Teaching Post Doc

e-larso at uiuc.edu e-larso at uiuc.edu
Thu Jun 27 10:43:43 EST 1996

In <01I6BOPRPGTU004V2D at vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu>, wise at VAXA.CIS.UWOSH.EDU writes:

>         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.

I agree teaching experience is valuable if one is going to become primarily
a teacher.  However, research experience is something that is difficult to
gather in and requires access to a funded laboratory.  The end result is the
time spent in a professor's laboratory adds considerably to what the post-doc
knows and is capable of doing.  Teaching is something that can be done almost
The teaching post-doc simply balkanizes what is currently an already sad
situation for folks wanting to, or settling for, teaching.  I have several
colleagues who took teaching jobs at smaller schools.  In one case it was
as a faculty member, in several others, it was as one or two year temporaries.
The only real potential for these folks after a couple of years will be to
continue teaching.  The addition of a teaching post-doc will only make it
easier for schools to gather in a staff that can be moved out on a whim.  

I recognize your argument that research post-docs are a cheap way for 
universitites to get talent, just as teaching post-docs would be.  All the 
teaching post-doc does is ensure that the student will have to move at 
least twice again, once for the post-doc once for a real job.  This 
assumes that a single teaching post-doc would be sufficient.  Many of us
are dog-tired of hanging out here for years without real jobs and do not
relish the idea of following yet another temporary job.  This becomes more
important when you realize that by the time most are Ph.D.'s, they are 
married and much less able and willing to move.  

The real solution is coming down the pipeline, or should I say, not coming
down the pipeline.  Two of the Depts. at the U of I in plant related fields
received zero, zip, new graduate students, though many offers were let.   
The trend I noticed in the early 90's has finally taken hold -- that being,
the smart students are getting out.  Students in Biology now know that 
companies are not interested in hiring Ph.D.'s, but will soak up B.S. and
M.S. students -- we've had several very good students leave because they
recognized this (and all of the unemployed post-docs floating around didn't

Even research post-docs are very limited these days.  We typically see dozens
of applicants for every posting -- the 80's over-production is still hanging
around.  This means research professors hire somebody who has the exact skills
they need.  This also means a post-doc who wants to learn new techniques will
not get the chance.  The end result is the current crop of professors (the 
U of I has hired 1 plant-related person in the last decade and has no plans
to hire more for several years as the Dean has mandated down-sizing) are
literally it.  Once positions do start to open up in 5 to 10 years, what's
left of the 80's and 90's "hangers-on" won't get the jobs as Departments will
want to hire freshly trained folks with "current" skills.  Unlike professors,
who can hire post-docs to fill skill-holes, current post-docs are totally
dependent on their skill-set.  Since you can't gain new skills, because 
professors only hire those who fit their needs exactly, the current generation
of post-docs is doomed.
>         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). 

I could ask then, is it the best use of societes resources, and certainly
that of the student, to push them through an expensive research apprentice-
ship, just to have them teach?  One could argue that it would be fundamentally
more efficient if society simply trained the student during some post-graduate
program, to be a good teacher.  Research experience is valuable, to a point,
but 5 to 7 years is stretching what is reasonable to understand research.  A
teacher would only have had to participate in research for a year or two to
fully understand the process -- a Ph.D. usually means the student has
actually gone and done something significant, not just learned the process.

> 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.
True until recently.  The recognition that there are no jobs for Ph.D's in the
biology field means many of the best are abandoning the discipline (or never
starting).  I agree that the current crop of post-docs are stellar, as most
were idealistic students of the 80's and early 90's.  However, the next crop
of students is decidedly less so (based on what I'm seeing in graduate students
at the U of I).  Only the foreign students could be considered as great (and
we're still seeing lots of foreign students).
> 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.

Very true, and completely different than when the current professors were
trained.  Several of the professors in our College literally walked in, looked
around, talked with the other faculty, then decided what their research
direction was going to be.  This is clearly no longer happening.   I see real
problems because of the oversupply of students.  The "older faculty" were hired
at a time that 5 or 6 folks applied for the position, now it's unusual if
at least 100 don't apply -- some jobs get 600+.  This means that current 
research skills are the *only* criteria that is cared about.  I can assure
you that a pile saying "good at teaching" is not used for sifting out 95% of
the applicants to get to a manageable 30 for review.  The chances that any
of these 30 got there with a year or two taken out for teaching is very, very
>         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.

Bull, and you know it.  Hiring committees look foremost at reaseach for any
job that is less than 50% teaching.  The Department wants to hire someone who
will bring in research grants and students.  One professor was bitching to me
that "as a favor he took a second teaching course because of retirement."  What
was supposed to be a single-shot, suddenly became "his course."  However, in 
his last performance review, the Dept. Head chastised him for not doing as
much research -- the argument that he was carrying a too-heavy teaching load
fell on deaf ears.  
Also, with departments downsizing, and student enrollement dropping, the need
for teaching is only going to decrease.  I see the U of I pushing teaching at
the highest levels, as a political goal, but hiring still comes down to 
research, pure and simple.  In the unlikely even that two professors are 
preceived exactly identical, then teaching could mean the edge.  However, 
hiring is already such a factious concern, with groups of faculty rallying 
for a hire in their area of expertise, that the chance of teaching experience 
being a deciding factor is very remote.
Your argument that "well-trained" Ph.D's can get jobs in other fields brings
up the question of "why did you waste so much time getting a Ph.D.?"  It is
foolish for society, and the student, to spend 7-10 years in school "just so 
they can be well-rounded" -- that's what's the undergraduate degree is for.  
Graduate work is supposed to train the student for a field of concentration. 
It is patently stupid to be pushing students into 7 years of work with 
literally nothing to show for it at the end.  

The satisfaction of doing science matters little when you can't eat and you
discover that a Ph.D. becomes an impediment when you try to apply for B.S. 
and M.S. jobs in your field.  You do know that companies *will not* hire a 
Ph.D. to do a Masters job, simply because they cannot handle the risk of a
couple of years down the road having the Ph.D. saying "but I'm being 
discriminated against because my salary isn't as high as other Ph.D.."  This 
is not an idle point -- I've had several companies tell me this and one 
professor who collaborated with industry confirm this as a reason why 
companies won't hire Ph.D.'s at anything less than their rank.

>         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.

Unfortunately, this is true.  Typically these positions are 9 month appoint-
ments, with the candidate charged with "establishing an internationally 
reknowed program" from "extramural" funds.  The *only* way a person can be
successful in this type of situation is if they have a heavy research 
background, in a hot area, and can scratch funding from scarce resources. 
Several of the 80's professors at the U of I are under real stress because
of the lack of grants.  Trying to get funding, especially start-up, at a
smaller school is very, very tough.  At least at the major universities one
can expect to kibbitz on someone else scintillation counter, spectrophotometer,
-80, gel apparatus, etc.. -- smaller institutions just don't have this kind
of background.  

Of course you realize that this means that smaller schools are now looking 
for researchers first, with teaching second.  One of my friends accepted a 
job at Louisiana Tech..  Part of his hiring criteria was the "establishment 
of a research program."  He discovered that the there was one scintillation 
counter and a couple of old spectrophotometers at the institution.  Forget 
about a Biotechnology center that can grow up 200 liter batches of a 
recombinant, forget on-site liquid Nitrogen, forget the presence of any real 
research infrastructure at all.  I can imagine reading his grants, 
specifically,the section as to availability of other facilities on campus -- 
he doesn't have a ghost of a chance.  
>         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
> training.
True, but essentially what you're arguing for is gating -- something that has
to come.  The current model of how science is done is very destructive and
wasteful to large bodies of students.  It is foolish to spend 7 years getting
a Ph.D., then a few years in post-docs, and finally chucking it for another
>         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.

Good, I on the other hand, am tossing 22 years, a multitude of papers, a
patent application, and multiple years experience in several labs for "going
back to school so I can get a job."  In any other era, I would have been 
allowed to at least "try and fail," but the past, current, and future job
prospects are so bad, it's foolish to keep trying.
Eric Larson                  | University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
USDA/Agronomy                | 190 ERML; 1201 W. Gregory; Urbana, IL 61801
e-larso at uiuc.edu             | Voice 217.244.3079  Fax 217.244.4419
Fidonet: 1:233/7.1           | My opinions are my own, but correct :-) 

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