Reprints: Advice for Postdocs


To the Editor:

I read with great interest the article entitled "'Postdocs,' Seeing Little Way Into the Academic Job Market, Seek Better Terms in the Lab" (August 7). I was a postdoc for three years before accepting a position at a small, four-year teaching institution, and the article addressed many important issues that I once faced. I am now the chair of the biology department at a small college in a rural, Appalachian setting.

As a graduate student and a postdoc, I did not intend to teach at a small college. I had hoped to be at a middle-sized state university with reasonable research expectations and a moderate teaching load. But this was not to be. ... As is often the case, my postdoc mentor did little to assist me in finding a permanent position other than write letters of recommendation. ... I should add that my postdoc was an overall positive experience, and it did help me get my first tenure-track job.

Now, as a department chair at a small college, I have a new perspective. Postdoctoral experience is usually helpful in gaining permanent positions even at small teaching institutions. ... Most small colleges require some type of scholarship of their faculty members, and in biology this most often means research. Postdoctoral experience indicates the ability to carry out research at a reasonably high level, which is a very attractive credential.

There are a few things I would like postdocs to consider. The first is that if you are limiting your job search to large or middle-size graduate/research universities, even if you have five or more years of postdoc experience, you are probably not going to gain the academic position you are seeking. ..... not absolutely!)." Do not ignore the small colleges. As I indicated, a small-college job was not my first choice, but I have found that teaching and working in a small college has been a most rewarding experience. ...

Another recommendation is to negotiate with your mentor so that, while you are employed as a postdoc, you are allowed to teach; you should teach a class every term you can. This should be a legitimate class, not just a seminar or journal club. The best class to teach is a lower-level class. If you can negotiate a part-time salary for doing this, great, but do it even if you do not get paid. If you cannot teach at your postdoc institution, teach an evening or weekend class at a community college. ... If your institution has a college-teaching preparatory program (many do now), negotiate to participate in that. These things take time, but they could be the difference between landing a job or not.

When I receive letters from mentors recommending their postdocs, the letters often give two to three pages of details about the research accomplishments of the applicant. Then, in the last paragraph, the mentor usually says that he/she cannot speak about the teaching skills of the postdoc, except that the applicant makes clear presentations at meetings. These letters are of little value in a small-college job search. Be certain that your mentor knows you well enough to speak about why you chose the route you did, how you work with people, whether you have a positive attitude, etc., and be sure that he/she can say something about your teaching skills. Have your mentor sit in on some of your classes, and let him/her review your teaching evaluations from peers or students. ...

Now for the bad news: I work in a small, rural, church-related, Appalachian college, which for many people in this business is not the most attractive situation. When we advertise for a biology position, depending on how we word the job description (specific or general), we receive between 150 to 350 applicants, and 90 per cent of these applicants have excellent credentials. It is not easy getting a tenure-track job anywhere in academe.

Jim Ross


Department of Biology

Professor of Biology

Cumberland College

Williamsburg, Ky.

Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on Science's Next Wave. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to For subscription information, send a message to

Section: Opinion

Page: B13

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