Educating Postdocs About the Other Part of Their Future Faculty Jobs

A curious reality of the American academic system is that those who intend to one day teach elementary or secondary school must do coursework in education. Some states even require a master's in education beyond the bachelor's degree in a content area, such as biology or English. Meanwhile, those who hope to land university and college professor positions will most likely never come close to a class on educational pedagogy throughout their many years of study. Many will never have encountered the word "pedagogy" even as they first step in front of classes as assistant professors.

This problem, says Matthew Ouellett, associate director of the Center for Teaching at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, has been rising to the surface in recent years as colleges and universities, responding to public demand, have been attempting to offer better educational experiences to their graduate and undergraduate students. At many institutions a shift in hiring policies is occurring--away from the old model, with its absolute emphasis on research prowess, and toward a new, education-friendly model in which a candidate's acumen in the classroom is also valued.

"Five years ago, it was unusual to see hiring announcements request evidence of good teaching," says Ouellett. "Now this has become commonplace."

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In a system that has not previously rewarded this combination of skills, it might be hard for soon-to-be professors--graduate students and postdocs--to find guidance in improving their teaching skills. The staff at UMass's Center for Teaching, and comparable offices nationwide, are doing their best to fill this gap. Increasingly they are seeing postdocs who aspire to academic careers seeking out their services.

One example is Mary Mawn, a postdoctoral fellow in Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UMass. Mawn, a 2000 doctoral graduate of UMass's Molecular and Cellular Biology program, works in the lab of Thomas Mason, studying the formation and function of the mitochondrial ribosome in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. And although her research chops are getting plenty of exercise, her lab work offers poor preparation for the teaching career she anticipates.

Mawn enrolled in the center's Teaching Documentation Program while still doing graduate work at UMass, and she has periodically pursued courses in the flexible program ever since.

Her motivation is simple: She ultimately wants to teach and be marketable as a teacher, but she has had little teaching experience to date. In her first years of graduate school Mawn held two teaching assistantships, but neither of these positions included instructing students. Instead she graded assignments and set up labs, which left her wanting for classroom experience. When she heard about the Teaching Documentation Program, she enrolled in order to fill this gap.

"Ever since I was young," she says, "I've known I wanted to teach. And while, between my research and my graduate coursework, I felt really prepared to do science in the future, there was no real outlet for the education side of things, and I wanted to be better prepared for that."

The Teaching Documentation Program is built around three content modules, each standing alone so participants can work at their own pace over as many semesters as needed. "This is in deference to the fact that most graduate students and postdocs have extraordinary demands on them," says Ouellett. "We wanted to create modules that folks could pick up and put down as they needed to."

The first of these modules asks participants to demonstrate an introductory-level understanding of the theory and research on practices contributing to teaching excellence. Another asks for evidence of self-reflection and some experience with teaching assessment. This might include videotaping a class and, together with a staff member from the Center for Teaching, analyzing the teaching. Finally, students are asked to demonstrate understanding of how to develop and explore pedagogical choices and practices. "What we're really encouraging participants to do in this," says Ouellett, "is develop a discipline-based demonstration of the application of their beliefs and values about teaching within the context of the courses they either currently teach or might hope to teach in the future." Participants might develop teaching philosophy statements and teaching portfolios, which are useful in articulating ideas about teaching. As Mawn points out, they are also valuable in the interviewing process; a recent job listing Mawn saw required just such a statement of teaching philosophy.

Working through the inevitable difficulties of teaching, if only on paper, says Mawn, has made it possible for her to discuss topics in a job interview that she might not otherwise have thought about.

"Writing the teaching philosophy statement was extremely helpful for me. It's helped me define what I want to see in my classroom. I don't want to just have lectures. I'd like to have students think more--to work with more of an inquiry sort of approach. I don't want to get up in front of a room and give a seminar three times a week. I want to know my students' names."

On the interviewing front, Ouellett says the Teaching Documentation Program and others like it serve a special purpose for postdocs. Teaching presentations are becoming de rigueur for those heading down the traditional academic path, and applicants need to be prepared. "One of the things we can help postdocs do," he says, "is separate out and clarify what their goals are in a research presentation, and how those might be the same or different from the goals of a teaching demonstration. Often the two presentations get conflated--even by search committees--although of course they're very different."

For Mawn, the experience with the Teaching Documentation Program has solidified her interest in teaching. The program has given her a venue for exploring her ideas about educational pedagogy. In fact, Mawn says that although the staff at the Center for Teaching has been most helpful, a lot of her learning has taken place during interactions with her peers. Ouellett stresses this easily overlooked advantage. "So many postdocs, as well as junior faculty, have terrific intentions and goals regarding teaching. What they often lack is a forum to process those ideas and colleagues with whom to share the ideas. So often it is only in that process of give and take that you really come to some clarity about why it is you do what you do, and how you might do it better."

"It seems to me that participating in education-related programs and courses broadens the horizons for postdocs and graduate students," says Thomas Mason, Mary Mawn's principle investigator at UMass. "Ph.D. candidates and postdocs should pursue avenues that increase their marketability and their options."

"Mary is a great exemplar of someone who has exhibited a tremendous amount of initiative," says Ouellett. "Her research experience was fantastic, but to have a sustained conversation about teaching, she was going to have to find that somewhere else."

* Jerry Gabriel lives in Ithaca, New York. He teaches composition at Cornell University and writes about science for a number of publications.

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