From PhD to Prep School Teacher: Part 2

Welcome to part two of our interview with Rachel Bundang. In this part, she tells us more about what skills are necessary in this career, and gives advice on the job search.

BA: What did you find most useful about your PhD training that you applied to your later work?

Rachel: Probably the pedagogical stuff—how to teach in ways that appeal to all the senses and tap into the multiple intelligences.

I have learned to go in with a plan, but to be ready to freestyle when necessary.

I also think that I’m able to convey to students my love for the subject, in all its weirdness and complexity, and I can almost always find a way to pique their interest and invite their engagement. Staying at least halfway current with pop culture and being able to weave it into the class really helps.

BA: How did you go about the job search? What was the process?

Rachel: For the first prep school job, my editor friend recommended that I register with Carney Sandoe, an agency that specializes in independent school placements. They sent me leads and also shared my dossier with schools looking for faculty in my discipline. When I interviewed at that school in NYC, it turned out that I had multiple connections with other faculty and staff there, since I had done my PhD in NYC as well.

The agency does not charge the candidate a fee; rather they get a cut from the school upon placement.

For my current job, it was more of a networking situation.

BA: What resources did you use in your job search?

RAB-CHSRachel: I used a lot of different resources in my search. Career services from my graduate and undergraduate institutions were a great place to start. Then, there are multiple organizations that can connect you with other people. I used Versatile PhD’s list serves and forums as well as their local chapters in both New York and San Francisco. I am also active in the PhDs at Work network on both coasts. As I mentioned before, I’ve gone through agencies and professional/scholarly organizations. Finally, LinkedIn is a good tool, as is word of mouth and your own personal network.

BA: How did you assess company culture before taking a job?

Rachel: In both instances, this happened mostly when I came on site for the teaching demo and interviews. I also sought info through my network of contacts—whoever might have any connections or insights.

BA: What does your current job entail?

Rachel: I teach all freshmen (4 sections of biblical studies), and 1 section of seniors (seminar on women & religion). In total, I teach approximately 75 students and prepare two courses. Next year, my assignment will switch to all seniors and 1 section of sophomores (world religions), but I will still be preparing two courses.

BA: What does a typical day look like for you?

Rachel: I try to arrive by 7:45am for an 8am start. We run on a block schedule, where classes last 75 min and meet 2 or 3 times per week, depending on the rotation. Classes end at 3:15pm, and I stay until 3:45pm, sometimes longer if we have after-school meetings. Most days I teach 2 or 3 sections and get a planning period, again based on the schedule.

BA: What abilities are necessary for your job?

Rachel: If you can teach undergrads, you can teach high school, as long as you also develop a well of patience and diplomacy for dealing with parents! It’s also helpful to have a dean or comparable supervisor who can adequately facilitate or buffer you from some of the more fraught interactions.

Plenty of PhDs teach in independent schools. In our high school faculty of approximately 60 people, 8 have PhDs—3 alone in my department of Religious Studies. Most others have a Master’s.

BA: How did you frame your background to be competitive for the jobs you wanted?

Rachel: Given the jobs in my current and former sites, I successfully presented myself as “a Catholic who plays well with others.” Since the student body was at most 50% Catholic, they needed someone who could teach the subject creatively and authoritatively to both outsiders and insiders. I also came with a strong background teaching in single-sex institutions (women’s college, girls’ prep school), and that was an asset.

BA: Would you recommend doing a postdoc?

Rachel: It won’t hurt. But if you already anticipate leaving, you might as well take the leap sooner rather than later.

BA: Is there a culture change outside of academia I should be prepared for?

Rachel: If you’re comparing academia with the independent school world, there is some difference. As I mentioned above, the closest equivalent would be a teaching-intensive small liberal arts college.

One nice bit is getting both the PhD bump and the experience/years bump in salary. Depending on your region, you may be better compensated than a comparably situated assistant professor.

Some independent schools also offer sabbaticals, though usually unpaid.

BA: What things can students learn to prepare them for this type of career? What activities can they do?

Rachel: This all suggests that the job/grad school equivalent of cross-training is important. You may live and die by your research productivity in academia, but the teaching, communication, and people skills are perhaps more important outside it. I taught and did as much outside work (in a range of arts, educational, and religious organizations) as I could handle while dissertating.

BA: Do you have advice on learning how to network effectively?

Rachel: What I found is that the further I went into my training, the easier it got for me to be genuinely enthusiastic and curious about things I already loved, and I was able to connect with others on those grounds. Practice making small talk with others outside of your discipline or academia altogether! At one point, when I was deep into my dissertation, I noticed how much the work was isolating me, so I challenged myself to have an actual conversation with a stranger at least once a day. Whether on the subway or in the coffee shop, whether about celebrities or politics, whether deep or superficial, the point was to engage another person and keep that conversation going.

One other thing that I did, both to help my teaching and to reach beyond an academic audience, was to take an improv class. I wanted to be able to handle curve-ball questions and all sorts of unknowns more gracefully and confidently, and learning that “Yes, and…” approach has been valuable.

BA: Thank you for all your advice, Rachel!