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Tuhin Das

Tuhin Das has 1 articles published.

Stick or twist: finding teaching experience and the postdoctoral dilemma

in That Makes Sense by

Halloween is on its way… and we are familiar with “trick or treat” during that time.

But, are you familiar with “Stick or twist” (a postdoctoral dilemma)?

This is the name of the same game where finding teaching experience during postdoctoral research draws a parallel to trick-o-treating during Halloween. Although first one is fun for kids, the latter is a dilemma. The dilemma being,

  • “Should I stick to pouring all my energy towards high-quality publications in Cell, Science, Nature and prepare for grants proposals with a hope to extend my academic career in research and eventually find tenure;” OR,
  • “Should I twist my working life instead of chasing this dream of being a successful and acclaimed scientist.”

Of course, we all try our best to chase that dream. Like, at the beginning, everybody thinks that a postdoc appointment is meant to serve as the stepping-stone to victory in academic science or a probable position in industry. But let’s be honest, every postdoctoral fellow will not able to secure a job in a top-notch University/Institute due to the current scarcity of academic positions. However, the harsh reality among postdoctoral fellows is that many of us are either realizing this too late, or waiting too long to make a plan with tangible contingency options.

Never expect your mentor to be looking after you, instead you have to look out for yourself, and you have to remember that your boss’s priority is their own career. After all everybody is trying/struggling to survive. Keeping these things in mind, we need to redirect our career goal.

Nowadays, there are a wide variety of academic options available, ranging from research scientists, scientists in industry, science teachers, science writers, science legal consultants, and science policy professionals, etc. If you observe keenly, you might notice that a vast majority of academic careers require a person to be able to teach, either in classroom or in some other format. Thus, learning some teaching skills during postdoctoral research will help you become more suitable for a job in academia.

Now, someone may argue that we don’t need any teaching experience when belonging to a top-notch research institute. But lets keep in mind that every one is not from an exceptional category. May be I’m an oddball. When I began my postdoctoral study, I knew I wanted to be a faculty member who focused on research as well as teaching. After a year, I (perhaps naively) informed my PI that I’m here because I want to be in academia and I don’t want to devote all my time to research. Instead I wanted to spend some time in class room teaching and hence, looking for an exposure. After a couple of meetings and discussions, he understood my goals and he supported me.

Nonetheless, I did face some “fear factors” commonly experienced by many other graduates/postdocs who aspire towards a career in teaching during postdoctoral research. One of them being, “Would I be marked forever as a second-rated scientist by redirecting/refocusing on teaching?”

A career in higher education can be wonderfully rewarding. However, in these uncertain economic times the better prepared you are on entering this career, the more successful you will be. After some deep breathing, I realized that teaching skills are those skills that everyone can use at workplace regardless of career choice.

A few questions/points bubbled in my mind.

#1) What type of teaching skills do we need?

• Look for effective classroom teaching meant for a variety of students in terms of pedagogy
• Ability to convey the competence in subject matter and confidence in one’s ability to teach
• Ability to help students understand the general principles and concepts underlying a particular lesson, (i.e. explain both basic and difficult concepts clearly as well as to present a specific lesson in a larger context, like clinical relevance)
• Ability to ask good questions (testing and studying case histories) and provide feedback to students
• Ability to evaluate teaching performance and adjust lesson plans based on information garnered from students’ questions
• Ability to foster an effective learning environment which includes showing respect for the student, encouraging their intellectual growth and providing them a role model for scholarship with intellectual vigor.

#2) How can we find or get the teaching exposure/experiences?

Mentors as Resources: As starters, you can ask your PI about the possible opportunities in universities or colleges in your neighborhood.

Institutional Resources: You can explore your institutional resources by checking with your office of postdoctoral education for upcoming opportunities.

Funding Resources: There are some new teaching postdoctoral fellowships available nowadays. As for example, I recently discovered a job advertisement for a “teaching postdoctoral fellow” in one of the universities. After I submitted my application, I did get an interview call. During the telephone conversation with the Chair of the search committee, I learnt that they were looking for someone just like me–someone who would use the teaching postdoctoral fellowship as a stepping-stone from postdoctoral fellow to a faculty position by devoting equal effort to teaching and research. There is a possibility to be promoted as a tenured track faculty position within the department after successful completion of another round of interview. I think this type of postdoc can provide an advanced education beyond what is typically provided in graduate school. Just like a traditional research postdoctoral appointment, the training of the teaching postdoc generally focuses on science education instead of science research. There are several programs that are available like FIRST , PERT, SPIRE, PENN-PORT, NU-START , MERIT, IRADCA.

Other Resources: There are other ways to develop and refine teaching skills during postdoctoral training, such as to utilize excellent teaching resources available both as hardcopies and online resources and attending training conferences.

#3) Tips for getting teaching experience

• Discuss your topic/s of interest in getting some kind of teaching experience with your PI/mentor. This should be done early (possibly during your interview for the postdoctoral position) so that training opportunities can be accommodated during the postdoctoral period (if available).
• If your research mentors cannot commit their time to the teaching development, find an independent teaching mentor or alternate persons who can be involved/helped in the training process.
• Try to attend classes, workshops, or seminars on teaching that are offered at your institution, particularly courses that offer in-depth preparation for teaching and professional development as a future faculty (PFF Program). I have attended some classes of graduate course work just to learn how the professors deliver their lecture in the classroom here in USA.
• Explore teaching publications and online resources to learn about teaching techniques and best practices.
• Arrange to observe a faculty-taught class session in your department and discuss with the instructor about his/her approaches to teaching. If possible, ask for a supervised teaching and feedback session with a faculty mentor.
• Teach! Give your shot to a variety of teaching experiences (leading the lab or discussion sessions, review sessions, lectures, individual tutoring or team teaching).

#4) Teaching and research is not diametrically opposite

You may hear that teaching will take an inordinate amount of time during the first few years to settle down everything. Popular opinion is that teaching “takes time away from my research”. We should remember one thing as professors/mentors we are expected to be educating students. At least in my opinion, being a “good teacher,” can have many advantages, not the least of which involves assisting in your research program. Let’s try to think in this way, if you subscribe to the philosophy that your research can benefit your teaching and your teaching can benefit your research, then I believe that teaching can have a remarkable pay-off for your research program. In other words, as a new assistant professor you may not have the luxury of having a good graduate research assistant to help you with your research. One probable solution to this is to recruit undergraduates to become involved in your research. It will be a good help for the early career independent scientist. But even this would be herculean if you are not viewed as a passionate teacher who cares about his/her subject and encouraging their mentees’ intellectual growth.

#5) Challenges associated with teaching.

Every job has their own challenges, without facing those challenges, you cannot move forward and you have to face them everywhere. In the teaching job the following are included:

1) Time management: You have to find and manage time to prepare everything (i.e. setting aside time for class preparation, reading, and grading). The course coordinator may provide the course material and in that case you have less pressure. Another important point is to be always being chained to the lectern. In other words, movement is important in teaching because it gets you closer to the students and it indicates that you are interested in teaching them. Of course, always try to be “present” in the classroom (always be enthusiastic; modulate the pitch and cadence of your voice to give the impression that this is the greatest thing imaginable that you are talking about).

Being a good teacher demands putting in time and effort. More importantly, it demands that if you want to be successful at teaching then you should not be simply seen treating it as a necessary evil. I know it’s hard but you can do it.

2) Building Blocks (promoting respect for cultural diversity in a multiethnic classroom): A teacher needs creativity, extra effort, diligence, and courage to discover the diversity. Teachers in multiethnic classrooms must be open to their students. They should put forth the effort needed to get to know their students both inside and outside of class. The students will become estranged from one another and the teacher if a teacher is hesitant about being open. In order to be open, teachers must be interested in their students and willing to adapt to avoid taking things personally, or from getting judgmental.

3) Overcoming Stereotypes: To cope up in a multiethnic context and to engage students effectively in the learning process, a teacher should know their students and their academic abilities individually. Avoid relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes as well as on any prior experience with other students of similar backgrounds. Based on their student analyses, the teacher needs to plan the course accordingly so as to make the material accessible for all students: be it the syllabi, or the course assignments. Overcoming stereotypes will also help you in understanding the potential classroom dynamics and in learning how to deal with sensitive moments/topics.

So basically the cardinal rule is: 1) Learn as much as you can about racial, ethnic, and cultural groups other than your own and be aware of their sensitivities. 2) NEVER make any assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups he or she belongs to. Treat each student first and foremost as an individual.

Final thought??

Finally, be willing to pursue an unusual career path if your intuition tells you that it may be suitable to your passions and interests. The “teaching postdoc” was not a position I envisioned for myself 2-3 years ago. Yet, in this position I have found an opportunity to do what I love and impact the way that a university teaches undergraduates and prepares graduate students for faculty careers that emphasize teaching and learning. In my opinion, the joint research and teaching postdoc is ideal for the greatest depth of academic jobs. This is because they are getting supervisory and multitasking experience.

So find a place that has top-notch research facilities but also cares enough about teaching and go for it. Yes, such universities along with special programs do exist.

Tuhin Das

About the author:


Tuhin Das is currently working as a Visiting Investigator in Cell Biology program of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, New York. He is interested in exploring the role of tumor microenvironment in regulation and enrichment of breast cancer stem cells (CSCs) in 3D nanofibrous scaffold platform by application of evolutionary dynamics in cancer drug resistance. He is studying the mitotic delay in response to centrosome loss using CRISPR-CAS9 system.

In addition, Tuhin is serving as a consulting editor of the journal “Breast Cancer: Targets and Therapy”. He has served as an academic editor for Journal of Cancer Therapy and a reviewer of several high impact scientific peer-reviewed journals.

He is an active member of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB). He is also an associate member of American Association of Cancer Research (AACR).

Edited by: Abhinav Dey

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