What can you be with a PhD? An amazing educator

I attended a two-day workshop called “What Can You Be With a PhD?” (WCUB) on November 4-5, 2017. This article is published as the first in two-part coverage of the “Teaching and Education” panel during WCUB.

What exactly can one do once they are deemed an expert in their respective field? The answer to that question turns out to be: many things! WCUB brought together active scientists, teachers, and professionals in a series of panels designed to give you an insider’s look at non-research university academic career paths.

During WCUB, I sat in on three sessions exploring three different career paths. Two of them were related to the academic sphere, “Teaching and Education” and “Government Jobs,” while the third was a departure from the academy, “Non-Research Industry Jobs.” Despite the diversity of the jobs, there were common threads throughout all the talks. The main piece of advice that was repeated several times was to get yourself out there and apply for the jobs that you want—even if you think you are not yet qualified,and especially if you think you will bomb the interview! There is no better way to know if you can get a job than to go in and see what is needed from an applicant. Together, the panelists wove a message of hope and almost demanded that we begin to value ourselves for the experts we are.

Here, I present highlights from the “Teaching and Education” panel. As the two essential elements of this job are teaching and research, I will present information from those topics, focusing on education in this section. However, the panel went over many other topics ranging from the interview process (a day with everything from research feasibility talks to impromptu lectures in front of students) to work/life balance (much more manageable than at a research university, but those first three years are going to be demanding nonetheless).

The panel members were: Dr. Victoria Ruiz (also our moderator), Dr. Jessica Allen, Dr. Nathan Lents, and Dr. Matthew Marcello (a Rutgers alumni!).

Teach teach teach

For the uninitiated, science education happens at a variety of institutions, ranging from research universities like Rutgers to small liberal arts colleges like Fordham (my own alma mater). In fact, liberal arts colleges are right at the top in terms of producing students who will go on to earn PhDs.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of the panel discussion was the teaching experience required to secure a position at a non-research university. What was surprising was how much of said experience was expected upon hiring. Three of the four panel members had adjunct experience and one of them secured a fellowship with the INSPIRE program at Rutgers, funded by the NIH-IRACDA mechanism. Dr. Lents, who as tenured faculty has been involved in several hiring processes stated that, “When we look at your resume, it should be clear that you went out of your way to build a teaching career. You can see right away who wants to teach.”

Building a teaching career means seeking out a variety of experiences: teaching a class, being a guest lecturer, and working one-on-one with students in the lab. Indeed, Dr. Allen underscored this by saying that, “Mentoring students in the lab and doing research is not enough anymore. Actual teaching experience with your name as the lecturer of record are what colleges are looking for when they hire.” Even if you have amazing technical experience, such as that afforded by an industry post-doc, without teaching, technique is not going to help you in your job search. Panelists emphasized that even if you manage to secure that top industry post-doc, be sure you are teaching simultaneously as an adjunct elsewhere. As many of us have seen, the best science is only as valuable as it can be communicated. Sometimes, teaching positions are not only hard to come by, they are also prohibited. For example, there were several audience members who were currently under visa programs, and  unfortunately, the employment requirements of those visas forbid working at any university that is not your own. For those individuals, the panel recommended seeking out non-paid experience such as guest lecturer and even volunteering at a high school.

Another element of teaching at a small college is what you teach. I had the assumption that your first couple years of teaching would be in general classes like General Biology 101, and that only once you “paid your dues” could you design and teach the course you wanted. However, it turns out that that assumption is not entirely correct. The panel informed me that you almost immediately get to teach what you want- because usually that is exactly what you are hired for. Dr. Allen said, “Universities are [typically] looking for a specific candidate. If you want to teach neuroscience, you would apply for neuroscience positions.” However, smaller institutions do tend to distribute the responsibility for teaching general classes to keep class size small. Thus, while you will get to teach your dream course (or at a minimum propose it), you can expect to be teaching general classes as well depending on the size of the institution.

Non-research institutions vary in size a great deal. Where you choose to teach will determine not only class size, but also the make-up of your students. Will you be going to a school like Swarthmore or Middlebury, with their storied reputations? Or, do you prefer to focus on working at a smaller urban school? In both cases you have the potential to make a sizeable impact on students who would not normally consider pursuing a PhD, whether it is because they have always loved history or because they have never been told that science is even an option because of their gender. The socioeconomic background of students at the institutions will vary as widely as their interests. Dr. Allen chose to teach at Columbia College in South Carolina for exactly these reasons; she wanted to teach somewhere that students would be captivated by science in a way that they never had been before.

How we teach is also a focus of the job. Dr. Marcello talked about the evolving role of active learning, “Lecture is on the way out in education. Active learning is everywhere.” “Everywhere” includes your interview. Dr. Marcello recommended adding pedagogy and science education journals to your weekly table of contents (TOC) emails along with your field-specific research journals. Being able to understand the jargon and throw out some up-to-date lingo during the interview will be very impactful for hiring considerations. All of the panelists highly recommended taking the Vanderbilt Coursera course on Scientific Teaching as a primer for your future job.

As you consider your career options, many elements discussed at the WCUB panel on “Teaching and Education” could inform your choice. What, where, and how you teach can all vary depending on the institution. However, one thing remains constant: the desire to teach. As Dr. Allen put it, “You have to be passionate to teach. It is meaningless if your desire is not to educate students. [There is] not enough money and [it is] too time intensive to not care deeply.” This thought was echoed by Dr. Ruiz, “You have to love this.” Though at times it may seem that research competes with teaching for your time, nothing could be further from the truth. A successful professor at a college will be able to incorporate both elements, while always keeping in mind that is it the students that drive the research forward.

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