“Teaching is a beautiful way to give back to society” – Career path of Matthew Kirkham

Name: Matthew Kirkham
Did PhD at: University of Queensland, Australia
Current position: Senior researcher, Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Interviewed by: Christos Karampelias

Matthew Kirkham was the first person that gave me a teaching assignment as part of my PhD training. I hold him largely responsible for making me feel so passionate about teaching, so this was a great chance for me to share his story and his role as an educator at Karolinska Institutet.

Matthew enrolled as a PhD student at University of Queensland where he performed research in cell biology. His journey brought him over to Stockholm for a postdoctoral position at Karolinska Institutet. “I actively sought teaching opportunities during my postdoctoral time”, he mentions. Currently he is a Senior researcher at Karolinska Institutet where he runs his research program 50 percent of his time and devotes the other 50 percent for departmental teaching duties.

It is fair to say that Matthew has a number of important educational duties to carry out: Deputy director of education for the department of cell and molecular biology, course director and examiner for the cell-, stem cell and developmental biology course of the Biomedicine bachelor program at Karolinska Institutet as well as being a part of the program committee for the same program. He explains how he divides his teaching time between all these different roles: “50 percent is administrative work for the course I am responsible for, 30 percent is delivering the actual teaching occasions and 20 percent is devoted to content development for the course”. I get excited when he says the words “course content development” and he certainly shares the same enthusiasm. “It is always nice and fun to think of new activities for the students”, Matthew comments. However, he mentions that this is one of the most challenging parts of his responsibilities, as one has to develop content that will have a breadth but also be of a high level for students that go on to have very diverse career pathways as it is the truth for the Biomedicine bachelor program.

We continue and unwind the story from the beginning of time (as it seems to a lot of PhD candidates): his PhD studies.

The core skills he gained from his PhD that helped him in his current career as an educator could be summarized as follows: planning, organizing and being methodical about your work, basic presentation skills and interpersonal skills.

“During you PhD is when you start to communicate with people in different stages of their academic career and you have to do it in a positive, good and clear way. That helps you to start developing good interpersonal skills”. According to Matthew, teaching in a university is kind of an apprenticeship model of learning, “It is tough to point to specific skills that can help you for certain parts of the job. The key thing to know is that your role evolves along the way, from just lecturing to organizing and developing a course so you need to have a diverse skillset to be good”. If he has to cherry-pick things he wished he had before he started his duties, he would like to have had a basic teaching theory course and know a little bit more about the different ways that people learn.

When it comes down to the actual career path of how to be a teacher in a university, he mentions that it can vary between different countries and even different universities. “For example, there are very few purely teaching positions at Karolinska. Karolinska prefers most of the teachers to devote some time in research activities so that they are up-to-date with the science performed in their respective fields.” His advice on how to be a successful, university level educator lead all the way back to the apprenticeship model of becoming an educator: “Work-shadow course administrators in different places. Then you will see how things are handled in different environments and can enhance your own skills to cope with this role”, he advises.

Voice recorder is off. I walk with Matthew back to our offices, chatting about teaching. “You know, teaching is beautiful way to give back to the society”. As I walked off, I thought to myself: that is the type of teacher that I would like to organize my courses!

Photo: Subject’s own, used with subject’s permission.

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tags #careerportrait#InsideAcademia and#OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!

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