Is doing research better than teaching?

By Mark Aspinwall

‘When I was 15, my teacher was so ignorant I could hardly stand to be in the same room. But when I got to be 18, I was astonished at how much he had learned in three years.’  (Mark Twain)

Most academics, when all is said and done, want to have an impact. That’s why they write so much, and why they’re so keen to publish. But whether they realize it or not, their impact is felt just as much through their teaching as through their research.

Like other universities, Edinburgh academics are required to research and publish. It’s what makes our name, influences debates, draws top PhD candidates, links us to world-leading institutes and researchers, and shapes policy. Without research we would simply be a mouthpiece for understandings developed elsewhere – just like your high school teachers.

But if we spend time doing research, does that mean our teaching effort goes down? No. I think it’s a positive-sum game.

Research works its way into our teaching in a number of ways. First, some of the most highly-visible and widely-cited of our work is also the most accessible. We use it in our teaching.

Second, even when our research is much more complex, the classroom forces us to communicate complex arguments in simple language. We need to synthesize and make relevant what can seem like arcane, narrow investigations. Teaching helps us make our arguments clear, and can reveal faults in our research design.

Students at all levels contribute to this process. Simple questions require arguments to be clarified. New ideas pop into old heads. Course syllabi sometimes evolve from weekly lecture topics into book chapters. Students even contribute by helping with research projects and tasks.

Research feeds teaching. Students feed research.

Our PhD students are at the interface of research and teaching. They are doing work as advanced as us old-timers, yet their thinking and their communication is often more supple and sympathetic. They are our capillaries of knowledge.

We are also fortunate to have some great teachers among the permanent staff. Chad Damro has been awarded the Political Studies Association award for the best teaching in politics at any university in the UK. Elizabeth Bomberg won the same award in a different year, and has also won the award for best teacher in any department in the University of Edinburgh. Both are active researchers – Damro is on the cusp of making a major contribution to our understanding of the international influence of the European Union. 

Not everyone loves to teach, and as with anything, some are better than others. But it is central to our activities, and stands alongside research as an equal. I can’t do better than to end with a quote from Robert Keohane, one of the giants in the field of International Relations, and a major influence on the thinking of IR scholars:

‘Never disparage teaching. It is an intrinsic part of political science as a vocation. Furthermore, it provides much more immediate gratification than research. If you give a good lecture or teach a lively, thoughtful seminar, the gratification is immediate: you know you accomplished something that day.’

Is writing an essay more like making a cake or scoring a goal?

By Mark Aspinwall

You want to make a cake. You google ‘chocolate cake.’ You check out the recipes, get the ingredients, follow the steps to the letter, and pretty soon you have a cake.

Next day you kit up for your weekly five-a-side footie. Been having trouble scoring lately, so you try a different pair of trainers. You’ve tried other things recently too, like taking shorter steps, kicking more with your instep, cutting through the seam of the defenders and getting inside – even shouting at the keeper to scare him. But progress is slow.

Some things in life are exact and procedural. You find out what the steps are in the process and follow them exactly – and it’s not just simple things like making a cake, but complicated ones like heart transplants and building skyscrapers. Procedure is everything. A bit of creativity can be disastrous.

Other things in life are more creative and flexible. That means that there is no set, exact way to do them, only guidelines, general ideas, and best practice. And it’s not just scoring goals that require creativity and flexible thinking, but also things like writing novels and pop songs (despite their obvious creativity, both are structured too and bear resemblances to other novels and pop songs).

Writing an essay is one of these. You don’t look up the formula for writing an essay with exact step-by-step instructions (first write ‘The’, next write ‘institutions’, then write ‘of’ …) because there are none.

Instead, essays involve a combination of structure and general guidelines, as well as creative thinking. Like in footie, there are some rules. Don’t use your hands (unless you’re Thierry Henry). Don’t plagiarize. Structure means things like beginning with an introduction and ending with a conclusion, and in between, considering perspectives (alternative points of view) and evidence.

Creative thinking means linking concepts, digesting the work of others and distilling it, drawing from it selectively and using it to help answer your research question, and writing it in your own words, clearly and crisply (ie, without fluff, detours, irrelevances, etc).

So it’s more like scoring a goal. The way you get better is by practicing over and over, not by finding the secret step-by-step formula. Different coaches may have somewhat different advice. That’s OK – the world is big enough for both an Alex Ferguson and an Arsène Wenger.

So you get your essay back and you ask yourself, why did I get this mark? Here’s where you need to take careful account of the comments, speak to your tutor, read the various guides to essay writing, and visit a TLA class on making the most of essays and exams (  And keep working on it! Polishing your writing skills makes you a better communicator, and that will help you in the future. Like scoring goals, it gets better with practice.