Working with Master’s and Doctoral level students is vastly different from teaching undergraduate students. The best way to prepare yourself to be a graduate level professor is to familiarize yourself with the mindset of your students. Let’s begin with a good picture of what the culture of a classroom of graduate level students looks like.
Imagine an entire class whose passion for learning rivals your enthusiasm for teaching. Some of your students are fresh out of undergraduate programs and have little experience other than four years of college-level academia. Others have entered graduate school having established careers and significant experience in fields like medicine, the social sciences, and education.
Your graduate students will come to class prepared to challenge you to stay one step ahead of them as they throw out more questions than answers. Collectively, they will create a culture of socialized learning and quickly establish a symbiotic relationship with each other as they feed off of the raw energy within the group and eagerly plumb each other’s minds. Your students will embark on a quest, searching for new ways to conceptualize old ideas, yet be willing to second guess themselves every step of the way. Sound intriguing? This is what is it will be like to teach graduate level learners.
So what should you keep in mind as you prepare to teach your graduate students?
1. Recognize that your students are a very different breed of learner from the pack of undergraduates who often fill classrooms while still wet behind the ears and lacking in inner motivation and self discipline.
Graduate students are in your class because they want to be. They are self-motivated and ready to learn. They have moved beyond the concrete assimilation of facts and are ready to conceptualize how their knowledge will reshape them as individuals and impact their worlds of work.
2. You will want establish rapport with them in a distinctly different manner.
This will mean acknowledging their levels of acumen and establishing a horizontal relationship between you and them. Think of this way: When you teach undergraduate students you have a clearly defined role as one who is expected to know more, and is often revered by those who want to emulate you. Their canvases of life are still quite empty and they are waiting for you to tell them what to paint. Now imagine yourself perching on the corner of your desk and nonchalantly asking your room full of graduate students, So-what are you going to paint for me, today?
3. Almost every graduate program of study includes a focus on self-discovery and personal growth.
As you present various pedagogies to your students, allow them to grapple with their significances in their own lives, of what they are learning. During this process, psychology students will question their mental stabilities and wrestle with personal demons. Political science majors will be challenged to establish what they fundamentally believe about issues like freedom and responsibility, while examining these beliefs in light of other political ideologies. Every discipline will personally impact your students.
4. Graduate students enjoy asking and answering their own questions.
Allowing them to take a section of material and then develop a list of questions that tackles the implications of what they are reading is an excellent method of advancing critical thinking skills. When a student is entering a graduate program of study, the time for spoon-feeding is over. Your role, as a graduate professor, is really more one of mentoring, facilitating, and challenging.
5. Graduate level students have committed themselves to a process of becoming life-long learners.
They enjoy the challenges of blazing new frontiers in their respective fields of study. They love focusing on what appears to be academic minutia and then breaking it open to find a whole new area of undiscovered study. Because they enjoy pursuing the theoretical, it is important to balance classroom expectations by encouraging a practical application of what is being learned.
6. Teaching graduate students requires more than just a semester of lesson plans.
You need to be prepared to throw out the daily planner and fly by the seat of your pants if a carpe diem kind of moment occurs in the classroom. Remember that your broader goal isn’t just imparting knowledge, but teaching life.
Go into your graduate level classroom with great expectation and enthusiasm. You will be challenged even as you challenge. You will teach even while you learn. At times your students will humble you, only to turn around and bestow honor on you when you least expect it. If you are successful, you will have provided your students with the skills to both solve problems and create new puzzles to be solved. Oh, one last thought; don’t forget your own notebook. You’ll need it for writing down all the amazing things that your students will be teaching you.