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Postdoc Life at Liberal Arts Colleges, Part 1

Most postdocs work in high-powered labs in major research universities. Many others are scattered across government and the private sector. But no matter where they are, "high-powered" is the operative term. The postdoc is, after all, a research-intensive time when you're supposed to be beefing up your publications, establishing your research program, and developing your professional network--in short, making yourself as competitive as possible for the job market. So why would anyone want to spend this precious, career-building time at a small liberal arts college where, as Binney Girdler, a postdoc at Middlebury College in Vermont, says, "life revolves around the undergrads?"

The answer, according to Philip Nyhus, a postdoc at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, is that "it's a win-win-win situation." Nyhus is one of four postdocs hired on a National Science Foundation Awards for the Integration of Research and Education ( NSF-AIRE) grant awarded to the school to enhance its undergraduate curriculum by integrating research into teaching. The undergrads benefit from the skills, expertise, and mentoring the postdocs provide, and the faculty benefit by having more time to develop new course materials. But how do the postdocs benefit? By gaining valuable experience teaching, developing new courses, and mentoring undergrad researchers.

Larkspur Morton started out at Colby as a visiting sabbatical replacement and "taught like crazy" for a year before she was offered an NSF-AIRE postdoctoral position in the biology department. As a visiting professor, she didn't have much time to do anything but teach. As a postdoc, she's had much more time to think not only about what she's teaching, but how she's teaching. "A lot of teaching seems so obvious," Morton says, "but until you actually do it and get feedback from the students, you don't know what will work."

Morton wanted to make undergraduate labs more "inquiry-based" and "engaging" for students. This may seem like an easy task--simply have the students design their own experiments, right? But in reality, it's very difficult to do this with students who have never done research before. So Morton has spent a good chunk of her time at Colby developing a laboratory curriculum that involves starting students off with directed experiments (i.e., with explicit instructions and clear procedures) before giving them the chance--using the directed experiments as models--to design their own experiments. Morton hopes to land a faculty position at an institution, like Colby, where good teaching is appreciated and where she can continue to develop her innovative teaching methods.

For some postdocs, it's not just how to teach but that they can teach that has made their liberal arts experience so worthwhile. Andy Kortyna is another Colby NSF-AIRE fellow. After a research postdoc at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Kortyna realized that he wanted "more balance in his life." He liked the idea of having more contact with students, although he was admittedly a bit scared at first. But this postdoctoral position has given Kortyna a chance to see what teaching and mentoring undergrads is all about. And the experience has given him a newfound confidence and a stronger stance in the job market. As he puts it, "it's an experience you wouldn't be able to have unless you were a tenured professor somewhere."

Unlike the NSF-AIRE fellows at Colby, Girdler wrote her own proposal for postdoc funding from the now defunct Postdoctoral Fellowships in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education ( PFSMETE) program. She "wanted to be around people who valued teaching," and, she says, "the support for teaching has been the best thing" about being at Middlebury. Girdler has developed a new conservation biology course that deals with "real-world problems, instead of toy problems." This course emphasizes applied ecological research conducted in partnership with local conservation agencies. Girdler says that the focus on current conservation problems not only draws more students to the course, but it's also a great way to learn.

Girdler plans to apply the same real-world pedagogical approach in her teaching at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, where she'll be starting a tenure-track position in the biology department next fall. As for landing the Kalamazoo job, she says, "I know I wouldn't have been prepared to do well on the interview if I hadn't been here at Middlebury. This postdoc experience has made it absolutely possible."

After finishing her Ph.D. in immunology at Yale, Lynn Hannum "wanted out of the lab" so she could explore "other options besides research." So she wrote a PFSMETE proposal to help faculty integrate more technology into the classrooms at Lewiston-Auburn College in southern Maine. Hannum feels that her experience has given her a "much broader experience than a laboratory postdoc would have," and it made her much more competitive in the job market--she'll be starting a tenure-track position at Colby in the fall.

So postdocing at a small college is not just about becoming a better teacher--it's about getting a job. Indeed, as Nyhus puts it, doing a postdoc at a small liberal arts college "can really help your application bubble to the surface."

Like Morton, Nyhus did a short stint as a sabbatical replacement before his postdoc. Although temporary teaching jobs look very attractive to new Ph.D.s looking for teaching experience, Nyhus warns that the heavy teaching load makes it very difficult to remain competitive in terms of grants, publications, and job applications. But the NSF-AIRE fellowship has given Nyhus enough time to concentrate on these other things. And it's paid off. He's already received four tenure-track job offers so far this year.

The liberal arts postdoc is still a very rare breed. Although 10 schools were awarded NSF-AIRE grants, Colby and Grinnell College in Iowa are the only ones that used some of the money to fund postdocs. And the PFSMETE program, which led a few scientists--like Hannum and Girdler--to small schools, no longer exists. This, despite the fact that not only is there the potential that all involved--students, faculty, and postdocs--will benefit, but also, as Morton points out, that "in grad school there were a lot of people who wanted to go to this kind of place."

Institutions and funding agencies may be waking up to the idea. Barbara Beltz, a biology professor at Wellesley College who has hosted three postdocs on her research grants over the past several years, says that at least one Wellesley science department (neuroscience) has funding and a plan in the works to hire postdocs who have an interest in teaching at a liberal arts college. And there has been discussion of including postdocs in the Council of Graduate Schools' and the Association of American Colleges and Universities' Preparing Future Faculty program, which was recently featured in Next Wave.

Perhaps one day postdocs will be common enough at liberal arts colleges that they won't be greeted with "blank looks" when they walk into human resources or the computer support center. For Girdler, as for many, the major downside of being at a liberal arts college was that "no one knew quite what to do with me." In Part II, then, we'll take a look at this and other problems frequently encountered by postdocs on smaller college campuses.