Teaching Post Doc

Mon Jun 17 14:53:50 EST 1996

Dear Plant Edders,

        Several months ago I asked a couple of questions about teaching
postdocs for an article I was writing for the Education Forum of the Amer
Soc Plant Phys Newsletter.  I have done so and am posting a copy of that
article to the Plant Ed net.  Thanks for all who contributed (although I
generalized things and did not use anyone's name or specifics).  Any and
all thoughts on the subject are welcome.  The conversation need not stop

Bob Wise


The Teaching Postdoc:  A Valuable Option

It's a Buyer's Market

        No one needs to be told that the current market for academic
positions is tight.  Given that colleges and universities often get over
100 applications for a tenure-track faculty position, they can afford to be
extremely selective in their hiring.  Therefore, a successful candidate
must either be very lucky or very skilled (or both) in order to land a good
        Teaching experience is one such marketable skill.  So-called
"teaching institutions" have always valued teaching experience in their
applicants, and always will.  In addition, administrators at many of our
top research-oriented universities have recently begun telling their
undergraduate's parents that teaching will be encouraged and rewarded
hand-in-hand with copious, quality research.  Therefore, even candidates
for positions at top research universities are looked at for
university-level teaching experience.  A teaching postdoc can provide that
        This is not to say that research experience is any less important; 
every search committee counts publications and adds up total grant awards. 
However, quality teaching experience is also valuable;  and rarely made
available during graduate training.

Teacher Training During Doctoral Training

        Graduate training in the US takes place at research universities; 
and doctoral students are trained to do research, not to teach.  Research
faculty rely on data generated by their students for job security and
professional advancement, and gain little or nothing from having their
students teach.  Therefore, it is not surprising that most doctoral
training departments require only minimal teaching experience during Ph.D.
training.  Requirements typically consist of assisting in a laboratory
portion of a class for one term.
        A handful of universities do offer significant teacher training for
their doctoral candidates.  For example, the University of Minnesota has
two such programs, the Teaching Opportunities Program for Doctoral Students
(TOPdS, funded by the Bush Foundation) and the Preparing Future Faculty
Program (PFF, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts).  Students in the TOPdS
program take an innovative Teaching Methods course, attend teaching
workshops, and work with an experienced program consultant and a
departmental faculty mentor.  The PFF program pairs students with a faculty
mentor at a nearby private liberal arts college, community college, or
state university.  Students work with their faculty mentor to an idea of
the skills involved in balancing teaching, research, and service.  Both
TOPdS and the PFF are temporary programs but they may serve as models for
other university-level teacher training programs.  
        Other universities might require from 3 to 13 credits of biology
teaching or science education courses of their doctoral students.  So it is
possible to gain some teaching experience during graduate training but such
programs and requirements are the exception rather than the rule. 
Therefore, most freshly minted Ph.D.s will not have very impressive
teaching credentials.  Search committees tend not to put much stock in TA
experience because it is hard to determine how independent the instructor
Availability of Teaching Postdocs

        Where can a job candidate get the requisite teaching experience
necessary to make him/her competitive in today's job market?  The teaching
postdoc is an option that has not been well defined or much discussed.
        Teaching postdocs become available for a variety of reasons.  They
are often positions that are used to cover for faculty on sabbatical,
maternity, or research leaves or as short-term hires to fill temporary
increases in demand for a particular course.  Because many faculty
positions are not approved for an immediate rehire following a retirement,
a teaching postdoc might also be used to cover a class until hard money
becomes available for a permanent replacement.  Candidates for these latter
positions often have a foot in the door once permanent money becomes
        Large universities are more likely to have temporary teaching
openings just because they have a larger faculty.  Indeed, many have an
almost permanent (although rotating) need for temporary teaching staff. 
The vast majority of plant scientists in academia are concentrated at the
large Land Grant universities in departments such as agronomy, plant
science, botany, range science, crop science, horticulture, forestry, plant
pathology, viticulture, and pomology.  Therefore, the opportunity to teach
advanced courses might be available.
        Smaller institutions also employ temporary teachers on an as-needed
basis and can be more supportive of their temporary hires.  They are more
likely to have a biology or natural science department that needs someone
to teach general biology or introductory botany as opposed to upper level
plant courses.  As far as search committees for faculty positions are
concerned, any teaching experience is better than none, regardless of
exactly which course is taught.
        While accepting a teaching postdoc will improve one's teaching
credentials, it will no doubt negatively impact one's research credentials.
 There are only 24 hours in a day and that is not nearly enough to do both
jobs well.  The decision to pursue a teaching postdoc must be balanced with
that knowledge.  However, one way to look at it is a person can gain
significant teaching credentials in only one semester whereas it can be
difficult to publish a paper in the same amount of time.  Most job
candidates have a lot of publications but not every one has good teaching

Finding a Teaching Postdoc

        By virtue of the fact that teaching postdoc positions are temporary
and usually not well planned for, they typically are not well advertised
either.  However, almost all academic positions, even temporary ones, are
required by law to be advertised someplace.  Although the ad may appear
after an internal candidate has already been chosen, you won't know until
you look.  
        Many teaching postdocs are advertised by word-of-mouth.  Find out
who makes teaching assignments in your department (usually the department
chair) and let him/her know that you would like to be considered if one
becomes available.  Do the same with nearby universities, colleges,
community colleges, and the like.  "Nearby" could be anything within a
three hour commute and is up to the individual to define.
        Specific publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education are a
good place to watch as well as the largest newspaper close to where you
wish to locate.  The internet is rapidly becoming the go-to place for
up-to-date information on jobs so subscribe to a discipline-specific
discussion group such as the Plant Education Newsgroup
(plant-ed at net.bio.net) or the Council on Undergraduate Research
(owner-cur-l at mcs.anl.gov).  Job postings frequently appear there.  The
World Wide Web has a number of job posting sites as well.  There is no
substitute for an hour of net surfing every day.
Improving Teaching Credentials While in Grad School

        Although being a teaching assistant may not provide the most
marketable type of teaching experience, it is teaching experience,
none-the-less.  Therefore, be sure to fully document the training you do
have.  First of all, ask for full inclusion in any formal teaching surveys
offered by your university.  Graduate teaching assistants are not always
included in such surveys.  If that is the case, administer your own survey
or at least ask for written comments from each student at the end of the
semester.  And by all means, do not throw these results away upon
graduation (not an uncommon practice).  They may not be much but they are
the only solid documentation of your teaching effectiveness you have at
that point in your career.
        If possible, TA for a faculty member who is committed to
undergraduate education and is willing to mentor you in developing your
teaching skills.  Volunteer to give a lecture or two on your specialty in a
general course.  Pick a course taught by a person you want to write letters
of reference for you, preferably someone who knows you well and is
supportive of your efforts to gain teaching experience.
        TA as many semesters and as many different courses as possible. 
This, of course, will detract from time that could be spent on research and
has to be carefully considered with that fact in mind.  Graduate schools
award Ph.D.s based on the quantity and quality of research, not on
teaching.  On the other hand, many students TA for much more than the
departmental minimum in order to financially support themselves and still
manage to survive.

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