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Postdoctoral Teaching: Savvy Career Move or Distraction From Research?

Sigma Xi's recent postdoc survey showed that more than 40% of science postdocs have an interest in learning how to teach. Yet 64% of science postdocs report receiving no training on how to teach, and a mere 5% have attended workshops or done formal coursework on teaching skills. A number of organizations and universities are addressing this discrepancy through programs that support teaching and mentoring skills at the postdoctoral level. But is it a good idea for postdocs to take advantage of these opportunities? On its face, it seems like a no-brainer; this kind of training provides critical skills that faculty members will need to do their jobs well. But it's not that simple. Not every hiring committee is likely to value such training; when it comes to hiring, even some teaching-focused colleges put research first.

Learning to Teach

Traditional research-only postdocs may receive teaching training or locate part-time teaching positions with the assistance of a number of organizations aimed at science faculty-in-training. In the New York area, Future Science Educators (FSE), founded in 2003 by postdocs and graduate students at New York University School of Medicine, holds workshops and seminars on college teaching and provides resources for people interested in part- or full-time teaching positions.

Through the Wisconsin Program for Scientific Teaching (WPST), postdocs can take classes on teaching, gain experience in the classroom, and mentor undergraduate researchers. The program was founded in 2002 when Jo Handelsman of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor award, an award given to a select few professors who are both top-notch researchers and world-class educators; the award is intended to support innovative undergraduate science teaching. Organizations such as FSE and WPST address a perceived need for teacher training at the college level. "Postdocs are generally not trained for the myriad responsibilities that characterize a faculty position—especially in teaching and mentoring," the directors of WPST wrote in a joint statement.

Jo Handelsman

Teaching Postdocs

The most intensive teacher training postdocs can experience is probably the "teaching postdoc," a relatively recent phenomenon in which postdocs are trained in both the laboratory and the classroom, often in approximately equal measure. The National Institutes of Health-funded Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Award (IRACDA), launched in 1998, supports postdoctoral teaching programs at a number of institutions, such as the Fellowships in Research and Science Teaching (FIRST) program at five Georgia institutions, including Emory University. Programs like FIRST offer obvious advantages for academia-bound scientists. FIRST fellows carry out research while learning to teach by means of formal courses, mentorship, and classroom experience. Postdocs like these "more closely resemble the realities of science careers, where you are expected to give up time at the bench to become supervisors, teachers, committee members, grant writers, and advisers, along with being productive scientists," says Andrea Morris, a past FIRST fellow and now a faculty member at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

But Do They Work?

Most people would assume that teacher training would be an advantage in the job search for people who are seeking jobs that involve teaching--and almost all faculty positions involve teaching. Yet postdocs who aspire to faculty jobs at top universities are often advised to focus exclusively on research. Which approach makes the most sense?

The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation recently ended its Scholar/Fellow Program for Undergraduate Institutions, a mentored teaching-postdoc program, because postdocs taking part in the program were not doing as much research in the faculty positions they landed in as the foundation had expected. As Mark Cardillo, executive director of the Dreyfus Foundation, says, "The primary purpose of the Scholar/Fellow program was to prepare new faculty for a teaching and research career at ... PUIs [primarily undergraduate institutions], where significant research with undergraduates could be carried out." "Although the program did have some stars, it was eventually discontinued, as we found an insufficient number of fellows attained positions at PUIs where they continued to do significant research with undergraduates." Many of the Dreyfus Fellows ended up in teaching-only positions, and about a third dropped out of academia altogether.

The FIRST program has fared better. By the traditional measure of postdoctoral achievement--first-author publications in high-impact journals--postdocs in the FIRST program perform as well as research-only postdocs, despite spending 25% of their time outside the lab. Of the 17 scientists who had completed the FIRST program as of 2005, all continued on as scientists and educators, finding jobs on college faculties (10 people), in further postdoc training (6), or in industry (1). But most of the ones who took faculty positions chose--or were chosen by--small, teaching-oriented colleges, not top research institutions.

Haverford's Morris entered the FIRST program because she wanted a career that emphasized both teaching and research. It was a good career move. "I found that my experience as a FIRST postdoc gave me a huge advantage during the job search and as a junior faculty member because I entered the position with research ideas, courses in place, and resources to turn to for continuous motivation and success," she says.

That postdocs who do a lot of teaching often end up working at teaching-oriented colleges is not surprising; they have, after all, demonstrated an interest in teaching by the choices they've made during training. Brinda Prasad, co-founder and vice-chair of FSE, says that "FSE members have received more job offers at both PUIs and smaller Ph.D.-granting institutes ... because of having teaching experience and being part of FSE, as it demonstrates a long-term interest in teaching. These members did not want jobs at high-end research institutes; their goal was to obtain a position that had a large teaching component."

What about postdocs who want careers at top research institutions; does teaching experience help them? Not much, probably. David Holtzclaw, a postdoc with NASA's Bioastronautics and Fundamental Space Biology Postdoctoral Research Program and a past FIRST fellow, warns that when it comes to top research institutions, "you see a lot of search advertisements saying that they want candidates with a commitment to teaching, but from my experience that is just lip service. The established science community seems to have accepted the model that you either teach or do research, but not both." On the other hand, his teaching postdoc has helped him land interviews at teaching-oriented colleges: "[PUIs] respond very positive[ly] to my FIRST experience. They love to see candidates who not only have teaching experience, publications, and pedagogical training, but also who genuinely enjoy and respect teaching."

Demonstrated research potential is what research institutions look for when they hire; teaching experience comes in second place at best. But this doesn't mean they ignore teaching entirely; some institutions look for research-related qualities that they believe demonstrate teaching potential. "Prior teaching experience is not something that makes or breaks a hire," says Dan Rubenstein, chair of Princeton's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Rubenstein suggests that postdocs seeking faculty positions at institutions like Princeton should "do some really exciting research and go to meetings and give plenty of talks. That is the best way to learn how to emphasize important points and organize the material to be presented clearly and succinctly."

"Research potential is the dominant factor in the Biology Department when we are recruiting new faculty," says Daniel Bush, chair of the Biology Department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. "At the same time, the Biology Department places a high premium on teaching excellence. ... Those candidates that do an excellent job defining their research questions, results, and conclusions in a manner that all our faculty can appreciate are invariably very successful in the classroom as well." Bush cautions that scientists seeking faculty positions at top research institutions should consider teaching postdocs "only if the research productivity is competitive with those that do not include the teaching experience."

Even at teaching-focused colleges, research training is often emphasized over teaching. "Focus on research during the postdoc," suggests Paul Rablen, chair of the 'Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. "In our hiring, we look for essentially the same credentials as a research university does, plus ... an indication of interest in and aptitude for teaching. If you can get some teaching experience without compromising research productivity, that is great. ... The most important thing we will look for in a postdoctoral stint, though, is a successful research experience."

But the Swarthmore model is not the only one out there; at some teaching-oriented colleges, teaching experience is almost a necessity. "Teaching experience is very important," says James Ebersole, co-chair of the Biology Department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. "While we have no hard-and-fast rules, we tend to look for someone who has experience in planning and teaching their own courses."


You can learn more about the FIRST program, and other IRACDA programs, from the FIRST Web site.

You can find out more about FSE from its Web site and WPST from its Web site.

Gregory Wadsworth of the Biology Department at Buffalo State College in New York concurs. "Typically, we get plenty of applications with good research experience. So it is the teaching experience that often distinguishes who gets invited for an interview." Wadsworth says that even some part-time teaching at a community college could strengthen an applicant's CV. Still, he warns candidates not to put too much time into teaching. "While teaching experience is valued," he says, "we would not hire a candidate that seems to have given up on being an active scholar."

Postdocs Should Be Deliberate in Their Career Choices

Focusing on research during the postdoc is the safe choice, as all institutions, from the smallest teaching college to the largest research institution, expect beginning faculty to have a strong research background. But for those with an interest in teaching, working on teaching skills during the postdoc is probably not a bad idea, as long as it does not impact research productivity. For many, teaching is a passion; for them, teaching during the postdoc makes sense, even if it is not the safest choice.

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