PAGE 4 OF 5
Occidental has had a teaching postdoc in the sciences for almost 20 years. When the college redesigned the program in 2004, the focus was on a postdoc’s future. “We thought, what would this postdoc have to demonstrate to make them a top candidate at a place like Oxy?” explains Craney, who led the program through the changes.
The school settled on a two-year postdoc for a single Ph.D. graduate that focuses primarily on developing the capacity to combine teaching and research. Both a teaching mentor and a research mentor, or one person filling both roles, commit to guiding the postdoc in everything from balancing teaching and research to college politics.
The trainee spends the first year working in the lab, choosing a research project and learning how to create a research program that can work for undergraduates. In a twist from other teaching postdocs, no classes are directly assigned to Oxy’s postdocs. Instead, they coteach courses with their teaching mentor during the second year, while continuing to do research.
Craney and Eileen Spain, who runs the program now, say this model of teaching and research works, and the proof is in the jobs that have come later. Their postdocs, eight in all, have landed the jobs they wanted, including tenure track positions at places like the College of Charleston, Mount Holyoke College, Loyola Marymount University, even Occidental itself.
For those seeking a job at a liberal arts college, “the game has changed from 20 years ago,” Spain says. “The bar is higher, the expectations are higher. They need to come to the table with a robust plan for how they can do their research with undergraduates and a clear understanding of what it is like to be at a liberal arts college.”
Like Occidental, schools that offer teaching postdocs need to keep those larger goals in mind. “It is a big responsibility,” Asai says. “It’s not, let’s hire a teaching postdoc so that my workload goes down. In fact, when done right it will likely increase your workload because you have the added responsibility of mentoring the teaching postdoc.”
Teaching on the Side
While not going as far as a formal teaching postdoc, some programs help traditional research postdocs at major colleges and universities get teaching experience.
The largest is the federally funded Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA), which support traditional postdocs at research-intensive universities who also teach at nearby predominantly minority institutions. The awards currently fund around 180 three-year postdocs at 17 research universities across the country. In addition to their research positions, the postdocs teach classes with help from mentors and get formal instruction in the science of teaching and learning.
Clifton Poodry, director of the division of minority opportunities in research at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, designed the program in 1997 when he saw a golden opportunity: postdocs told him they wanted teaching experience and minority-serving institutions expressed the need for more research-active faculty to help update their courses. The trainees spend 75 percent of their time on research and 25 percent on career development, including teaching, Poodry explains.
“Initially there was real concern that this would be a burden on postdocs. How could they be competitive if they are teaching a quarter of the time?” Poodry remembers. Assessment of the program showed that the postdocs (500 to date) do as well or better than their peers and publish as much as or more than their peers. They have gotten jobs at research universities, liberal arts colleges, minority-serving institutions, and industry, says Shiva Singh, who currently directs IRACDA. “For people who believe data, the idea that teaching experiences are hurting these postdocs should be dispelled,” Poodry says.
When Himes finished his postdoc at Williams and didn’t get a job, he started an IRACDA postdoc at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He says the structured split of research and teaching has been a good fit. He also values the formal teacher training seminars—his mentorship at Williams was more freeform—and his interactions with other postdocs who face the same challenges and concerns.