Faculty positions were once coveted. They represented the epitome of expertise and professional security. Even today, when faculty earn far less income than private practitioners, the title of professor still holds prestige.
Because full-time professorships are hard to secure, many therapists who want teaching experience opt for teaching as adjunct instructors. This role is not a small one. Adjunct instructors often keep departments running smoothly by relieving the teaching burden for full-time faculty, while maintaining a demanding course load and on-going contact with students.
You may often hear grumbling from instructors about the low pay, the long hours, or the unmotivated students, but, likely, instructors also recognize the benefits that teaching brings to their personal and professional lives.
Instructors Get Benefits Too
1. Learn your field again
Sifting through textbooks, taking notes, distilling information into stories and activities–these all help you learn your field all over again. Plus, you’ll likely gather information you missed when you were learning as a student.
Teaching in your field also allows you to stay up-to-date on your discipline’s state laws and rules and ethical code. And, you have the benefit of receiving continuing education credits, in most states, for your efforts.
2. Develop new skills
While we may use psychoeducation in therapy, andragogy (i.e., teaching adults) is a field to itself. By teaching graduate students, you develop a new skill set: teaching, which is fundamentally different from doing psychotherapy. It has its own developmental process, success markers, and best practices.
3. Practice collaborative language
If you are in a position of authority, generally, it’s best practice to avoid saying “no” in response to a comment or answer. “No” can shut down the conversation and initiate feelings of inadequacy in the student. Being in the role of instructor will help you stretch your communication muscles, as you figure out ways to be affirming while also maintaining your teaching stance. You’ll figure out ways use both/and responses (Hardy, 1995).
4. Step into the power of mentoring
The students you’ll teach are still on their path, still putting their faith in the process of schooling. As an instructor, your most important role is not to disseminate information, no matter how artfully you do it. Your most important role is as a mentor who listens, guides, and encourages.
The world-renowned author and psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom (2016) says about himself as a young professional: “Looking back now, I feel tenderness for that lonely, frightened, determined young boy, and awe that he somehow made his way through his self-education . . . without encouragement, models, or guidance” (p. 26).” Perhaps you have a similar story. If you’re teaching, or interested in teaching, in many ways you’ve “made it.” You’ve achieved. Your education has served you well. Who has helped you on your path? Remember them, and do even better: Pay it forward.
5. Multiply your expertise
When I was interviewing for a faculty position, the president of my college asked me, “Would you rather do therapy for one hour, or teach for one hour?” What a useful question!
My answer? Teach. At this point in my career, I enjoy therapy (it’s home, really), but I recognize the impact of one hour of teaching. During that hour, I am equipping future therapists, who will then impact the lives of thousands, or more, throughout their career.
Through teaching, you gain the satisfaction of knowing that your time is being multiplied, and the result will be more lives touched and restored through therapy.
How to Secure A Teaching Position
You may be wondering how to begin teaching in your field. And, I have some tips for seeking and finding opportunities that are right for you.
Undergraduate or graduate?
Many of the benefits of teaching are a result of teaching at the graduate level, but some therapists enjoy teaching undergraduates. Also, if the department includes a graduate program, teaching undergraduate courses will serve as preparation for teaching graduate students. And, you’ll build trust with the department over time.
Because of my relationship with my department, I was able to move from undergraduate to graduate teaching and teach as an adjunct before completing my doctoral degree.
Small institution or large university?
Large universities often have more opportunities available, across several departments, for teaching in a psychotherapy discipline. However, small colleges appreciate professionals who align with their values and have specialized experience. Consider where you may have a connection as well as where you’d prefer to teach before reaching out to a school.
Online or in person?
These days, many graduate programs are either entirely online, or they include a concurrent online program. This situation gives you options. Online teaching is convenient, because you can teach a course from your home or office. On the other hand, it requires increased communication and a customer service perspective, not likely needed when students have an in-person relationship with you.
You may also make this decision based on your own graduate program; were you an online or an on-ground student? Whether you realize it or not, your student experience allowed you to gain skills in connecting and navigating online/on-ground campus life and likely also shaped your philosophy of education.
Reach out to your connections
I sought teaching opportunities immediately after completing graduate school. One of my classmates was teaching in the Human Development and Family Studies undergraduate department at her alma mater, and she connected me with the department chair. I taught as an adjunct for one year, before beginning doctoral studies.
Because I had a relationship with the department, I knew they were beginning an online counseling program. While I was a doctoral student, I emailed the program director asking about teaching opportunities. That led to what has now been a six year adjunct position.
Getting opportunities requires striking the right balance between tapping into your friends and colleagues, and also taking initiative. If you don’t directly know someone who can connect you with an institution, you likely are two to three people away from the right connection. Talk about your desire to teach with colleagues and friends, and see where it leads. A more direct approach is to email your network to see who can and/or is willing to help.
Cold call or email?
After completing my doctoral degree, but before being hired as a professor, I emailed the department director of an institution that had been on my radar for several years. I didn’t have a connection to introduce me, so I emailed the general faculty address. I introduced myself, gave a brief summary of my experience, and attached my curriculum vitae along with a cover letter.
In return, there was silence.
Approximately one year later, the department chair replied to my email asking if I was interested in teaching for the program.
The moral of the story is: It never hurts to let someone know you exist, and that you’d like to offer your expertise. They also need you. If not now, then perhaps in the future.
Hardy, K. V. (1995). Embracing Both/And: In the fluid world of our practices, we must face the truth of opposing truths everyday. Family Therapy Networker, 19, 42-46.
Yalom, I. D. (2017). Becoming myself: A psychiatrist’s memoir. New York, NY: Basic Books.