I was in my second year of teaching English and I was working in a school in Spain. Talking about professional development with my Director of Studies (DoS), I said I hoped to do a doctorate (PhD) in Language Education some day. She asked me a question that has stuck with me since that day five years ago: ‘but is that going to make you a better teacher?’
I continued teaching and then did eventually go on to do a PhD in Language Education. As I am now near the end of it, I can start answering that thought-provoking question.
Thinking of doing a PhD? A bit of background
Just for a bit of background, there are different ways of doing a PhD. In the UK, and other places around the world, you generally start with an idea you would like to study which fills a gap in the existing research. You then write a proposal, identify potential supervisors and apply for a place to study and, if you wish, for funding. A doctorate of philosophy (a PhD) or of education (an EdD) is normally three years in the UK and five years in countries like Germany and the US. PhDs can be done in person or remotely, full time or part time.
The question my DoS asked me is relevant if one wishes to continue being an English teacher, which I did at the time. Some pursue doctorates to become academics, which only partially includes teaching duties, often not related to the teaching of English, strictly speaking. A PhD is meant to prepare you to become a researcher, so it is not primarily intended as professional development for teachers.
The pros of doing a PhD …
And yet, from my perspective now, it really has been one of the various reasons why doing a PhD has had an impact on my teaching. Firstly, having the time and structure to read research studies (which is often all you do in your first year!) allows you to appreciate what the research says about how people learn languages. I was lucky enough to teach English part-time while doing most of the PhD, so reading the research made me re-evaluate many of the teaching techniques I thought were rock-solid and continue experimenting. Reading, researching and teaching amounted to a form of reflective practice and felt similar to when I was studying for DELTA Module 1. Also, a PhD leads you to discover completely new topics that can help you enrich and problematise your teaching, and pursue new career paths. This is especially true if you participate in conferences (for which most universities provide some funding): by presenting and networking at conferences, I was offered work as a consultant and materials writer. Finally, being immersed in language education research made me appreciate the value of practitioner-oriented research, such as action research and exploratory practice. These are types of research that are different from traditional academic inquiry, but are valuable ways of improving teaching and learning: they have changed the way I teach and think about my teaching.
… and the cons
On the other hand, PhDs can be lonely affairs: if your goal is to be a better teacher, spending most of your time doing individual, silent work can make you question whether that time could have been put to better use by being in a classroom, developing social and classroom management skills. After taking the first six months of my PhD off teaching, going back into the classroom and into the interactive decision-making and social interaction that it requires was somewhat of a shock for me. Finally, while opening your mind to research can be beneficial, it can also lead you to a level of abstraction that is incompatible with classroom practice. For example, finding out more and more about research findings sometimes led me to believe in idealistic teaching practices, which would never work in my classroom due to contextual factors especially.
What would I answer my former DoS?
Overall then, am I better teacher because of the PhD? I think the answer is that I am a different, more reflective and more critical teacher. A key point for me was realising that much of what I was learning needed to be adapted to my classroom in unique ways.
Have you ever considered doing a PhD or have you done one? How did it impact your teaching? Tell us in the comments section here or on social media!