August 1, 2010 at 17:12

    Librarianship is another career option for someone interested in education. Academic libraries are an obvious option for someone with a Master’s degree or PhD. If you are a scientist and skilled at navigating scientific information and explaining how to do so to others, you would probably be a real asset to a science-focused library in an academic environment. Academic libararians often liaise with specific departments on campus, which brings many opportunities for teaching information literacy skills and scientific information retrieval and evaluation skills. It’s also worth pointing out that at many universities librarians are faculty members and reference librarian positions may be tenure track. Other types of libraries are also an option. Major public libraries often have reference librarian specialists on staff. Special libraries offer plenty of opportunities as well. Many large companies have libraries or require an information specialist on staff. Dave also mentioned that museums have education-related opportunities and these include librarian positions at large (and sometimes small) museums. If you’re interested in becoming a librarian, I recommend doing some information interviews with librarians who work in the types of libraries that interest you to find out more about their education background. Becoming a librarian requires the completion of a Master’s degree in Library Studies (sometimes called Library Science).

  2. Dave / August 2, 2010 at 11:46

    Thanks for this very detailed comment Shannon – great to have on here!
    If others are in particular educator professions that or can elaborate on the limited amount of material that I have posted, please do and I will try to summarize it all in the quarterly summary!