Brilliant Club

So you want to be a PhD Tutor?

13 Jun 2018

Joining The Brilliant Club

Each week we get a great round up from the Doctoral Academy Graduate Society (DAGS) team of all the opportunities available outside of our research. What we don’t get to hear, however, are any first-hand experiences. If, like me, you have a tendency to bite off a bit more than you can chew, it can be helpful to know in advance how much commitment these endeavours require. As a big fan of public engagement, when I saw a paid opportunity with The Brilliant Club I jumped at the chance!

What is The Brilliant Club?

1 in 4 of the most advantaged pupils in the UK progress to a highly-selective university, whilst for the most disadvantaged students this number can be as low as 1 in 50!  The Brilliant Club aims to change this, increasing the number of pupils from underrepresented backgrounds progressing to highly-selective universities by utilising the experience and passion of PhD students. Working as a PhD Tutor on The Scholars Programme involves designing and delivering a course, in the form of seven tutorials, based around your own research.  While most of us can probably see the benefits of participating in a programme like this, I think it’s helpful to know what it actually involves.

The Application Process

The first step is completing a fairly standard application form to tell The Brilliant Club about yourself and why you’d like to get involved. If you are successful at this stage, the next step is the assessment centre. This involves an interview and delivering an 8-minute mini lesson to two of the interviewers who take on the role of 14-year-old students! This mimics, as best it can, the environment you would be in during an actual tutorial, with interruptions and lots of enthusiastic questions!

The Training and Preparation

So you’ve made it through the interview and been offered a position as a PhD Tutor – what’s next? Well the lovely people at The Brilliant Club don’t like to throw you in at the deep end without a life jacket, so they provide a training weekend loaded with information, from effective questioning to engaging with pupils. I’ll admit that, at first, I was skeptical of dedicating a whole weekend to training, but it was actually amazing! Not only did I come away with a whole bag of great teaching techniques but also felt super positive about my own abilities.

Feeling inspired, I set out to make my course handbooks for my tutorials.  Tutorials taught in both the winter (September – December) or spring (January – March) terms require tutors to design their own course, often based on the mini-lesson delivered at the assessment centre. These are aimed at either Key Stage 4 (14-16 years old) or Key Stage 5 (16-18 years old) pupils and are taught in a series of 60-minute sessions, with six pupils in each group. For me, this was the most demanding part of being a PhD Tutor and my advice to future tutors would be to allow a lot of prep time for making the handbooks, developing the content and designing the assignments. If designing a course isn’t for you, don’t worry, during the summer term (April – June) a range of pre-designed courses to deliver to younger pupils are also offered.

The Launch Trip

At the beginning of the programme, students are taken on a campus tour of a highly-selective university and have the opportunity to meet current undergraduate students. They also take part in their first tutorial. The launch trip tutorial is the first impression your tutees get of both the topic and of you as a PhD Tutor, so naturally I was a bag of nerves. What if they hated it? What if my under-practiced strawberry DNA extraction experiment didn’t work?! However, about two minutes into my tutorial I realised I needn’t have worried. The pupils engaged both with the topic and the university-style teaching, resulting in both animated discussions and endless questions (seriously, never underestimate the levels of questioning from 14-year olds)!

The Tutorials

The remaining six tutorials are taught at the host school, some of which are fairly rural, and therefore possibly challenging to get to, especially if you’re relying on public transport. Appreciating not everyone finds DNA packaging as interesting as me, I tried to keep tutorials as practical as possible, with interactive models and games. Homework is set after each tutorial, building up to a final assignment set in Tutorial 5. This varies from a 1000 to 2500 word essay, depending on the key stage, set around a question from the tutorial handbook. After a draft submission and feedback session in Tutorial 6 (meaning a fairly quick marking turn around for the tutor) the final assignment is submitted online.  At this point things can get intense again, as you’re not only required to mark your own 12 pupils’ assignments but also to moderate others, so good planning is a must!

Whilst I have enjoyed every minute of working with The Brilliant Club, I won’t deny that, at times, it’s been challenging and requires commitment. It takes a lot of organisation and the ability to plan tutorials around your research.  However, delivering the final grades last week and seeing the pupils realise their potential on the programme made it all worth it.  For anyone considering a career inside or outside of research, and wanting to develop their teaching, project management or communication skills, the experiences obtained as a PhD Tutor with The Brilliant Club are invaluable.  Now, for my pupils at least, it’s time to graduate!