Many IABC communicators are attracted to teaching in higher education to share knowledge, supplement their income and improve their skills. I find marketing; public relations and communications people enjoy the challenge of working with students and navigating a new environment.
Despite some severe turbulence in the sector thanks to COVID-19, there are still plenty of opportunities for the savvy practitioner, so here are my top tips for getting into the sector.
1. Getting that first gig requires legwork
Universities often send call outs for sessional/casual lecturers on their websites/LinkedIn spaces, but it is often hard to break out of these lists and into actual work. In terms of teaching professional communication in Melbourne there are not hundreds of institutions it is more like twenty(ish) so it is worth getting to know who is teaching at each place and approaching them directly.
Many places are looking for a facilitated client experience for students so offering your own current workplace as a mock client for subjects is a good way to establish a relationship. Offering to speak to students about something you have recently worked on is good way for staff to see you can engage a group of students and have some helpful knowledge. Mainly being proactive is the key.
2. Universities are large bureaucratic places
Generally, if/when you get a chance to teach you will often have a complicated process getting paid, getting access to online learning systems or other tools you will need to work. You will often get support from people you are teaching under, but like any workplace, you can get super supportive colleagues or colleagues who leave you to find out for yourself.
Many first time teachers also work in first-year subjects with large groups of students, so it is likely most questions students will ask you will actually be about university processes, they are finding hard to navigate, rather than expertise in communications.
So my tip is to allow time to get things sorted if you are going into teaching (weeks) and familiarise yourself with your university so you have a few key email addresses up your sleeve for students to follow up their concerns.
3. Students are not like graduate employees
Unlike someone concerned about keeping their position in a workplace students can be very demanding or indifferent and unenthusiastic towards you no matter your experience or standing in industry.
I have personally seen many people frustrated by this lack of professionalism, but this is the key, your students aren’t professional… at least not yet. I think having an understanding that not all students may be as excited as yourself about something like, search engine optimisation for example, will help.
Setting boundaries at the start of the semester about the kind of support you can offer will also make life easier. Overly enthusiastic students may want a weekly meeting with you one-on-one to go through the course materials (this is admirable, but not feasible if you are only being paid for three hours a week and have 90 students), so talking to students at the beginning of the semester about when to contact you and what you can offer will make things easier for you.
4. Students often require support beyond coursework
Adding to the idea you may be teaching in first-year and that higher education can be difficult to find your way around, something I wasn’t prepared for was the amount of support students would often need in addition to academic teaching.
Often students can come from a school environment where they are used to confiding in teachers. Students have explained to me broader contexts of quite challenging things going on in their lives and even asked for advice in unexpected areas during study. This has certainly ramped up during covid-19.
Universities offer a lot of support in these areas, and not being a social worker I was always very fast to refer students on. It is good to be ready for this, rather than be unprepared. Students generally just need a little kindness as they are often a bit intimidated to approach university services for help, and will speak to you as you are familiar to them, and need some reassurance and empathy.
5. When things go wrong cover yourself
Things can go wrong at universities and like many workplaces a casual person can be the first person to be “thrown under the bus” if something unexpected happens. In most instances in higher education, this involves plagiarism, absenteeism and even disruptive behavior in class in rare cases.
If I have had to meet with a student, I always write up a few broad points that summarise the discussion, send it to them via email, and get them to acknowledge it. I do this for most meetings even with students I think are just asking easy-to-answer questions. This has certainly helped me when students have told me that I had never asked them to do something, as I can point to an email that shows this did occur and ends the issue in most cases.
Covering yourself with colleagues and students eliminates 95% of problems I have had when there is some sort of disagreement. Higher education organisations have elaborate policies about most troubles students may face, so it is worth giving them a read, to give you a bit of confidence.
There are other smaller and specific tips that I could give you, but they often apply to very specific situations so if you have further questions feel free to contact me via LinkedIn and we can have a chat.
I have found working at universities and in communications very rewarding and I think working in this way the two roles can complement each other very well. I would encourage you to give it a try if training and mentoring people is something that you have enjoyed in the past.
Matt Loads has taught at four universities since 2006, he last worked as a head of communications in the health sector in 2018. He has recently completed a PhD in online promotion and is a current board member of the Victorian chapter IABC.