Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Ask CJ: what about teaching postdocs?

From the inbox, an excellent question about teaching postdocs:
I'm wondering what you think about "teaching postdocs" -- postdoc positions with a 50% teaching / 50% research component. Those I've seen typically involve teaching one lecture course per academic term and may involve engaging undergraduate students in research. To me, this type of postdoc sounds perfect for someone who intends to seek a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college or PUI. However, almost all faculty members I've spoken to (at the large, research-intensive university I attended for grad school and at the large, research-intensive university I currently work at as a postdoc) think the teaching postdoc is a terrible idea, a career killer.  
I would like to attribute their opinions to the fact that they are professors at research-intensive universities, where a traditional postdoc is a requirement for being hired. However, many have claimed that a traditional postdoc is preferred even by the higher-ranked liberal arts colleges. This surprises me because the higher-ranked liberal arts colleges are, in many cases, precisely the institutions that offer these teaching postdoc positions. 
Teaching postdocs seem so comparatively uncommon that reliable statistics perhaps can't be gathered on the future careers of those who go through such a program. I'll gladly accept wild speculation... or random personal anecdotes from your readership? 
My cynical side is bothered by the fact that the job description for a teaching postdoc sounds virtually identical to that of a new faculty member, but the postdoc comes without the equivalent salary or job security. Still, that alone wouldn't convince me not to recommend a teaching postdoc position.
My opinion, unfortunately, is the same as your R1 colleagues -- I suspect that teaching postdocs don't do any favors for those who take them. I assume that they are offered in an idealistic spirit, i.e. "It is further training in how to teach, and also has a research component." However, I suspect that the execution is rather poorer than the ideal. That said, I am not aware of any recent articles in C&EN on the issue (assignment desk!) or any blog posts on the issue. (FWIW, I recall a recent C&EN article that I can't find that makes the exact point your professors do -- that you have to have a research-intensive doctorate in order to get a PUI position.)

I see a couple problems with teaching postdocs:
  • Do they come with influential PIs that write great letters for them? I suspect not, but I could be wrong. 
  • The likelihood of tenure-track hiring committees being able to "imagine success" with such candidates are low, since the population of assistant and associate professors at PUIs who have come through teaching postdoc positions are not high enough. 
I agree completely that there just aren't enough of these teaching postdocs to make a complete study of what their careers have been like. I assume that most of them are both talented teachers and researchers and did just fine in obtaining PUI tenure-track positions. But that's just conjecture on my part -- the opposite could easily be true. 

Readers, I doubt I know enough about this issue to speak intelligently on it. Know any teaching postdocs? How have they done?

UPDATE: Professors on Twitter weigh in. Also, do note Andre's comments.  


  1. The way I see it is that the decision to get a PhD was the career killer if the end goal is to get an assistant professorship. The modal outcome is failure. But if you really want to teach, a teaching postdoc will probably be the closest you'll get without living in abject adjunct poverty. Enjoy teaching for a few years, throw your hat in the job search ring, and if it doesn't work out move on with your life. Chances are you would have to do the same thing with a standard postdoc anyway. You might as well enjoy the ride.

    Take advice from tenured faculty with a grain of salt. It's almost like asking lottery winners for their strategies. Their pathway worked out for them, but it's unlikely to work for you.

  2. Haven't known any teaching postdocs, but fwiw, two grad school colleagues went on to become faculty liberal arts colleges/PUIs. One did a postdoc at a research university and picked up teaching experience along the way as a grad student & postdoc. Another did a postdoc in a lab at a PUI and taught a couple of classes while there. Both are doing pretty well in their current positions.

  3. I think its risky. These days the way you get a teaching position in a PUI/small college is by doing one (and probably more_-Ive heard one guy do three) temporary, one year appointments. Ive heard of people make jumps to teaching at community colleges by being temp teachers at a community college for one class, and this can serve as experience for a permanent position. This is something I'm considering myself.

    Also, I strongly suspect a lot of the famous small colleges (Read, Davidson, etc) are only going to hire you if you have your graduate degree from top-notch schools like Harvard and Stanford. These schools need that kind of name recognition attached to the faculty for when the parents look at the college department faculty web pages. I dont think a teaching post-doc will help with the elite liberal colleges, unless you do it at Harvard or Stanford.

  4. I'm wary of teaching postdoc positions (I touch on the issue both here and here) because, unless they are done well, they are pretty much useless.

    However, a well crafted teaching postdoc can be very good. A few thoughts:

    1) It's good that a position has the postdoc doing research AND teaching. If it was just teaching, it's often a way to pay less for a visiting position - basically sugar-coating an adjunct position.

    2) Teaching postdocs are best when the department is active in mentoring the postdoc in their research AND teaching. This is a lot of work for departments and some will not provide decent supervision. I advise the candidate to talk with the department about why the position is a postdoc position and what guidance and support the department gives.

    3) The most important suggestion I have for anyone looking at such a position is to check with former teaching postdocs that have been at that school. Where are they now? What sort of jobs have they gotten? This will give you a good feel to whether the postdoc will be good or not. If the department is reluctant with this info, be wary.

    The question asker's sources are correct that top level PUI's (especially the top 30 or so) are typically going to hire those with research intensive postdocs over those with teaching postdocs. I had a friend do a teaching postdoc (with research) at a top 20 PUI and was told specifically that he was under-qualified for a tenure-track position at the same school because he didn't have a traditional research postdoc. He did end up with a job and tenure at a top 100 PUI.

    So while these positions are good moves to land a job at some PUIs, they will limit your opportunities relative to a research postdoc.

  5. I graduated from a PhD program at a medium-prestigious East Coast research university in 2009, and took the first opportunity that came along in the city my now-wife had already moved to. That turned out to be a teaching postdoc, which decision was the first of about four bad choices that led to my current situation (unemployed for over a year).

  6. What about the Columbia University Science Fellow position posted earlier today? According to the description, you're still working in the lab of a faculty member as a postdoc: "Fellows teach two once-per-week seminar sections each semester, attend the weekly course lecture, faculty meeting and pedagogical seminar, and carry out research under the guidance of their faculty mentor. In the third year of appointment, one semester of research leave from teaching is provided." And since it's Columbia, it's still a prominent school. I don't know -- I've heard for teaching postdocs that you certainly can't step "up" to a more highly ranked PUI, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. My PUI undergrad advisor had done a PhD in a very prominent group and then a teaching postdoc at a top-10 PUI, and had something like eight interviews and several offers. But then others have also advised the "get the best postdoc at the best university with the best professor you can" route.

  7. If you want options the only route is best university / best supervisor. It is different in some places if you can pick up a technical skill that could benefit a department later. In synthetic chemistry a post-doc that leaves you with the ability to run an X-ray or an NMR lab for a department is a route to a decent job. The other non-traditional post-doc that would have some traction is one that is fully endowed so you can choose your own adventure but you still have to produce quickly from a nearly standing start and the reality is that after two years in a position you have to punch the big red ejector button or you get that "settled" label that pretty much means that you are waiting around for an inside line on a Lab Instructor position. Universities that are hiring want to see fresh, hungry and competent coupled to pedigree and if you don't have it there are dozens of people that do. Unless your supervisor can simply give you a faculty position (and they exist) get the best post-doc position you can, publish well and quickly and get out as soon as possible if you want options that include academic research.

  8. I'm currently at a liberal arts/PUI (pre-tenure). We've gone through three hiring cycles since I've been here. In my very limited experience, if you want this kind of job, you should be doing a traditional postdoc. In theory, teaching postdocs *could be good things. But, the only times they actually *seem to be beneficial is when the teaching postdoc leads directly to an opportunity to teach at THAT SAME university. These situations do exist. There are some foundations who give money to departments to hire teaching postdocs with the expectation that the department will be very likely to hire that person into a tenure line job. So ... if it's a place you want to end up, look into it and consider it.

    As per the Columbia gig ... that may be a bit more interesting ...

  9. I've spoken with many faculty at top PUI's about this subject, and the consistent message is: "Do a research postdoc. We can teach you how to teach, but we can't teach you how to run your research program." If you're looking for a position that involves research, get more experience in it. If the position you desire is solely teaching, your mileage may vary.

  10. I agree with earlier posters: if you want a research position, avoid teaching postdocs. If a department makes any kind of research investment in a hire (PUI or otherwise), it does so with the expectation that the hire will bring at least that amount of money back into the department at some point. With that mindset, time spent not developing research expertise is time wasted.

    Andre had an excellent point in that the success of the research portion of the position will strongly depend on the departmental support. If you have to teach a freshman chemistry course AND build a lab from scratch with extremely limited funds, you likely won't get any publications out of it over the course of one (gulp) or two years. Like it or not, manuscripts are the research outputs which most interest hiring committees.

  11. So, I did a teaching postdoc at Boston University. It's called a "PFF" (postdoctoral faculty fellow, in the Dept. of Chem) and it's billed as 50/50, but those do not *really exist. There's one at UNC (called SPIRE) that might be closer to it. In reality, mine was whatever you made of it. For me, during the year it was more like 85teach/15lab, and in the summers it swapped over to 2/98 respectively. The process, for me, was invaluable. I figured out I didn't WANT to enter a research lab environment as a PI, so I didn't go that route. I'm now in the Ctr. for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at U of Rochester.

    However, PFFs are now at Bard, Siena, ProvidenceC, Roger Williams, Hope, Georgia Southern, FairfieldU, Iona, Union, Belmont, and others. It obviously works. Having said that, if you want to end up at Williams College or any of the "mini-R01s" then you'll have to be VERY efficient at your work in a teaching postdoc, just like you'll have to be at those places who demand similar pub records to what many larger institutions who can give you grad students require. Those places ask for more blood from the same stone. (I don't want to belittle the tenure track at any of the PUIs I list above... those PFFs are going through the ringer in their own way... and entirely with undergrads... I can't imagine how much fun/stress that is.) But I have a very clear sense that someone with a stellar grad school pub record who then has a stellar pub record at their teaching postdoc would absolutely be at the top of the pile when it comes to getting hired at most any PUI who honestly values good, solid, research-based pedagogy. If they are paying lip service to claiming to want that, and hire the labrat who hasn't set foot in a classroom since second year of grad school (and did so then grumbling and reluctantly) then you'll see that in their hire... and they'll have to deal with that later.

    I also would ask WHY the person wants to end up at a PUI. I know there are a lot of people who think it's 'easier' than going to R01s. It's not. If your motivation, however, is that you want to spend more time becoming a better teacher, then a PUI sounds really good for you, and a teaching postdoc can definitely get you there better prepared for what's going to go on than a research postdoc.

    I invite inquiries offline - @nbhammond on twitter