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Postdoc Life at Liberal Arts Colleges, Part 2

"Your name's not in the computer," the woman in Human Resources (HR) said.

"I'm a postdoc in the biology department," I said. "I started December 1."

"A postdoc?"

"Yeah, I'm a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow."

"Well, you're not in the system."

I went back the next day with NSF letterhead in hand.

"Nope, you're not in the computer and there's really nothing I can do until you are."

"But I'm here," I said. "And I need an ID card so I can at least start using the library."

"I don't know what to tell you."

"How long does it usually take for a name to show up in the computer?"

"You should check with the chair of your department."

So I went to the chair. But when I called over to HR the following week, there was still no sign of my existence. I was frustrated, feeling unwelcome, and glad to be leaving town for a couple weeks to finish up an experiment and tie up loose ends at my former lab. Surely, by the time I got back things would be in place.

But they weren't. The school was shut down for Christmas break. Then the woman I'd been dealing with in HR (and apparently the only person who could issue ID cards) was on vacation. And when she got back a week later, still nothing. "What am I supposed to do?" I asked. She didn't know.

Finally, I asked my faculty advisor to whip out a memo on department letterhead. Reluctantly, my picture was taken and an ID card issued.

It took me nearly 2 months to get that card, and as far as I could tell I never did make it into the "the system," since my name never showed up in the school directory. And although the card did secure me faculty library privileges and a campus parking sticker, maybe it's just as well it never worked when the cashier at the faculty club--where weekly lunchtime science seminars were held--swiped it to tally my meals. "Jot down your social security number on this slip of paper and you'll be billed," she'd say. But I was never billed. ...

I was a postdoc (supported by the now defunct NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship Program in Biosciences Related to the Environment) at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where postdocs are few and far between the undergraduates and faculty. So when several of the postdocs I interviewed for this article told me that one of the biggest problems with being a postdoc at a small college was that people didn't know what to do with them, I knew exactly what they meant.

Fortunately, administrative roadblocks usually exist only outside department walls. Most of the postdocs I interviewed also spoke very highly of the support, recognition, and welcome they received from within their departments.

Indeed, for many, one of the nice things about being a postdoc at a liberal arts college is the special treatment they receive for being such a rarity. Of her 3-year postdoc at Wellesley College before she started teaching at Duquesne University, biology professor Melissa Melan says, "I was kind of leery when I went there." Like most liberal arts colleges, Wellesley doesn't have a graduate program, and Melissa was worried about her "weird" postdoc status suspended somewhere between undergraduate and faculty. But it turned out to be a very comfortable fit, and Melissa was treated "like a colleague, not an underling. "

Likewise for Binney Girdler, a teaching postdoc--introduced in Part 1 of this article--at Middlebury College. Despite the frustrations of dealing with the administration on a larger scale (e.g., while trying to obtain health insurance), Girdler says she received "tons of support" from her department and was even invited to attend faculty meetings on a no-vote basis, an excellent introduction to professorial life.

Others aren't so lucky. One postdoc who agreed to be interviewed only on condition I not disclose her name or institution described her situation as "very unhappy." Although the school "does exceptional things for undergrads," it hasn't done much for her. She says nobody in her department cares about her research--either what she's done or where she's headed. "I advocate a lot for myself, " she says. "I am very, very alone."

A small college can be "a tricky place" for a postdoc, says Larkspur Morton, an NSF-AIRE postdoc at Colby College (who was also introduced in Part 1), "though you probably only need one or two professors to help make you feel like you fit in."

The lesson, it seems, is to research the school and department before heading out. Find out if there are any current or recent postdocs at the school and seek them out. Then at least you'll know what you're up against.

Hopefully, you won't have too many hurdles and will be provided everything you need to focus on what you're there to do, which for the growing number of teaching/pedagogical postdocs at liberal arts colleges is teaching.

But even postdocs who teach are still expected to do research, especially if it can involve undergraduates. And most teaching postdocs agree that it's important to remain at least partially focused on research in order to remain competitive in the job market. It was for this reason that evolutionary biologist Chris Caruso, an NSF-AIRE teaching postdoc at Grinnell College, says she probably wouldn't have picked a liberal arts college if the postdoc didn't involve at least some research.

Striking a balance between teaching and research can be a challenge. Morton says that even though the smaller teaching load (compared to a faculty teaching load) allows you time to do research, in actuality it's tough to get much done. Morton studies bird behavior in the field and finds it very difficult to get away from campus for full days to devote to her studies. So, although she's applying for tenure-track jobs, she wouldn't mind just focusing on research for a while. And she'd like to finally finish preparing her dissertation for publication.

Like Morton, Lynn Hannum (introduced in Part 1) says that even though her teaching experience (at Lewiston-Auburn College) was a wonderful opportunity (and helped land her a faculty position at Colby), she didn't have much time to do research. But for Lynn, the time off wasn't necessarily a bad thing. It gave her a chance to step back and get a different perspective on her research.

Some teaching postdocs are able keep their research program going, albeit slowly, by supervising independent undergraduate research projects. At most colleges, there doesn't seem to be any shortage of students who want to help out--Caruso has had as many as six undergrads working with her at one time. But of her postdoc peers, Caruso says they don't seem to be getting as much research done as she is. "We all seem to strike slightly different balances between teaching and research."

Even when the scales tip too far to teaching, leaving what Girdler says "a hole in her CV," there's something to be said for an experience that lands many postdocs, including Girdler (who will be starting a tenure-track position at Kalamazoo College in the fall), jobs they're happy with.