Teaching High School Science after a PhD

More and more people are earning advanced degrees and then abandoning a pursuit of a tenure track professorship.  When I completed my PhD, I gave myself a time limit: I could pursue a “Tenure Track” job for my final year plus one, then I was going to jump ship and pursue an alt-ac (alternative academic) career.

Why get a PhD just to end up teaching High School?

My target was always education. I decided to pursue a PhD because I wanted a terminal degree. I know some pursue a PhD just to challenge themselves, and I imagine this is what I was doing. I enjoyed learning and science, and decided I would pursue it when I had the opportunity.

I earned a series of degrees  in different fields – always intending to end up as a teacher/researcher of some combination.  First were the BS degrees in Biology and Chemistry, then a Master of Science in Teaching, Earth Science while working as a researcher in an Air Force research lab.  The move from bio and chem to Earth science was intentional – to pick up another content area if I eventually became a teacher. Then, I moved to Ohio State for MS and PhD degrees in Geology.  (Being a graduate student in a paleontology program is a tremendous amount of fun. I could justify just about any science course as well as new skills like S.C.U.B.A!)

What job did I expect to get?

As an A.B.D. (“all but dissertation”) PhD candidate and then recent graduate, I targeted any job opportunity as a paleontologist, including TT professorships, lectureship, NS curator positions in museums, and High School positions in private schools.  In the two years I was applying, I sent out more than 50 applications, I went on three on campus interviews.  I was told I was second choice more than once, and rather than continue to roll those dice I started looking for a job as a HS science teacher.  This was a solid choice for my family – in terms of balancing home and work (that is, seeing my kids on evenings and weekends). Plus it was a very sound financial decision to be fully employed and not a contingent adjunct professor.

My path to teaching high school

When I reached the end of my first masters degree (the MST Earth Science), I was being recruited under the alternative track to licensure.  In the State of Ohio (as I understand it), when a school/district cannot find licensed teachers, they can employ a certain number of teachers who do not hold professional licenses, while those uncertified/unlicensed teachers pursue their teaching credential. This had been my secondary plan all along, but by the time I was interested in switching to high school teaching jobs, the market in my geographic area was flooded with appropriately credentialed teachers and I could not get an interview. Eventually, a principal called after looking at my resume and thankfully let me know that I would be a good candidate for a teaching position, if I had the correct teaching license.  That evening, I decided to go back to school for a teaching license.

I had to re-enroll in graduate school and complete nearly a degree’s worth of pedagogy courses, plus 13 weeks of full-time student teaching. I wanted to do everything “by the book” so no one would ever be able to say I wasn’t as completely qualified as someone else.  My university decided I probably knew how to “do grad school” and doubled up my courses so I could finish in half the time.

I sat out a year after earning my teaching license, after the birth of my second child. The next year, I sent out 34 applications, booked 14 interviews, and was offered my first teaching position at the 13th, just a week before the start of school.

In Ohio, earning your initial license (the “Resident Educator License”) is only the first step. New teachers have to complete a four-year program to qualify for a “professional” license (that must be renewed every five years.  The four year program includes the “RESA Summative Assessment”, completed in year 3, which includes multiple video recordings and self reflections. (I kept all my responses to essays in one document – it was 40 pages long, single spaced.  It was about equivalent to a master’s degree program, but because it isn’t a master’s degree program, you don’t get a pay raise for completing it.)

What is it like to teach high school science?

I find teaching in a high school to be wonderfully challenging.  In my current position, I teach AP Biology, Honors Chemistry, and Physics.  My honors chem class also is required to complete an independent research project. I find that to be one of the most rewarding things I get the opportunity to do. Not all students love it, but students usually exceed my expectations in their work.

I also can draw from my experience in science research at both the Air Force Labs and my graduate work in paleontology to help mentor students through the processes of research, ethics, presentation, and writing.

Every day is different and full of rich interaction with students. Weekly, I do several labs with my classes, lead or participate in discussions, and work with students on their research.  The balance of teaching/research/service is still present, and skews dramatically toward teaching – but I still do plenty of service to my school, as well as research (I’ve even continued to publish).


Teaching can be an excellent alt-ac career for a person with a PhD. There are three of us at my high school.

If you have a PhD and are considering teaching, I would recommend that you enroll in a traditional teacher preparation program. This will give you very valuable experience with student teaching (which is frequently not required for alternative license candidates), but also helps with networking, as well as skills needed for working in HS setting.  Further, having a traditional teaching credential is the best way to make sure you can teach in the widest set of schools. It is true that some schools don’t require teachers to have licenses at all – but if you find that isn’t a good fit for you, there may not be opportunity to work in another kind of school (public schools have the most restrictions).

If you have or are working on a PhD, and are considering teaching in a k-12 classroom after your graduation, get involved in education initiatives as soon as possible. For those in the sciences, this includes Science Fair, Science Olympiad, iGEM, FIRST Robotics, and other competitive science events. Experience in these programs can give you an edge in the application process (yes, you may be competing with other licensed, PhD-holding teachers for even high school positions – I frequently was). It may even be possible to take courses in pedagogy that can lead to earning a teaching license while working on your PhD. It is not (usually) enough to have taught at the college level, and assuming this can either start an argument that a PhD holding applicant will lose, or the applicant will just quietly moved to the bottom of the list.

I bristle when people treat teaching as a fall back career. Refrain from projecting the attitude that if “a tenure track position doesn’t work out, I’ll just be a high school teacher.”  For people who make high school teaching their career, entering teaching and obtaining a professional teaching license requires:

  • at least a four-year degree,
  • a teaching license with student teaching,  and passing the edTPA*
  • passing scores on content tests in every field I intended to teach to qualify for my initial teaching license (despite having degrees in biology, chemistry, and geology, and the required coursework to be considered qualified to teach physics I was required to take two standardized combination content tests for my initial licensure)
  • in my state, the completion of a four-year mentorship program, completed during my first four years teaching.

*But I completed my initial licensure work just before the edTPA rolled out, and my licensure program required I complete and submit the access during it’s trial period.

Did you start teaching at the high school level after a PhD? I’d love to hear your story! Why did you choose k-12, and what was your process?


8 thoughts on “Teaching High School Science after a PhD

  1. great story. the process to become a secondary school teacher after completing a phd is numbing, and a detraction for most people – 2 year certificate program at least for most states. but there is talk of 6-10 certificate courses being tossed around as an idea that would need to be accepted by states. Anyway, you can see the lack of phd’s in the public school system is largely because of this obstacle, whereas 30% of PhD students or graduates have considered an interest in teaching high school. A huge disconnect and disservice to public school students.

  2. Nice to know I’m not alone! I earned my PhD in curriculum and instruction with the aim of teaching at a public university. I was already a high school psychology teacher so I earned my degree taking night classes. After I graduated I was tired of research and writing academic papers blah blah blah. I stayed at my job – been teaching AP Psychology for 11 years. I use my degree to be an adjunct professor. High school by day, University by night 🙂

  3. Hi, glad I stumbled across this! I’m finishing up my PhD in environmental science (at Ohio State!!) and have been considering going into HS teaching. I’ve volunteered with high schoolers for 4+ years while I’ve been in grad school.
    What do you recommend for approaching this? Im pretty unwilling to do more schooling past my PhD…

    1. Hi Morgan! I tried to avoid a post-PhD license that required coursework, but at that time (2009-2011) there was a lot of competition for STEM high school teaching jobs. There still may be. However, you may be able to pursue “alternate licensure” IF you successfully are hired at a high school. Another option my be to work at a private school, where sometimes there is a little more opportunity to hire unlicensed teachers – but even then they may have you agree to pursue an alternate license. I currently work at a private school, and have colleagues who are unlicensed, and also colleagues who completed alternate licensure. I tried for two years to find work without a license, and got zero interviews. If I was still doing my PhD work, knowing what I do now, I’d have seriously considered doing my pedagogy courses while working on my PhD. (Feel free to email me if you want to chat more about STEM ed in Ohio.)

  4. I’m so glad I came across this article! I finished my PhD in Earth science last year, and I’ve been a high school biology teacher for 3 years now. I love it, but I struggle with the idea you mentioned above “I’ll just be a high school teacher”. I love your transparency when you talk about your experience. Thank you so much.

    1. Thank you. I think that generally, most don’t realize that while HS teaching has similarities, it has a different skill set and requires different training. Being aware of that helps.

  5. To be honest, high school teaching was a ‘fall back’ position. After completing a PhD in molecular genetics, at the time, post-doc funding was abysmal (unless the research could be ‘aligned’ to government ‘objectives’), and even though there were a couple of opportunities overseas, I decided that if I couldn’t work on something that interested me, then I could live with helping the ‘next generation’ of future scientists, who, hopefully, would face a better situation in regards to funding basic research. While my husband was OK with me heading off for a 3 year (or more) post doc overseas, I had seen a few ‘long distance’ marriages fail, so that was not an option I wanted to pursue….. so secondary teaching it was- I lasted 17 years….. and found my biggest problem to be, not my students (who I continually challenged to ‘think outside the box’, and rarely disappointed) but hide bound ‘teachers’ who just had basic education qualifications- and who didn’t appreciate more highly qualified (older) people coming in to teaching. I wasn’t the only person in my group (17 of us had Masters or PhD qualifications, reflecting the abysmal post-doc funding situation) at the time to experience hostility and discrimination from our supposed mentors and colleagues- those ‘old school’ teachers really resented us! Today, little has changed. But I would say that anyone coming in to teaching with a non-education PhD should do so with ‘eyes wide open’- expect resentment, hostility, sabotage etc, not from students (who are mostly a breath of fresh air and open to exploring in ways non-PhD teachers couldn’t imagine), but from staff who have only an education background.

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