For the last two years, supervisors have been campaigning for better working conditionsLouis Ashworth

Finally, some spare time! What to fill it with? Could I take on a little teaching, or should I focus on research? Many postgraduate students, including myself, face exactly this predicament every Easter Term. Unfortunately they make their decision in conditions of delusion and ignorance. So to help out any future candidates, I will consider 4 myths of supervising at Cambridge. To preface, I love teaching and almost always welcome it when offered, but it is by no means a good choice for everyone. It is a serious commitment and needs to be considered carefully.

Myth 1: It is Well-Organised

You might assume something as important as the university’s “unique teaching experience” is a well-oiled machine. Surprisingly, no! Supervising is an opaque, irrational mess. Whether you get selected – or dropped – is largely at the whim of individual DoSes and there are rarely public application procedures or selection criteria. The pay fluctuates and can depend on which college you are supervising for. You have no guaranteed hours, no specific training for your subject, and you are expected to organise rooms, lessons, supervision sheets, and timetables for your students. If you like guidance and support then you might want to look somewhere else. On the other hand, if you thrive on uncertainty, and like to get creative in planning lessons, it is a brilliant opportunity to teach with minimal oversight.

“At the end of it all, you’re lucky if you walk away with 5 quid an hour for your efforts.”

Myth 2: It is Flexible

You may think that supervising is akin to being a private tutor. The colleges certainly treat it this way – they regard supervisors as self-employed workers who can be fired or hired at any moment. It is different for you, the supervisor. Once you sign up you take on three major commitments. The first is preparation: you must assemble the entire course in advance, regardless of how many students you have. The second is location: you must be in Cambridge for the entire academic year to teach the students. This is essentially non-negotiable. The third, and most important, commitment of all is moral responsibility to the students. The stakes are high at Cambridge, both emotionally and academically, and a small failure can have drastic consequences. You need to take your role seriously and quitting partway, or even being slightly incompetent, will be met with disappointment and potentially life-changing effects in your students’ performance.

Myth 3: It Can Help Make Ends Meet

It is tempting to see supervising as a part-time job. Again, this is a trap. At most, it should be treated as a way to generate some extra “pocket money” (which is how senior academics typically see it). The main issue is that you only get paid for hours of in-person teaching – no marking, organisation, report-writing, or communicating with students. E.g. all the stuff you are expected – and need – to do to be a good teacher. In the words of one supervisor “at the end of it all, you’re lucky if you walk away with 5 quid an hour for your efforts”. It is therefore ill-advised and, frankly, humiliating as a way of making ends meet: “Is that really all you get paid?” A more sensible money-spinner is private tutoring, which is far more flexible and has a much better salary.

Myth 4: It is Obligatory


Mountain View

Cambridge should be proud of its bursary programs

Common Delusion No. 1889: “I don’t like teaching but I probably need to do some anyway.” This is a misunderstanding. First, it is not mandatory to teach during your postgraduate studies and you are expected to prioritise your research. The immediate demands of students and DoSes make it hard not to devote more time to teaching, and I have found that teaching more than 4-5 students can set you back months. Second, it is surprisingly mediocre on the resume. How many universities teach their students in groups of 2-3? Here’s a hint: not many. And remember – you haven’t been trained or given any guidance (whoops!). CV-strategizing makes the most sense if you are applying for Oxbridge jobs – otherwise, be pragmatic with your time.

So, you ask, should I supervise? The above is not meant to be a definitive “no”. You just need to enter with realistic expectations. Supervising works best for those who really love teaching, and who are prepared to make sacrifices in their research progress in its pursuit. Otherwise, without this deeper enjoyment, it can quickly turn into a ball and chain made out of incessant planning, long hours and endless unpaid marking.