Training in Transition: Preparing Future Faculty

It's your first year in a tenure-track faculty position, and the first course the department head has asked you to teach is the same one you taught--in a special mentored program--as a graduate student. So you just happen to have a syllabus in your back pocket, and you are already well schooled in framing the necessary exam questions. Not having to spend as much time preparing your course, you are able to spend more time writing your first grant proposal, which ... ta-da ... gets funded.

Sound too good to be true? Well, it's not. This story describes the way Wendy Crone, an assistant professor of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, started her days as a faculty member.

A Head Start

Crone attributes her head start to the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, in which she participated during her doctoral work at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The Minnesota PFF program is part of a national PFF program, sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Pew Charitable Trusts, and a private donor. Involving 43 doctoral degree-granting institutions and more than 295 "partner" institutions, the PFF program seeks to transform the way future faculty members are prepared for research, teaching, and service. Within these broad guidelines, each participating institution is expected to develop a program tailored to suit the specific needs of a department and its graduate students.

In Crone's program at Minnesota--mechanical engineering--the PFF program took the form of two main courses. One was a mentored teaching experience, "a course in pedagogy," says Crone, and the other was a broad look at the role of faculty members in higher education. Both experiences, says Crone, were "very, very helpful" in preparing her for her current role as a third-year assistant professor. Crone feels that she has had to "worry a lot less" about teaching than her peers who lack prior training have. Having to worry less has allowed Crone to concentrate on research funding: In addition to receiving one research grant during her first year as an assistant professor, she landed two during her second year.

As well as giving her a head start on teaching, Crone says her PFF program taught her how to "assess institutional fit," gave her practice in things such as preparing statements of teaching and research philosophies, and improved her interviewing skills, all of which "helped tremendously" in her successful search for a faculty position. Although about half of the graduate students in her field obtain postdoctoral training before starting faculty positions, Crone was able to move into an assistant professorship directly from graduate school; she attributes this in part to her advanced preparation from the PFF program.

Crone now encourages her own graduate students to "be proactive" about the development of their careers and to "seek out opportunities" that will make them capable and prepared to successfully take on the role of faculty member. Also "crucial," says Crone, is building a mentoring network, or really "a collection of networks," in their fields.

Defining Needs

In its first round of funding for the PFF program, the NSF sought to reward institutions that already had pilot projects in place and allow them to " continue innovative work based on past achievements." This is exactly what has been happening at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says Joseph Harris, director of Duke's Center for Teaching, Learning and Writing. In its ninth year as a participant in the PFF program for graduate students, Duke is now working on incorporating parallel changes into programs for postdocs and new faculty. One effort in that direction that is still under development, says Harris, is a move to have early-career scientists from other Duke departments receive joint appointments in the Center for Teaching, Learning and Writing.

And, reports Ric Weibl, director of programs at the AACU, "the postdoc question" is definitely under discussion for the next level of PFF funding. Currently, says Weibl, although PFF events "are not targeted at them," postdocs at most institutions are informed of the events, with the level of participation depending in part on the amount of encouragement postdocs receive from their advisers. Although the PFF program was initially targeted at graduate education, Weibl sees the whole process as a "continuum" from graduate students to junior faculty members. Already, he says, he sees some "nice synergies" developing among the changes that are occurring at different stages of training.

Recent proof of these synergies was evident at the January 2001 Annual Meeting of the AACU, where a premeeting symposium entitled New Faculty for the Academy of the 21st Century brought together a nationwide group of faculty members and administrators to report on topics such as PFF programs for doctoral students; campus practices in hiring, orienting, and supporting new faculty; and the role of professional associations in building new faculty. Weibl feels that postdocs and new faculty members need to know that "there is someone out there doing the good work" to help them get better prepared to fill their roles. He also points out that professional associations are taking an active role in this process and that these organizations are a good place for early-career scientists to find training and support.

Societal Support

One such organization is the American Physical Society, which, at its April 2000 meeting in Long Beach, California, held an invited session entitled Preparing Future Faculty for Teaching. The speakers logged reports about PFF programs from five physics departments nationwide, including the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville,where the main goal is for "future faculty to be prepared to be as professional about their roles as educators as their roles as researchers." To achieve that goal, in 1999 the department, with support from NSF and Pew, instituted a program designed to teach graduate students how to "be professional," says Gay Stewart, an associate professor of physics and principal investigator on the PFF grants. Stewart says that their program was based on the observation that new faculty members "get burned out quickly" if they are not well prepared for the heavy load of teaching and research responsibilities.

The University of Arkansas programs begin training graduate students even before school starts by requiring them, if they are receiving financial support from the department, to participate in a 1-week seminar on organizing presentations, grading, and other professional issues. Another facet of the University of Arkansas program is "early evaluation" of graduate student teaching, about a third of the way through a selected semester, combined with a discussion of possible improvements and an end-of-semester evaluation to determine if suggested changes were achieved. There is a grade associated with this course entitled "Lab and Classroom Practices in Physics," says Stewart, which she believes motivates students to excel. In addition, Stewart points to a positive effect on the bottom line: The better performance of physics teaching assistants "doubled or tripled" the number of undergraduates enrolling in the department's courses.

Although the original specification of the funding was to enhance graduate student education, Stewart says it is clear that "we do need to provide these opportunities for postdocs and to mentor junior faculty." She says that although postdocs and new faculty members are encouraged to participate in the existing PFF training--and some postdocs have already done so--she has "no intention" of signing them up for graded courses. Stewart sees the PFF program as "a part of the culture" of the department, which, she says, is changing in a way that will benefit postdocs and new faculty members .

Because the infrastructure for PFF courses is already in place, Stewart believes that programs for postdocs could be implemented at "little extra cost." In the meantime, she advises postdocs and new faculty members to "find someone in the department interested in teaching and willing to be helpful." Stewart also suggests that postdocs consider taking positions at departments with existing PFF programs, where "the infrastructure is there" and the culture is already changing.

Over the coming weeks, Next Wave plans to chronicle academic culture changes and to offer practical advice to postdocs and new faculty members who are interested in beefing up their teaching skills. So stay tuned!

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