Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Whither teaching postdocs?

Over the years, people have asked me about the various programs that bring in new Ph.D.s for "teaching" postdoctoral positions. I've had another such conversation recently, so I'm bringing the issue up again.

I'll be completely up front and say that I'm quite skeptical of them, but I don't have any strong data to back up my skepticism. Here are my qualms:
  • Why is the institution hiring postdocs as opposed to full-time lecturers? Isn't this just a money play? 
  • What kind of career development program is available to the selected postdocs outside of "here, teach these classes"? 
  • If there's a research component, how much support does the PI offer the postdoc? No one likes dual mandates, and I can't imagine PIs are enthusiastic about postdocs that come with outside commitments. 
  • What is the track record of the program? 
One of the oldest such programs is Boston University chemistry Postdoctoral Faculty Fellowship program. They note the track record of their alumni; it seems to me that most of those graduates have been hired as assistant professors, so there's that. But a real analysis of their value would ask this: 
  • Do the BU PFF alumni get hired as PUI faculty at a higher rate than research postdocs? 
  • Do the BU PFF alumni get promoted to tenure at a higher rate than other assistant professors? 
  • Do they show better track records in teaching or gaining outside funding? 
  • Does the BU program demonstrate "added value"?, i.e. do their alumni outcomes show that they have actually improved participants' chances of getting assistant professor positions? 
We don't actually have any of the background statistics, so I am not sure an analysis of BU's alumni would actually be demonstrative of anything.* 

Now for the other side: I mentioned my skepticism about these programs to a friend of mine who is a retired PUI chemistry professor; to my surprise, he was actually quite positive about such programs. He felt these programs actually offered some level of predictive power to hiring committees, i.e. they demonstrate to hiring committees that they can, at the very least, teach college students something about chemistry. He felt that traditional research postdoctoral fellows could not offer that same data point. He did agree more prestigious PUIs would probably still select research postdocs as assistant professors over teaching postdocs. So to counter my skepticism, I have one data point that was in favor of such programs. 

Readers, as you know, I'm not an academic, so I am undoubtedly wrong somewhere here. I invite you to correct me. 

*What percentage of newly-hired assistant professors in chemistry are actually promoted to tenure? I don't think anyone actually knows. 

35 comments:

  1. I'm not sure how a teaching PDF is any different than a VAP (teach a class or two we don't want to assign a real faculty member to, for a small % what we'd normally pay and go away after a year or two), and it does seem pretty clear it's all about the benjamins.....

    To your point that no one knows what % of newly hired profs---chemistry and non-chemistry---get tenure, each university knows EXACTLY what this # is. In theory, I think, one ought to to be able to get this figure at least for State schools, though a FOIA request.

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  2. I'm definitely with you on the skepticism - with all of the emphasis on publishing, how are you supposed to go get an assistant prof. job after doing some teaching but no research? If the answer is "do a research post-doc first," then thats just ridiculous.

    I was lucky enough during my research post-doc to have my adviser allow me to teach a summer organic course, which had I gone on into academia, would have helped me (I think).

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  3. Well, one analysis that could be done is comparing the price for adjuncts per class compared to post-docs. Overall, the school may have calculated you get better value with the post-docs.

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  4. Thanks CJ, this issue is one I've thought about a lot as a grad student with aspirations of working at a PUI. I'm in a very research-focused group (where nobody really teaches after their first year), and I'm torn about whether I should pursue a teaching vs "regular" postdoc. Should I gain the teaching experience that I missed out on in grad school (and others may have more of than me), or should I push for more research accomplishments and pick up the teaching experience where I can?

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    1. I recently taught (this summer, Organic II) at a PUI and asked the dept chair what they are looking for in a tenure-track candidate. The word she used was "momentum", which I took to mean a project that you had developed either as a grad student or as a post-doc that is fundable at the PUI. Although I would imagine that every school is different, it sounded to me that the priorities here, were you 1.) have a fundable project to support your salary and 2.) be a good teacher. The school has hired full time lecturers and so I think if you wanted to become one of those, and not one that had a project to teach students, the teaching post-doc may be a good idea. But I suspect the most valued faculty at a PUI the ones that can "do it all" have a project that brings in money and be able to teach a boat load of classes well. I saw first-hand last summer how much work that is.

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    2. As a current faculty member at a large PUI, I second NMH's comments. None of the faculty we have hired recently had a teaching post-doc and we did not strongly consider applicants that did do teaching post docs. We are interested in good scientists with an interest in teaching especially those who can incorporate their science into the classroom or instructional laboratory in addition to running a small research program mostly during the summer.
      Being able to do it all with some competency and being able to work well with others are big pluses.

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    3. GS: I think your best bet is taking a day or two to think about a variety of institutions that you'd like to work at, and then contacting those institutions (either directly or through connections) to see what their perspective may be.

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  5. The main reason I do not like this is because I think you learn more by doing research as opposed to taking classes. With all the web-based material available, you can learn the basics if you want. What I would really be looking for as a student is to learn from someone who actually does chemistry. Teaching post-docs focus on teaching, but I don't think that this is was a PUI needs. A PUI should have a strong research component. Way too much emphasis is put on lecture and whether or not the students like you. There are three things that will make the difference in determining the strength of your education in chemistry: research, research, research. While I enjoyed studying quantum mechanics, there is very little applicability.I enjoyed doing Group Theory in advanced inorganic, but I never use it and barely remember it. Obviously these schools can do as they wish (it's a free market), but it is quite irksome to me that we put the focus on lectures that follow an old fashioned curriculum (Orgo, Inorganic, Physical, Analytical) instead of a more modern approach.

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    1. Just as doing research isn't like learning stuff in class, doing research probably isn't like teaching either. If you want people to teach, or want to select people who are good at teaching, selecting people who are good at research doesn't seem like the best way to do it. I don't think teaching is automatic to people who are good at research - lots of people like to do research but don't like to teach.

      This seems like a conflict between the needs of the institution (desire for money from overhead on research grants) and at least one of its stated purposes (teaching students). If teaching is always job two (or three or four), just like safety, then you're going to get inconsistent or crappy teaching (because that's not what you reward). Maintaining a knowledge of what chemistry looks like on the ground and the contingency of knowledge is useful, but doesn't seem like a more important value than the desire and ability to teach.

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    2. Safety should never be listed as a priority, but instead ingrained in each priority. Priorities can and should change, safety shouldn't be in such flux.

      That said every professor I have talked to has said you can't make a colleague a better researcher, but you can easily make them a better teacher. My former PI was almost purposefully awful at teaching his first year, because he said it was easier to show improvement than competence to a tenure committee.

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    3. In theory, no - safety doesn't matter in itself (the safest way to drive is not at all, so safety obviously isn't priority one for me driving) but in how you do things (accomplishing your goals without harming others or yourself). It's just that safer ways of doing things tend to be slower, and in case of conflict between slow and good and fast and not, fast wins out (and eventually someone loses). It probably should be counted as part of teaching, as an implication of concern for students, but gets counted nowhere, it seems.

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    4. @Hap: The point is, it is a waste of time to invest so much in lectures. There are too many lectures. Aside from the very basics of chemistry, lectures give you very little skills that you can apply. Performing research IS a better way to learn. Teaching post-docs reinforce the idea that lecture is king. There are plenty of online lectures one can watch for free. Why pay all the money that a degree costs to sit through lectures (ok, I know that most people want to just buy a degree and aren't concerned about learning). Research is where it is at. More research, less lectures, and yes, for undergrads.

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    5. 1) Then why are schools charging so much for them? If they aren't useful, why pay for them?

      2) Most students won't have the chance to do research at the undergrad level - unless your school mandates a thesis (which mine didn't), there aren't likely to be enough openings for everyone to do research. If research is the best way to teach chemistry, then why don't schools don't have the practical capacity to do it?

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  6. One argument for these positions is that, is, if they are constructed well (rather than justa a VAP with a fancy title), they would *model* what faculty who worked at PUIs actually *did*.

    i) Run a small research group of undergrads, on small scale science, without the immediate resources of a R1 research group (techs, other grads, PhD students, amazing instrumentation)

    ii) teach an (often differently-backgrounded) student population in an environment categorically different from an R1 - actually teach classes, not 'just' act as a TA.

    I'm a prof at a PUI who expects to be on a hiring committees. I would look favorably at good references from a Teaching Postdoc if there were evidence that it was structured like the above.

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    1. Phil, are you familiar with the NIH IRACDA program? My experience in that fellowship was very similar to what you describe, but that may also have been somewhat PI-dependent. (army of undergrads, teaching a large lecture at a local minority-serving state satellite, shovel-ready project sketched out on my applications) Anecdotally, there were only a half-dozen or so other chemists in the program back when I was doing it, since it involves convincing med-school faculty that your chemistry is useful. Kansas has even advertised theirs in C&EN, but I can see how it otherwise flies under the radar to chemists.

      It's not really a "teaching postdoc" so much as a research postdoc with a teaching component.

      Anyway, BU PFF ain't the only game in town.

      http://www.nigms.nih.gov/Training/CareerDev/Pages/TWDInstRes.aspx

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    2. Anon, please contact me - chemjobber@gmail.com. Confidentiality guaranteed.

      Also, love the callback to "shovel-ready project." Good stuff.

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    3. I read that description, and the splitting between an R1 and local MSI would be hard to navigate (who describes workload hours? how far are the campuses apart? you have experience teaching MSI students but working with R1 students?). Like many programs, the devil is in the detaisl, but yes, it would look good if done well.

      Honestly, considering many people do 2 postdocs, my ideal candidate looks like this

      1 postdoc elite lab, 1.5-3 yrs, good pubs, good ideas
      1 teaching postdoc 1-2 years (or maybe as a VAP), shows their teaching druthers and that they don't view PUIs as a mere "fallback" from R1 land.

      This is wishful thinking, I know, but it's most definitely a buyers market, so that would be *my* slam dunk candidate.

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    4. 5 years of working really hard at less-than-awesome wages between one's Ph.D. and a full-time gig seems kinda cruel, no?

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    5. CJ: maybe another time. I have many, long, and complex thoughts on this that could take a while to gather into something coherent, especially mid-semester.

      Phil: It varies from site to site--mine was a ~30 min train ride from my research campus (or two buses and an hour from my apartment) twice a week for one semester of a three-year fellowship. That semester was a good solid 3 days of research, two afternoons of checking in on the undergrads while I graded papers and prepped lectures, and two very long mornings of lectures/recitations/public transit. At the very least, it was enough to get a good letter that emphasized my teaching and firm up my class plans for my teaching statement.

      I am curious about the perception of VAPing, though. The impression I got is that being a VAP only really helps if you're applying for TT jobs at schools ~20 spots lower on the USNews "rankings."

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  7. Please, where are some specific EXAMPLES of teaching post-docs whose experience thereby collected has enabled them to land a TT job at a PUI or elsewhere in academia?

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  8. http://www.bu.edu/chemistry/faculty/pff/pffs-former/

    since you seem to have willfully missed: "They note the track record of their alumni"....

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  9. Thanks. I have just looked through that list. In terms of research:

    The one at Fairfield U seems to being doing OK at undergraduate place.
    The one at Union College seems to have an active and productive research program.
    One is at Bard but does not seem to have published there, since arriving in 2009).
    Another is teaching nurses in Camden County (have you ever visited Camden, NJ? Don’t work late, man, unless you call a taxi).
    The one at Georgia Southern has been promoted to associate professor and has a nice website.....which lists the most recent publication as dating from 2002.
    The one at Iona college has his name on a few computational chemistry posters....
    The one at Wilkes College who was promoted to Chair has bad links on her website, so her research productivity can not be readily verified.
    Yet others at e.g., Sienna, Roger Williams and Belmont U either have 100% teaching positions or no research interests.
    Two others supposed to be at Regis and MCLA, but can't be found on the university websites.

    So the outcomes appear to be mixed. It is a shame that doctorate-granting departments are unwilling to quantitatively account for their graduates' career outcomes in a similar manner.

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    1. I agree. On the other hand, you have to rely on the graduates to respond to requests to report this information. Based on the lack of responses from allegedly responsible people to emails on more urgent matters (personal observations over the past decade), I'd be surprised if more than 30% of alumni would reply.

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    2. Maybe let's not judge the careers of others unless we know their aspirations? Even then, perhaps let's not judge lest we be judged

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    3. No way, Biotechoreador! Judge everyone's career by GC's standards. For a guy without a job, he's got high standards to maintain!

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    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    5. Mr. Troll, you never give up, do you? There was a computational chemist a few years back who displayed similar behavior on the internet. I think his first name was "Richard"; his last name will probably come back to me tomorrow. Are you him? Not that you would owe up to it.....

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    6. The idea that one may do a teaching postdoc because one wants to teach... surely not?!

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    7. GC--Camden County College is in Gloucester Township, some distance from Camden. It makes a difference.

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    8. GC were you a lecturer at Exeter?

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  10. Those of you who have been on hiring committees, how would you view someone who does a teaching postdoc but also accomplishes significant research during that time? It seems like that could demonstrate the ability to juggle many tasks simultaneously, which should be a useful trait for either a PUI or an R1 academic position.

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    1. I would view them well! This to me speaks an ideal candidate, but as usual YMMV
      --
      Some PUIs hiring/promotion culture are tricky to navigate; many *state* they want to be research active, but have a range of active and not so active faculty and crushing teaching loads/no resources; many say they are teaching focused schools, but the real institutional reward is in grant $$ and research activity.

      Many expectations can be miscalibrated from both hirer and hiree ends. I advise reaching out to people in your network to get more data about that individual school - if you can talk with trusted people in the department you are applying for, even better.

      Since we're talking about PUIs, it's worth noting that some of the entry-level starter grants have shrunk in scope (ACS PRF is a lot tighter these days) or gone entirely (Research Corps cottrell college award for new was axed by them, folding it into their cottrel scholar program - you now compete aginst R1 faculty http://rescorp.org/cottrell-scholars/cottrell-college-awards).

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  11. My 2 cents.

    I went to a "top tier" LAC for undergrad...one of those ones that is on the list of most per capita science PhDs. For people looking at those positions, a traditional research postdoc with a good publication record as well as a strong justification for an interest in a teaching-based career makes you the most competitive sort of candidate. For example, an applicant may have attended a school like Reed/Swarthmore/Amherst/Haverford/Williams, etc. for undergrad and had a really strong interaction with faculty that led them to want to pursue a similar career. I think teaching opportunities when coupled with a strong research background can really also show a demonstrated interest in these careers. For example, was mentioned earlier on this thread, the NIH IRACDA fellowship, which essentially provides support for teaching experiences through partnerships with PUIs while simultaneously doing a research postdoc. Also, in graduate school various HHMI and NSF funded teaching/outreach fellowships, such as the NSF GK-12 fellowship which pairs a graduate student with a teacher at the K-12 level. But having the great research credentials gets your foot in the door, and honestly it is pretty clear at the interview stage if you are pursuing a career at a PUI because you can't hack it at a research university, or if you are because that is what you want to do. Ideally, I think a lot of those schools would like to hire someone who could have gone to an R1 based on their CV, but prefers to focus more on teaching.

    For the next tier down, I think it depends. I think in that case, some of these teaching postdocs or visiting faculty positions can really be good for candidates.

    A striking difference is in the hiring process (at least from what I hear from friends who have gone through it, and my impression of what went on at my alma mater): at top tier LACs, a research seminar is expected to be given to the students and faculty and the startup funds can be close to half of that of an R1 university. At lower tier PUIs, often some of the hiring process is teaching a lecture, the startup funds are very small, and the research statement needs to be tailored more specifically to explain how it enhances pedagogical goals.

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  12. I think these positions all depends on where you land. I've seen these go well and I've seen these crash and burn. When it was successful, the postdocs weren't just thrown into teaching - they were mentored and had help developing their curriculum and teaching voice. A good friend of my mine signed on for one of these positions at a large R1 university. She was given an office and was practically forgotten after that. When she approached other faculty, she was told to figure it out because they were busy with "more important" things like their own research/research groups. Her position was a 9 month appointment and she definitely did not renew. She looks at this time as a hole in her CV - although it probably gave her some practical experience - she came out with nothing new in the sense of publications, recommendation letters or the like. If I were to take a position like that I'd want to know what kind of resources I had at my disposal.

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    1. I think that would happen in nay teaching position in the US, whether by high school, community college, or PUI (Ive done all three). You're pretty much thrown into the classroom without any kind of help from experienced teachers beforehand. Sometimes the help is available, but a lot of times its not. Its pretty much sink or swim. My first year of teaching HS I sunk to the bottom, but by the 5th year of teaching HS I got my teaching voice which I currently use successfully in my teaching gigs. The "hunger games" of teaching is the american way.

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