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Even in his first year, “the goal of the program is clear,” Himes says. “They want us to get this teacher training but they also recognize that the primary goal of this postdoc is research.”
Several other programs that offer teaching as a supplement to research postdocs have the same approach. The University of Wisconsin and Emory, Stony Brook, and Yale Universities have programs that provide postdocs and grad students interested in teaching with formal courses, mentored teaching opportunities, or both. “Some of the students say getting a break 10 hours a week actually makes them more excited to go back to their research,” says Pat Marsteller, who runs a program at Emory. “And they learn how to get the work done for both things—research and teaching—which they will have to do as faculty.”
Diane Ebert-May from Michigan State University runs a program recently funded by the National Science Foundation called FIRST IV that is available to postdocs in biology from any university. The idea for the program grew out of Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching (FIRST), which showed that the longer faculty teach, the less likely they are to adopt student-centered teaching techniques. This prompted her to target future faculty for the FIRST IV program to help them learn how to teach from the get-go.
The two-year program began in the summer of 2009 when the first 100 postdocs were selected for intensive training. The postdocs then went back to their home institutions to use what they learned to teach or coteach a course. The following summer, they came back together to share what they learned in the classroom, review videos of their teaching, and revise their courses. “We confirmed that learning how to teach is better at the outset of a career,” says Ebert-May, whose second cohort of FIRST IV postdocs began training this summer.
“The mixed teaching and research postdoc is the ideal for the greatest depth of academic jobs...They are getting supervisory experience, they are getting multitasking experience.”
Around 25 percent of the first cohort have finished their postdoc and moved into jobs, and Ebert-May thinks their participation in FIRST IV gave them a competitive edge. For the most part, they have been able to land the types of jobs they want at the types of institutions they are interested in. Those who have faculty jobs now “are becoming change agents in their departments and are influencing their peers’ approaches to teaching.”
The biggest challenge for someone who wants to apply to FIRST IV and many other university teaching programs is getting their lab head’s permission, which is required.
But she is optimistic that scientists’ attitudes toward teaching and learning are changing. Most applicants don’t have a problem getting their lab heads to sign off, and she thinks that it is important for faculty mentors to support postdocs who want to develop not only as researchers but also as teachers.
Advice for the Future
Emory’s Marsteller hopes that awareness will lead to expanded teaching opportunities for postdocs. “I think it is unconscionable for universities to not prepare people for the jobs that they want to do,” Marstellar says. “We are way past the time where we should be thinking that we can just throw people into a classroom if they can give a good lecture.”
More fellowships that allow teaching or other professional development as part of a postdoc would better train these students to balance the mix of demands they will face as faculty members, says Handelsman at Yale. “We as a scientific community need to be thinking about what the goals for postdocs are and what the opportunities should be,” she says. “The mixed teaching and research postdoc is the ideal for the greatest depth of academic jobs. … They are getting supervisory experience, they are getting multitasking experience.”
That’s how it turned out for Haynes.
After three years as a research postdoc at Harvard University, she starts a tenure-track faculty position at Arizona State University in the fall. She interviewed at several institutions and believes her teaching experience was a key factor in her appeal.
Her advice? “Find a place that has top notch research facilities but cares enough about teaching that it will not count against you,” Haynes says. “Those universities do exist.”