Teaching Post Doc

Tue Jun 25 11:36:10 EST 1996

Dear Eric,

        In response to your posting of last week.

>In <01I60P9T97UA001B4D at vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu>, wise at VAXA.CIS.UWOSH.EDU writes:
>>However, quality teaching experience is also valuable;  and rarely made
>>available during graduate training.
>The whole premiss of this article is flawed.  Teaching experience is readily
>available, often forced, on students at good schools.  Similarly, most 
>programs require that students give several seminars prior to graduation.  

        The premise of the article which appeared in the May/June ASPP
Newsletter Education Forum was that teaching experience is a valuable
marketable skill that is not readily available in sufficient quality or
quantity in our pre- or post-doctoral training programs.  I was a post-doc
in the Plant Biology Department at the University of Illinois from
1986-1991.  Altough requirements may have changed since then, at that time
their doctoral students were not required to teach at all and were only
required to give one seminar.  Seminars, regardless of how many or how well
done, do not constitute teaching experience.  Thus, virtually none of the
graduates from that program had any teaching background.  I mention U of I
because I have some personal experience there.  I can provide other
anecdotal evidence as well regarding other institutions.  Even eight
semesters of pre-doctoral TAing (the amount I had when I started looking
for a job) doesn't count for much teaching experience in the eyes of a
search committee.

>I might agree with arguments that teaching experience should be rather
>strongly pushed as a degree requirement, but to posit the creation of
>teaching post-docs will only ensure that jobs for graduates in the 
>biological sciences face even dimmer prospects.

        Research post-docs were invented in the late 60's specifically to
keep talented and trained individuals employed until they found a "real"
job, and to provide them with even more training to make them more
marketable.  The teaching post-doc would do the same thing.  If the concept
of the teaching post-doc is unacceptable, then the concept of the research
post-doc is likewise unacceptable.

>Departments would love to side-step the hassels and long-term commit-
>ment of hiring a faculty member, when, for a fraction of the cost, they 
>can hire someone who will work very, very hard, then leave.  These aren't
>"research positions," so the hiree's only real potential will be for continued
>teaching at the institution.  In the unlikely event the student, after a year 
>or two off for teaching, lands a research job, it is more than likely the 
>courses he/she will be assigned will not fit with the previous experience.  

        I agree completely.  This is the real danger of encouraging
teaching post-docs.  Universities are constantly seeking ways to save money
and limit the scope and power of tenure, and academic staff and teaching
postdocs are two ways of achieving those goals.  But again, this is exactly
what the research post-doc has become.  Research postdocs are a way for
research universities to increase their research output at a minimal (if
any) cost to the institution itself.  Talented, dedicated people can spend
five, even ten years as a research post-doc before they find a "real" job. 
Even at that, some PhDs eventually drop out of science because of an
inability to land a permanent position.  If a decade of postdoctoral
research experience (plus 4 to 6 years of pre-doctoral experience) is
insufficient to make one marketable, then perhaps alternative approaches,
such as seeking teaching experience, might be considered.

>As a prelude to a career in teaching, fine, but as a stop-over on the
>way to a research career, very, very dangerous.  

        I agree.  If a student is interested solely in a research career,
then they need to focus totally on gaining research experience.  However, a
little math tells us that every PhD advisor need only train one PhD student
to ensure there is an adequate supply of faculty for the 100 or so research
universities in the US.  All of the other PhD students have to find
employment elsewhere, be it in government labs (which are down sizing), in
industrial labs (which are down sizing), or at one of the approximately
3100 non-research U.S. universities (which are down sizing).  In short,
there are very, very few positions at research universities and to get one
you have to compete against the very,very best students our nation
produces.  Also, you have to be lucky enough that the area of research you
chose upon selecting a dissertation or post-doc project is sexy and hot 5
to 10 years later when you apply for a tenure-track position at a research
university.  Taken together, those are some pretty tough hurdles to
overcome.  All graduate students should be encouraged to strive to be the
very best, but they should realize that only very few of them will ever get
a job that is equivalent to the one held by their PhD advisor.

        Your statement implies that there are only two types of careers
available for scientists, research and teaching, and that those two career
paths are mutually exclusive.  This is not true for two reasons.  
        First, many of the traditional reseach universities are being
pressured by their students and governing bodies (state legislatures in
many cases) to provide more student access to faculty,  i.e. for their
faculty to teach more.  Whether or not this translates into job performance
is uncertain, but it does influence the search committees that actually do
the hiring.  So teaching experience is seen by search committees at
research universities as a criterion for hiring.
        Second, many universities that have traditionally focussed on
teaching have embraced research in order to enhance the educational
experience of their undergraduates, as a way to promote and advertise the
institution, and, frankly, as a way to raise extra operating capital
through indirect costs charged to grants.  So research experience is seen
by search committees at teaching universities as a criterion for hiring.
        In order to maximize marketability, a job candidate might consider
attempting to gain both types of experience during their pre- or
post-doctoral training.

        If a PhD student is absolutely convinced that he or she is only
interested in a research career then by all means that student should not
waste any time seeking documentable teaching experience.  Ultimately,
however, the numbers tell us that those students will be in the vast
minority.  All other students will need to be more flexible and gain wider

        At last year's ASPP meetings in Charlotte, NC the Education
Committee sponsored a Careers Workshop that featured nine scientists who
held positions at someplace other than a research unveristy.  Our goal was
to show that valuable and rewarding careers exist outside of the job that
our PhD advisors have.  It had the largest attendance of any of the
workshops last year.  A similar workshop will be held next month in San
Antonio.  Let's continue this valuable discussion here on the Plant Ed
newsgroup and also at the ASPP national meetings.


Robert R. Wise, PhD
Director, UWO Electron Microscope Facility
Department of Biology
University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Oshkosh, WI  54901
(414) 424-3404 tel
(414) 424-1101 fax
wise at vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu

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