In addition to my duties as an instructor in my teaching postdoc, I also had research duties that I’d say were fairly typical for a postdoc, although the expectations (from myself and my PI) for speed of productivity were lower than average for a number of reasons, one of which was my teaching duties.
One important lesson I learned is pretty obvious, but it is that each component of your job will take up as much time as you let it. You can easily spend 40 hours per week applying for grants OR teaching (prepping lectures, testing labs, responding to students’ emails, etc.) OR doing research OR doing administrative/service duties OR mentoring students. But 200-hour work weeks are not appealing to me… so I learned how to constrain things. I love this blog post and advice about time management, and it really reflects the way I try to do things. Of course it’s a roller coaster – some weeks teaching would take up 40 hours and I’d just do the bare minimum on my research, while other weeks I’d be in the lab 60 hours a week and just show up to teach class.
My position was for two years. In some ways it was nice to know the end date. But in all, it was too short. It is difficult to be productive in two years in my field even with just research to focus on. But with teaching as well, it was practically impossible to get everything I would have wanted out of a postdoc position if I hoped to go straight to a faculty position. For example, I did not have any time to put toward applying for grants or awards. I also did not publish as quickly as I might have been able to otherwise. In large part because of those two issues, I was not competitive for faculty positions coming out of my teaching postdoc position (either at liberal arts colleges or more research-intensive institutions) and ended up getting a second postdoc position after my teaching postdoc.
One unique thing about this postdoc position was the research environment. Being at a small liberal arts college, most of the people working in the labs were undergraduates. There were a handful of graduate students and very few research postdocs in the department, and none in my lab. There are a lot of great things about working with undergraduates – they are enthusiastic and energetic and the best ones surprise you with the depth of their knowledge and ideas. I ended up having several excellent students working on my projects, helping the research move faster than I could have done on my own. I also helped some students on their own independent projects, which I will get additional publications from. It was another fun way to teach, and my own productivity was boosted as a bonus from working with undergrads. But of course there were some drawbacks as well. For every great student I had, there were two who didn’t put in the effort or sometimes dropped out of the projects altogether. And I put in a substantial amount of time training each of them, since it’s hard to tell early on who’s going to work out. Add to that the high turnover rate with undergrads as they graduate, etc., and I felt like all of my allotted research time went into training, not producing, and I was just hoping that the investment would pay off in the end. But it will! The pace of research was significantly slower than what I was used to, coming from a research-focused institution with no undergrads, but eventually I will be getting several publications from that position that I would not have had if I was working on my own.
To sum up this two-part post on my experience as a teaching postdoc, here are some pros and cons and tips that might be helpful to people considering such an experience.
- Teaching experience – teaching full courses, creating a syllabus, teaching evaluations
- Combination of research and teaching
- Insight into life as a faculty member
- Can be difficult to be productive in the research aspect of a teaching postdoc
- Time may be limited
- A teaching postdoc alone is unlikely to be sufficient to get a faculty position; a second postdoc is likely needed.
I think that the ideal teaching postdoc position would be three years long, with the first two for teaching and research, and the third for research, applying for independent funding and applying for jobs. It would include teaching one class per semester, with some degree of teaching mentorship. I have seen very few teaching postdoc positions advertised; I think the best way to find one would be through networking – talk to as many people as you can about your interests and goals, ask them to keep you in mind if they hear of any jobs, and ask your mentor to do the same. And feel free to post any questions for me!