Survey Reveals Concerns about Teaching and a Diversity of Backgrounds
Part 3 of a Series on Teaching
by Rosalind Mott, Ph.D.
To conclude our three part series on teaching as a postdoc, we ran a voluntary online survey to collect postdoctoral feedback on the issue. With 124 responses, including six pages of comments, teaching experience appears to be a rather important issue for some postdocs seeking academic positions. Of the 124 respondents, 77% planned to seek an academic faculty position. There are three main take home messages from the survey and data:
- Many Penn postdocs feel they lack experience. When asked, “Do you feel as though you have enough teaching experience for your planned future?” only 27% of respondents felt confident in their training. From the survey, 40% claimed that they did not have adequate experience. Another 27% felt uncertain.
Figure 1: Do you feel as though you have enough teaching experience for your planned future?
In terms of actual skills, the majority of postdocs surveyed have performed tasks that are typical of a TA-ship during graduate school (77% have graded assignments/exams and 74% have lectured to a small group). After graduate school, postdocs see few opportunities to augment that experience beyond mentoring students in the lab. About 27% of postdocs have had the opportunity to design a full course, which many felt to be the most desirable form of experience. Lab supervision, lab course design and lecturing to a large group (>30 students) are other weak areas, with only 44%, 11%, and 42% respectively of those surveyed claiming experience. On the bright side, a majority (61%) has had the benefit of designing individual lectures.
- Many Penn postdocs feel that they cannot or do not know how to obtain more teaching experience. For the question, “If you wanted to gain more teaching experience, do you feel you have the resources to do so?” only 24% replied “Yes.” The largest cohort felt simply uncertain as to how to seek such experience.
Figure 2: If you wanted to gain more teaching experience, do you feel you have the resources to do so?
“Most colleges and universities only consider designing and facilitating an entire course to be teaching experience. The bits and pieces that I’ve picked up along the way are generally not considered full teaching experience.” – Penn Postdoc
Some offered great advice:
“In order to get experience, I highly recommend applying for the adjunct positions that come through the BPP listserv, attending workshops held through the Center for Training & Learning (CTL), working with the CTL to give a guest lecture in one of Penn’s undergraduate courses, and checking the job sites (like higheredjobs.com) for “lecturer,” “adjunct,” and “instructor” jobs in the area, that tend to be for individual courses. That way, you can teach “on your own time” and still do research in the lab.”
- There’s never enough time. For all of the opinions expressed, “Do you feel you have the time to gain teaching experience while a postdoc,” generated the strongest majority with a resounding ‘No’ by 52% of survey respondents. We suspect that this is the root of the problem, as the postdoc’s duty to research does not allow the time needed for real teaching experience. Some respondents expressed that their postdoctoral advisors were not supportive of the endeavor; if an opportunity arose, it would need to be a night or weekend course.
Figure 3: Do you feel you have the time to gain teaching experience while a postdoc?
Some other comments regarding that ever-elusive “time”:
“The time I spent teaching greatly detracted from the time I was able to spend in the lab.”
“I think the difficult thing about obtaining the experience is getting permission from your advisor. They only see it as time lost in the lab.”
“[I] taught a course for two semesters (at a different university) while I was a postdoc and it was difficult. My research suffered during that semester because to teach the class correctly I had to respond to the students not only in class but also in emails. Then if you factor in preparing the slides and information (i.e. study guides and tests) I was putting in more than thirty hours per week.”
The six pages of comments contained a number of impassioned statements, feelings of confusion, and a bit of good advice, including:
“There should be a formalized program for postdocs to obtain teaching experience.”
“I’m consistently hearing from postdocs looking for teaching experience. Sadly, I have few outlets to recommend to them. As a fourth year postdoc on the academic market, I really wish that I had more experience myself. I haven’t been competitive for the large percentage of positions that require at least one full year of undergraduate teaching experience.”
“Gaining teaching experience enables postdocs to be more competitive on the job market and allows us to apply for other jobs besides tenure track positions. I love teaching and think it is important for my professional development, particularly as the grant-funding situation for my research area (clinical psychology) is looking increasingly tenuous.”
“I was asked to teach a course once again and my advisor told me that I could not because ‘it is not what a postdoc is about.’ I fear that little teaching experience (or gaps) will be make me unqualified for looking for a university professorship once my postdoc is done.”
Thank you for all of your insightful comments on the topic. As it was a voluntary survey, there may be bias for sampling from postdocs that have strong feelings on the issue. At the end of the day, a more open dialogue could benefit postdocs who are worried about this aspect of their training. Through open discussion, fortuitous situations may present themselves to postdocs seeking the experience. Alternatively, Penn postdocs can push for a more formalized type of training to reduce the feelings of anxiety and to even the playing field.
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