Are you interested in teaching while doing your PhD? Through our partnership with The Brilliant Club, several University of Brighton PhD students undertook paid placements in state schools during 2018-19. Their participation in The Brilliant Club’s Scholars Programme offered them a unique opportunity to gain valuable teaching experience while helping increase the number of pupils from under-represented backgrounds who progress to university.
Below, Esther Omotola Ayoola, PhD student and South Coast DTP studentship recipient in the School of Applied Social Science, talks about her experiences of becoming a PhD tutor during her first year at Brighton, and what that means to her as a Black academic who grew up without any scholarly role models.
Becoming a PhD Tutor
Esther Omotola Ayoola
Growing up I didn’t know a single person pursuing or in possession of a PhD.
I always thought that a doctor was someone who gave me injections and scribbled incomprehensible notes to their friends at the pharmacy, before making my mum and I deliver them in exchange for sweets that tasted hideous. Imagine my confusion when I learnt that there were different kinds of doctor; ones that cut people open, ones that sent rockets into space, ones that had heaps of knowledge about different people and places and others still who were just really interested in how people’s brains worked. Back then, I never cared about the fame and fortune that everyone with the title ‘Dr’ seemed to have, I just knew that I wanted to be a doctor of everything. So with one hand on my GCSE biology textbook, I vowed that one day, I would become a doctor in some capacity. There was only ever one issue, as a Black girl from a North London council estate, I didn’t actually know anyone who had achieved what I was planning and so without any guidance or role models in sight, I pushed the idea to the back of my mind.
The memory of that moment lay dormant for over a decade until October 2018 when during my PhD induction an initiative entitled The Brilliant Club caught both my eye and my ear. ‘You can gain teaching experience, make a difference to young people, have an opportunity to share your research, network with other PhDs and get paid.’ AND GET PAID?! I only realised just how convinced I was as those three words echoed around my head in a Mr-Krabs-like fashion. They had an assessment day coming up at the University of Sussex that was open to Brighton students and I thought why not? I picked an area of my research that I thought would be interesting to teenagers (yes – this was as hard as it sounds) and used that as a basis for the task I would demonstrate at my assessment. During my interview, I asked more questions than my assessors did, primarily to relieve my apprehension regarding how I would balance teaching and research, as well as being subconsciously triggered and intrigued by the term ‘under-represented groups’ and wanting to know exactly what this meant. Fortunately, I was met with smiles and discussion that actually felt genuine and I remember leaving the room feeling confident and having enjoyed the assessment experience.
On hearing that I was successful at the interview stage and was being offered a role, it immediately began to sink in that I would actually need to manage this role alongside being a full-time PhD (YIKES!). I threw myself into creating my course handbook whenever I wasn’t working on my research plan (which, by the way, felt like hardly ever), and was kept sane by the amount of support and encouragement that my Programme Officers at The Brilliant Club gave me via email. I was also extremely relieved when I attended the regional training day and 100 other tutors ranging from first year PhDs to actual doctors, two-years post completion, were undertaking the same role as me.
On the day of my first tutorial, I remember feeling a tinge of nervousness. Not only was this my first time teaching a self-designed course, I had travelled to the University of Cambridge for the first time in my life and was launching my programme and meeting my students for the first time ever too. It turns out that my students were much more nervous than I was and that made me feel much better! During the tutorial, we discussed why the Tale of Brexit is the most boring bedtime story ever told and how the various major diasporas in London came to be. We also talked about what it means to be ‘mentally healthy’, how the mental wellbeing of people who have migrated to the UK might be affected by the social and economic policies that the British government has created, and how many first-generation, BAME young people use Grime music as a means of documenting their life histories and socio-political struggles.
Reflecting on my first year as a PhD researcher and a PhD tutor, I am surprised and humbled not only by how much I have grown in my respective roles, but by the fact that I was able to engage in invaluable debates regarding the political and psychosocial impact of migration in the UK with 13- and 14-year olds. I am also slightly embarrassed at how shocked I was seeing them dive deep into academic content that barely made any sense to me, or how their logic and reasoning skills showed such little bias, allowing them to think across key disciplines simultaneously but seamlessly. Through this role, I have learned never to underestimate anyone, because when provided with the opportunity and the knowledge, PhD research is within the reach of more people than you would think. This experience has also completely transformed the way I see my research, causing me to think like my students and ask questions that had never previously occurred to me due to the academic bias I have gained from being in formal education for what feels like eons.
I find myself consistently talking about my role with The Brilliant Club and I have come to feel that it is somewhat definitive of my PhD identity in a very particular way. Although it is challenging at times when I have deadlines, the feeling of pride I get when my students submit their 2000-word essays and attend their graduation ceremony with their parents watching is second to none. Though there are multiple benefits to being a PhD tutor with The Brilliant Club, for me personally, I am compelled and inspired by just one – none of my students will ever have to say the words: ‘Growing up I didn’t know a single person pursuing or in possession of a PhD.’
Find out more about more about becoming a PhD tutor with the Scholars Programme.