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Practical Paths for Promising Professors

Traditionally, a graduate student who decides to do an academic postdoc will subsequently seek a career in academia. In a perfect world, upon completion of the postdoc, academia is waiting with open arms. However, today's world is not perfect. Jobs are few, and the competition is fierce.

What We Know

We know that postdoctoral training is a prerequisite to obtaining most faculty positions. However, postdoctoral experience alone does not automatically guarantee an academic job. So, a young scientist hoping to secure a professorship would be well advised to seek postdoc experiences that will properly prepare them for this kind of job. That may include doing more than one postdoc and seeking out well-known advisors. In addition, it is helpful to have several publications, particularly as first author, if you want to acquire a top-notch faculty position.

Most postdoc training is focused on these two requirements, because they are undoubtedly top priorities in most faculty searches. However, in addition to these requirements, academic interviewers may require experience that most postdoctoral fellows don't have--teaching experience!

So what is a future professor to do to be competitive? Notes Pauline Wong, current president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, obtaining teaching experience is difficult for postdocs, even those considering a career in academia. Graduate and postdoctoral programs at medical institutions, for example, don't offer fellows any real opportunity to obtain teaching experience. True, some graduate students may have the opportunity to be teaching assistants (TAs), and some will be TAs for the duration of their graduate career. However, in terms of interviewing for faculty positions, the TA topic may be moot because even though you may have spent countless hours as a TA preparing materials and training other students, this form of teaching is not generally considered to truly represent "teaching experience."

Gold at the End of the Rainbow

For many postdocs, obtaining teaching experience will require overcoming road blocks that might include limited opportunities within the department, negative feedback from their PI, and even restrictions from some funding agencies regarding "outside" employment. If you happen to be a postdoc at an independent institute or government lab, then your chances of gaining teaching experience in a university setting can be even slimmer. But don't despair! Postdocs can take some steps to make sure that they have some teaching experience to talk about when they're sitting in that long-awaited interview for their first faculty position.

Step up and take responsibility. If you are lucky enough to work for someone who has a heavy teaching load, offer to take on some of the responsibility. "Most PIs are open to letting their postdocs teach a couple of lectures," says James Hildreth, associate professor in the department of pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Although the experience gained would be somewhat limited, you will walk away with a reference from someone who has witnessed your teaching abilities. This is likely to "count" wherever you're applying for faculty positions--even smaller colleges, such as Westminster College in Salt Lake City, require references from faculty who are able to evaluate your abilities in the classroom setting.

Look to community colleges. Many community colleges are looking for adjunct professors to teach courses. And according to David Wiest of the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, community colleges are great places in which to gain experience in the classroom. "Usually one teaching experience is sufficient to get an interview for a prospective job, and community colleges are a good way to satisfy this requirement," says Wiest. He also urges postdocs to obtain evaluations from faculty who have seen them in action, because these references can make a helpful addition to your application. Also, if teaching is your primary interest, working at a community college can get you started on your career--and help you figure out if teaching is something you enjoy and want to make the centerpiece of your professional life.

Consult the career office at your university. At an increasing number of institutions, postdocs have access to the career services office or an administrative office created to meet their needs. Check out your institution's career center or postdoc office as a potential resource for locating nearby teaching opportunities.

Do your research. Before you commit to a lab, identify advisors who will allow you the flexibility you need to obtain teaching experience and find out about teaching opportunities organized by the institution. In informally polling postdocs who aspire to academic positions, I found that many had asked potential advisors how they felt about their postdocs taking on some teaching responsibilities.

After having a less than supportive environment in her first postdoc position, Karen* negotiated for teaching flexibility before committing to her second position. "Because of the way in which I handled the situation the second time around, I have no problem requesting references from my advisor when applying for teaching jobs," replies Karen.

Some postdoctoral programs have created mechanisms to assist postdocs in finding opportunities. For example, at Fox Chase Cancer Center, postdocs are able to gain experience by teaching at local colleges. If gaining teaching experience is important to you, find a place that fosters the flexibility you need.

Network, network, network. As if it needs to be said anymore, networking is ALWAYS important. You should always be ready to ask about (and find out about) teaching opportunities that might be opening up nearby. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Foster regular interaction with departmental offices at local colleges and universities so that you can keep up with what's going on in the departments. Professors regularly go on sabbatical, and academic institutions generally need someone to temporarily fill the vacant positions. You may not be successful in obtaining helpful information in the beginning, but be persistent. Keep calling and follow up by sending in your CV.

  • Keep relationships with previous academic affiliations. The professors and administration will usually respond more positively to someone they know. When leaving her first postdoc position, Karen picked the university where she completed her thesis for her second postdoc. She knew the faculty and felt comfortable when the time came to asking for schedule flexibility so that she could gain teaching experience.

  • Talk with the faculty in your current department. Begin a dialogue with professors about how they obtained teaching experience. Once you engage them about their experiences, they may open up or alert you to local opportunities.

  • Get involved. If your institute has an active postdoctoral association, find a way to help out. These associations meet on a regular basis and deal with important postdoctoral issues, including how to gain teaching experience. It's a great chance to hear what others are doing!

  • Although finding teaching experience as a postdoc can be difficult, it can be done ... with a little perseverance. And that experience will help to make you a stronger candidate for your dream faculty position.

    * The name of the postdoctoral fellow has been changed to maintain her privacy.

    Tracey W. Thomas received her doctoral degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in cell and developmental biology. Currently, she is a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University where she researches signaling pathways responsible for lipid raft aggregation during virus-cell interactions.