Learning to Teach: Diary of the Postdoc Pilots--Part 1: Developing the Profession

P reparing Future Faculty (PFF) goes beyond teacher-training programs to develop a comprehensive academic career training mechanism. Originally founded in the mid-1990s and since implemented at over 200 U.S. academic institutions, the PFF program assumes that the training of future faculty is a professional responsibility--one that must be taken on by individuals, departments, and disciplinary associations. The focus of PFF is to provide opportunities for individuals to observe and experience faculty roles and responsibilities: teaching, research, and service. "Especially in areas such as science, engineering, and mathematics, where a postdoc is a requirement for a faculty position, PFF is a national imperative," says Orlando Taylor, Dean of the Graduate School at Howard University.

The University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), is one of the first institutions to actively encourage postdocs to participate in a PFF program.

Pilot Postdocs

The UAB graduate school has a professional development program that serves both grad students and postdocs. "One of the things that we have done is to create an annual career development workshop in which students and postdocs can explore what it takes to be successful in a variety of careers," said Joan Lorden, Associate Provost of Research and Dean of the Graduate School. "Each year it is apparent that our students in the biomedical sciences want more opportunities to get teaching experience. As we listened to our postdocs, it was clear that some of them also wanted an opportunity to teach so that they could enhance their resumes if they were seeking academic employment, or to find out if a career that involved teaching at the undergraduate level was for them."

The Graduate School started a pilot PFF program in fall of 2002, targeting students and postdocs in science and engineering programs. Four postdocs were accepted into the program, all from bioscience backgrounds. Participants were required to commit one year to the program, to get their mentor's endorsement, and to complete a teaching workshop. Interns were given several biology, chemistry, and physics laboratory classes to choose from, and were expected to dedicate 4 to 8 hours per week to the program, including time for lab preparation, teaching, and grading.

UAB intentionally began the pilot program with lab classes. "Our undergraduate programs provide a lot of guidance and support to those who work in the teaching labs, and we thought that this would be a good way to start. We want those who participate to get the experience of teaching rather than just following a faculty member to class. We also wanted them to get feedback and be a part of an organized program rather than being on their own," explained Lorden. In addition, the Graduate School has offered some other experiences as part of PFF, including informal meetings with alumni who have chosen academic careers and with faculty that have won teaching awards. As the pilot program develops, the Graduate School plans to add opportunities for teaching experiences at nearby institutions.

One of the strengths of PFF has been its emphasis on understanding the range of faculty experiences at different institutions. Even within a university, faculty careers may vary substantially. For example, the experience of a biologist is different in a department with undergraduate programs from what it is in a clinical department or a basic health-science department. "We thought that we could at least expose those with interests in academic careers to faculty in departments with undergraduate programs. That was how the pilot program was born," said Lorden.

We (Flanagan and Cakir) are among the UAB PFF pilot postdocs. One of us (Flanagan) signed up hoping to find out whether or not I enjoyed teaching enough to pursue it as a career. I hope the program will allow me to understand what is involved in establishing a syllabus and what it takes to perform it in the lab. I guess my biggest fear, after trying to remember my students' names, will be to get them, and then keep them, enthusiastic about the subject.

The other of us (Cakir) has had little time to do formal lab or class teaching, what with spending time as a research assistant, carrying out a lot of experiments, and preparing lab reports. I believe that this program will help me improve my teaching and critical thinking abilities. Moreover, I believe that I will get a lot of benefit from well-trained university teachers so that I could convey and present my knowledge and research in a good and supervised manner.

Flanagan Prepares to Teach:

To get the ball rolling, I enrolled in the Graduate School course "preparing teaching assistants to be effective teachers." The course comprised four sessions totaling 18 hours and covered topics that ranged from ethics to examination techniques. Completing this course and knowing that I was assigned to teach a subject with which I was familiar--an introductory microbiology laboratory course--helped me to prepare for my first class. I felt that the familiar topic would allow me to draw on the strengths of my scientific background, and I would not have to take excess time away from my research. Moreover, the instructional laboratory coordinator, Quameca Cole, would be organizing the day-to-day running of the course and was a handy first stop whenever I had questions.

Before I stepped into the classroom, I met with Cole and another lab TA, who had experience teaching the course. We decided to meet each week for a couple of hours to address any problems we had in the labs and to familiarize ourselves with the syllabus for the coming week. This was helpful because we were teaching the same course but to different classes and it ensured we covered the same topics.

Cole left the methods of presenting to the class to the individual TA, which allowed me to use techniques that I felt could get the points across to the students. After this, it became a weekly routine: the laboratory coordinator and TAs would meet to discuss the classes for next week, I would prepare my lecture and give the classes, and then we would meet again to review what was successful and what needed to be improved.

Cakir's Learning Curve

While Brian was off designing hands-on lab courses, I was learning a whole new way of teaching scientific methodology. I taught a mammalian physiology lab to senior-level undergraduates in biology, using computers to teach concepts and experimental methods. My early graduate studies involved a lot of bench work and animals for physiological experiments. Right now, the technology is such that students and teachers can conduct crucial experiments without sacrificing any animals or spending a lot of money for lab instruments and chemicals.

Not only was I learning to teach, though, I was also struggling to learn American culture and conversational English. While UAB does screen interns for speaking skills, adapting to the classroom was still a challenge. Because this was my first teaching class at UAB, I was a little nervous at the beginning of the class. Being an international scholar, not having good spoken English skills, not having enough prior teaching experience, not knowing the real teaching environment, and not being aware of American culture forced me to study and learn some aspects of American-style teaching. After each class, I would evaluate my teaching. To improve my classroom performance, I even started to deliver sample lectures to my colleagues!

Up next: midterms and evaluations.

Yavuz Cakir received his Ph.D. in comparative and experimental medicine from the University of Tennessee. He is currently a postdoc in Charles Falany's laboratory in the pharmacology and toxicology department at UAB where he is studying the functions and properties of human sulfotransferase (EST) enzymes in human breast cancer cell lines. Brian Flanagan received his Ph.D. in virology from the University of Warwick, U.K., and is currently pursuing postdoctoral studies in microbiology at UAB in the laboratory of Gail Wertz. There he is determining the pathogenesis of, and the immunity to, vesicular stomatitis virus.

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