Monday, November 5, 2012

Should postdocs teach?

Sometimes postdocs are given the opportunity to teach part [or all] of an undergraduate or graduate course, even though this is not part of their job description.
At UQ there is a formal university wide program ResTeach which aims to get research staff [including senior faculty such as myself] involved in teaching.

If you are a postdoc, should you do it?
Should faculty who pay the salaries of postdocs from their grants encourage or discourage this?

Here are some of the significant advantages to a postdoc of doing some teaching:
  • Having the experience listed on your CV may help you get a faculty position at some institutions. For example, in Australia this seems to be almost a pre-requisite these days. Furthermore, if you can be innovative, get high student evaluations, and/or boost enrolments that may be viewed very favourably.
  • You usually learn a lot of science from teaching, even lower level courses.
  • It can be enjoyable and satisfying.
  • If you are fortunate enough to eventually get a faculty position this experience will make it easier handling the formidable challenges of starting out teaching.
  • If you are a senior post-doc/research fellow who can supervise undergrads and/or Ph.D students this may help to recruit research students.
  • It may create some goodwill towards you in your department. You may be seen as a team player and good departmental citizen.
However, there can be significant disadvantages:
  • Foremost, it can consume a large amount of time and energy that reduces your research productivity. Teaching a course for the first time is usually a full-time occupation. You may lose research momentum and that competitive edge you need to land a faculty position or the next research fellowship.
  • It may not add a lot to your CV, particularly if your student evaluations are average. They will probably be average or even below average since you are starting out.
  • If you don't do a stellar job and/or there are a few disgruntled students your reputation in the department may suffer, perhaps unjustly.
On balance, I think it really depends on the individual: their career goals and career stage. In some cases, I encourage people to do this. In other cases, I discourage it. The main thing is to make a well informed decision which takes into account both the pro's and con's. Postdocs and Research Fellows also need to be wary of the vested interests who will push them in either direction, possibly against the best long-term interests of the postdoc.

I welcome comment, particularly on the situation in other countries.
I get the impression that for major US research universities teaching experience counts for little in landing a faculty position. 
I suspect that for 4-year colleges they expect not just experience but evidence of innovation and positive student evaluations.


  1. "I get the impression that for major US research universities teaching experience counts for little in landing a faculty position."

    I would be inclined to agree with this statement, although it will still be some years before I am looking for a faculty position so I don't have a first-hand view yet. So my inclination would be not to seek out teaching opportunities (and even to try to avoid them to some extent), except for one of any kind ever (e.g. TA during grad school).

    I think teaching is severely undervalued among faculty: probably more by the nebulous concept of faculty as a whole than by most individuals. I don't know why: maybe just because everyone else undervalues it, so faculty members feel they have to as well.

  2. Surely faculty who are paying for a postdoc from their grant should discourage it (from a purely self interested perspective). Perhaps also from the expectations laid out in the grant funding rules?

    Do you have a perspective on whether this is a good thing (i.e. that teaching experience is not generally highly regarded). Is this perspective a result of philosophical or practical considerations?

    Philosophically, what is the purpose of the uni? I guess when I was an undergrad I thought the uni was there for me. Now as a postdoc I think the uni is there for doing research. Certainly the purpose of a PhD is to contribute to a growing body of knowledge, not to be qualified to teach at the highest levels... When I say certainly I suppose I think that's what I believe a PhD means. The PhD program has nothing to do with teaching, and everything to do with original research. So this observation certainly argues for the former.

    Practically, I imagine grant outcomes are the biggest determining factor in the success of a university. Sure having high quality graduates has value, especially if there's a beneficiary element. But largely, I imagine we rightly think Oxford is better than Reading because they do better research, on average. A good example in the UK is Lancaster I think, which has an excellent reputation for condensed matter physics which I think is not historical. Perhaps Leiden would be another good example (of many around the world), where in my field getting a position there is like getting one at Harvard.

    So Lancaster and Leiden and Oxford are, for condensed matter physics, "good universities". So then, shouldn't the faculty search committees value, much more highly, research metrics?