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Teaching Postdocs: An Alternative Approach to an Academic Career

I was an oddball--at least I thought I was. I entered graduate school knowing that I wanted to be a faculty member who focused on teaching.

When, during my first year of graduate school, I perhaps naïvely informed my thesis adviser that "I was in graduate school because I want to be a college teacher, not because I want to devote my life to research," he responded that it was his "job to convince me that I like research more than teaching." I don't want to mislead you about my thesis adviser. He guided me well, and after he understood my goals he supported me.

Nonetheless, early on I faced the "fear factor" experienced by many graduate students and postdocs who aspire to careers in teaching: By focusing my career on teaching, would I be marked forever as a second-rate scientist, one interested only in life's less important things?

Network Nugget

Lemons has a multiyear, renewable contract--but it is not tenure-tracked. Is tenure obsolete? Does it really matter anymore? Earlier this summer, Jim Austin reminded Next Wave readers of the current developments on the tenure track.

As my thesis project neared completion, I searched university Web pages for prospective postdoctoral labs within my geographic preferences. It was still my desire to leave the bench and enter the classroom, but I did not know if I would need postdoctoral training in order to land a faculty position. I decided to test the job market.

Every Friday morning I rushed into the lab and logged onto The Chronicle of Higher Education Career Network. On a Friday morning in late March 1999, I discovered a job advertisement for a "teaching postdoctoral fellow" in the Department of Biology at Duke University. During a telephone conversation with the chair of the search committee, I learned that the committee was looking for someone just like me--someone who would use the teaching postdoctoral fellowship as a steppingstone from graduate school to a faculty position devoted primarily to teaching. I got the position.

That postdoc provided a time of advanced education beyond what is typically provided in graduate school, just like a traditional research postdoctoral appointment, but as a teaching postdoc my training was focused on science education instead of science research. Most of my efforts were devoted to the Introductory Biology program at Duke. The work included developing new labs, case studies (for example, Dr. Collins and the Case of the Mysterious Infection,), writing assignments, and lectures. Additionally, I pursued a research study with colleagues in biology and mathematics on difficulties novice instructors have in implementing "student-centered instruction". Later, I helped to start Duke's Teaching Certificate in Biology program. As I pursued these projects, three faculty members who oversaw the Introductory Biology program at Duke mentored me. These faculty members, each with a wealth of teaching and research experience, were committed to doing more than delivering nifty lectures to passive students. They wanted to ensure that students become fully engaged in a learning process that increases their interest in and knowledge of the biological sciences.

As I pursued projects in biology education, following the example and supervision of my mentors, I developed a deeper understanding of the art and science of teaching. I gradually developed into a teacher who takes a scholarly approach to the classroom. By contrast, many professors learn about teaching by default when they find themselves facing classes for the first time--"Congratulations, you're a professor. You've rarely sought to understand what it means to help students learn. But since you're an expert in your field, go get 'em!" At best, this approach is slow and painful both for professors and their students. At its worst, this method stunts the development of professors as teachers, leaving them permanent novices. And student learning suffers.

Accepting a teaching postdoc was, perhaps, a risky move for my future job prospects, but the gamble paid off. This past spring I accepted a position as assistant professor of the practice of biology at Duke University.

What Is a "Professor of the Practice?"

At Duke University, "professors of the practice" make up a class of regular-rank, non-tenure-track faculty. The position appealed to me for many reasons. It comes with renewable, multiyear contracts; potential for advancement from assistant to associate to full professor; professional development leave to pursue scholarly activities; and opportunities to contribute to the university through participation on department and university-level committees. Professors of the practice spend the majority of their time teaching and/or working on research projects related to improving teaching. This creates a large interdisciplinary network of colleagues interested in teaching and learning who contribute significantly to the direction the university takes in educating undergraduates.

As an assistant professor of the practice in biology, I have a threefold charge: (1) to manage the Introductory Biology program, including co-lecturing and developing new learning tools and course materials; (2) to lead teaching development programs for graduate students; and (3) to develop the pedagogy in science education for the biology department.

As I said at the outset, in graduate school I felt like an oddball for pursuing a faculty career emphasizing teaching. Now, I know that my interests are not odd, as I've met many other faculty members who want to spend much of their professional time focused on teaching.

Case in point: Earlier I mentioned Duke's Teaching Certificate in Biology program. The goal of the program is to enhance the professional development of graduate students and postdocs who want to be faculty members by specifically preparing them for their jobs as teachers. Candidates for the Teaching Certificate in Biology complete coursework in pedagogy, gain teaching experience through teaching assistantships or other avenues, participate in a teaching mentorship with a faculty member at one of several campuses close to Duke, and receive several evaluations on their teaching.

The popularity of the Teaching Certificate in Biology program at Duke (currently nearly 45 students and postdocs participate) bodes well for undergraduate science education. The fact that graduate students and postdocs are interested in teaching, are willing to think critically about it, and are prepared to devote time and energy to becoming scholarly teachers suggests that our nation has a good shot at improving the way we teach science to undergraduates.

If you too hope to devote your career to teaching, let me close with some advice that might help you prepare for this path.

First, identify people at your institution or surrounding institutions who have positions that interest you. Talk with them about what they do. They also know the "fear factor" involved in pursuing a faculty career focused on teaching as opposed to research and, thus, are usually eager to encourage others.

Second, educate yourself about teaching and learning. Many academic institutions now have Centers for Teaching and Learning that offer workshops, formal talks, and libraries of videotapes, books, and journals. Formal graduate courses in pedagogy (some of them discipline-specific) are often available at universities as well. Several professional societies (e.g., the American Society for Cell Biology) have education committees that sponsor forums at their annual meetings. And all academic institutions have students; undergraduates themselves are often great sources of information about how faculty members can teach more effectively. Seek out and take advantage of these resources. Teaching for student learning is more than standing up and giving a flawless lecture. These resources may stimulate you to think about the complexity of this process and how you will approach it when you are the teacher.

Finally, be willing to pursue an unusual career path if your intuition tells you that it may be suitable for your passions and interests. The "teaching postdoc" and "professor of the practice" were not positions I envisioned for myself 4 years ago. Yet, in these positions I have found an opportunity to do what I love and impact the way that a single course, a department, and--hopefully--a university teach undergraduates and prepare graduate students for faculty careers that emphasize teaching and learning.

*Paula Lemons is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in the Department of Biology at Duke University. Her background and interests include biology education, biochemistry, and cell biology. She can be contacted at