Reflections on a teaching postdoc Part 1: the teaching side

I’ve recently finished a position as a teaching postdoctoral fellow at a small liberal arts college. Based on the questions and interest I’ve had from other people, I thought it would be interesting and helpful to reflect on my experience and give some advice for anyone interested in such a position. I’ll do this in two parts – first focusing on the teaching aspects and second on research and career trajectory. Some of you are probably not familiar with teaching postdocs, and that’s to be expected – they’re pretty rare. I wasn’t necessarily looking for one, though I was interested in teaching. I heard about the position through a colleague at a conference after telling her what I was hoping to do next (the power of networking!). The other postdoc positions I considered were at R1 institutions. I took this position because I love teaching and really wanted to get some experience teaching full courses. I also thought such experience would help me get a faculty position after my postdoc. In addition, there was a lab doing research that was right up my alley, so the combination seemed perfect. Saraswatiphd described a traditional postdoc position well in her post; a teaching postdoc is a little different. In a lot of ways, mine was more like a faculty position in that I was balancing teaching and research, and integrated into the department as another faculty member would have been. This was a fantastic experience, which reinforced what I already thought was true for me – I really enjoyed both the teaching and research aspects of my job, and my dream career would include both. If anyone is wondering whether this is true for them or whether they are capable of balancing the two main aspects of an academic job, I would recommend a position like this to try it out before you commit to a career trajectory that includes both. This is especially true for people who think they will like teaching but come from pure research backgrounds without teaching experience. (That said, I would also advise some introspection – if you are seriously questioning whether you can/want to balance teaching and research, that could mean that you don’t, so for your sake and the students’ sakes, don’t push yourself into something you don’t want.) My teaching load was one course per semester. In this, I had the best situation possible: my first semester I co-taught a course with an experienced professor who was a wonderful teaching mentor, and then I taught the same course independently the following year. In the alternate semesters I taught a seminar on a topic of my choosing, and I used the same topic each time, in my area of expertise. I also opted to teach an additional course for high school students over the summer. I really loved the teaching part of my job. I found that my favorite part was the preparation – crafting the syllabus and planning lessons/labs. I liked thinking about what were the main topics or points that were important for students to learn and forming the structure around that, and thinking about what key pieces of information would be necessary to lead the students from zero knowledge on a topic to truly understanding the main issues. I liked formulating discussion-provoking questions that could lead students to independent thought. I also found that when it came time to actually go to class and do these things, I got nervous! Like most aspects of my life, I enjoyed planning things in advance more than actually doing them. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy working with students. It was a real joy to watch them progress, and seeing their excitement for topics that were new to them but that I’ve grown desensitized to was reinvigorating. It can be startling and amazing to hear students voice ideas and opinions that would never have occurred to me, and I’m most proud when I think that I was able to create an environment that allowed them to conceive and voice those thoughts. I loved working with the students so much and giving them what they needed that in addition to the the classes I was scheduled to teach, I ended up finding other ways to support the students, like workshops on career development.

All of this teaching was a great experience for me, and I do think it helps me be a better candidate for a faculty position, but not at all in the way I expected. What I thought going into the position was that after completing this teaching postdoc position on top of my strong research background from graduate school, I would be in a good position to get a tenure-track faculty position at most academic institutions that I was interested in (i.e. not a place where teaching was only an afterthought/obligation). In fact, I might have been competitive at some smaller liberal arts colleges without all the resources I would have liked or in a less desirable location, but I was definitely not competitive for the institutions I wanted to be at, which I learned the hard way. As I saw at faculty searches at my institution, even when quality teaching is highly valued, it is a candidate’s research and funding that gets noticed and gets them to the interview. So, it seems that my teaching experience will not land me a job, or likely even improve my chances in that respect. But what I believe it will do for me is make it clear when I am well-matched to a particular job; I want a job where I’m teaching classes similar to the ones I taught in my postdoc. So when a search committee likes everything else about me and sees that I taught these particular classes, it will be clear that it’s a great match! (I know, it still sounds a little naively optimistic…) In terms of teaching, I would recommend a postdoc like this for someone who

  • needs and wants more teaching experience
  • wants to be sure that they can balance/enjoy balancing teaching with research
  • might want to primarily teach (i.e. part-time/adjunct or community college faculty positions are attractive prospects)

I would not recommend a position like this for someone who

  • doesn’t enjoy teaching (hopefully obvious)
  • most likely will want to end up in positions where research is the main emphasis
  • already has substantial teaching experience, particularly teaching a full course including creating the syllabus, etc.
  • hopes to get a position involving research in any capacity without also getting other postdoc experience

More on the research side of things in Part 2 of this post.

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One Response to Reflections on a teaching postdoc Part 1: the teaching side

  1. Pingback: Reflections on a teaching postdoc Part 2: the research side, and balance | A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman

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