For many doctoral candidates and postdoctoral trainees, securing a tenure-track faculty position at a college or university is essential. The reality is that you will be competing for an ever-decreasing number of faculty positions. Having prior college teaching experience is one way to gain a competitive advantage. Yet acquiring teaching experience is not always accommodated in doctoral and postdoctoral programs where the priority must be given to mastering the skill-set needed to become a successful independent researcher. After all, that is why you spend countless hours in the lab, living off caffeine or energy drinks. College teaching experience, however, can set you apart and expand your career options.
At many, if not most, post-secondary institutions, entry-level tenuretrack assistant professor positions expect faculty to teach, do research, and engage in service activities. This is especially true in the current climate of tight budgets and reduced state funding for public colleges and universities. Effective teaching may also provide an added level of career security in the competitive environment of acquiring external research funding.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS; www.nces. ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter) show that of the 4,371 new tenure track hires from 2006–2010, 75 percent (3,285) of the new hires were at “teaching universities” with 1,086 new tenure track hires at “research universities.“ At “research universities,” your research experience and success will make you a desirable hire. At “teaching universities,” research may still be an important component, but a strong emphasis will be placed on your ability to teach. Many of these universities will not give serious attention to candidates without prior college teaching experience. Clearly, adding teaching experience to your basic science training will make you more competitive in your quest for a faculty position.
As a science trainee your primary focus should remain on science and research. Acquiring teaching experience can be accomplished at the same time. Teaching should serve to strengthen your training portfolio and create more career opportunities. Teaching can also provide you with insight and knowledge that can advance your research.
Attend ENDO’s Trainee Day
The most opportune time to gain valuable teaching experience is probably during your graduate training. One of the easiest ways to learn how teaching can impact your career is to attend the Endocrine Trainee Day at The Endocrine Society’s Annual Meeting. ENDO’s Trainee Day provides valuable informational sessions about teaching and research in academia. For individuals who are in graduate studies at undergraduate degree–granting universities, being a teaching assistant (TA) for a defined length of time (at least a semester) is a great way to gain experience and might be a requirement for the degree. Being a TA can also help support your graduate studies.
For individuals in a graduate pro gram at institutions that don’t have an undergraduate program (such as medical schools and health science schools) getting in front of the class can be a little more difficult. My best advice, if teaching is not a part of your program, is to talk to your mentor and other professors about your desire to assist in a course, perhaps as a guest lecturer. Getting some level of classroom experience can help you decide if this is a desirable aspect of your training. Furthermore, some undergraduate universities and colleges will hire recently granted Ph.D.s with little or no postdoctoral training if they have had teaching experience as a graduate student. Understand that if you do accept a primary teaching position, with little or no research requirement, you must be sure that you want a career with a focus on teaching. The longer you are away from the bench, the more difficult it is to transition back into research.
It becomes increasingly difficult to gain valuable teaching experience as you progress in your training. If you are looking for a postdoctoral position and have decided that you want some level of classroom teaching, you should try to get teaching experience before accepting the position. Being honest and upfront with your potential mentor will be beneficial to both of you.
Adjunct Teaching Opportunities
Several institutions now offer postdoctoral training programs specifically for basic scientists that include classroom teaching. These programs include adjunct teaching positions at area universities and community colleges and are the best training program for individuals wishing to obtain a tenure track position that requires a heavy teaching load.
If you are a current postdoctoral fellow and chose the position based on the research opportunity, remember your mentor is there to facilitate your desire to become a researcher and it is not his or her responsibility, nor the institution’s, to help you gain teaching experience. My advice is first to establish yourself in the lab, stay committed to your research, mentor students, continue to publish, and seek funding. Once you are comfortable with your research progress, talk to your mentor about your desire to take on a teaching load and assure him it will not detract from your responsibilities in the lab.
Overall, adding teaching to your training portfolio will make you a more rounded potential hire. Better yet, you may actually discover that one of your biggest contributions to science is teaching future scientists.