I’m grateful to Barb Bond, Director of OSU’s Office for Postdoctoral Programs, for encouraging me to develop a poster and attend this year’s National Postdoctoral Association 2013 Annual Meeting that was held in Charleston, SC, this past weekend (March 15-17).  I’ve been working with Barb for the past year to develop and deliver workshops about pedagogy and instructional strategies to the postdoctoral scholars at OSU.  This past fall, we decided there was enough demand for deeper, longer-term development that I would create a teaching seminar series.  I did so and delivered the series of 5 bi-weekly seminars this winter 2013 to an energetic, creative, courageous group of 15 postdocs.  Time well spent.  They seemed to enjoy it, too.

Near the close of fall term, Barb forwarded me an email announcement calling for poster proposals for the NPA meeting and suggested we collaborate on one.  This was to be a new experience for me.  As a humanities scholar, I’ve been to many conferences and delivered many essays.  Occasionally, I’ve led a workshop at a conference. But a poster was to be something new: a visual representation of ideas rather than studied, meticulous rhetorical articulation. We decided to create a couple of graphics that would illustrate the foundational components of the seminar: 1) the pedagogical framework for what was delivered and learned in the seminar and 2) the collaborative framework, that is, the relationships initiated by the OPP with other campus units to make possible not only the seminar but also the opportunities for postdocs to teach on campus.  Though in less fully fleshed out form, the poster also includes the evaluative framework I’m using to assess the seminar.  A pdf version of the poster, if you’re interested in the final product, may be found here: PostDocPoster_NPA2013-rp

Overall, the poster inspired lots of conversation and a lot of agreement about the importance of providing opportunities for instructional development to postdocs. Postdocs themselves were interested in this, to be sure, but so also were administrators of various stripes. At least among this audience, the time has come for institutions to take responsibility for the mentoring and career development of those who serve their research programs with care and dedication. But data shared during one of the last sessions on Saturday suggested that development opportunities are needed to support postdocs not merely for academic careers but also for careers in areas far from those in which they originally imagined themselves.

I’ve known that the humanities has been shrinking significantly and gave up hope some years ago for finding my niche in a tailor-made tenure line position.  I did not know until recently, however, that the sciences have been undergoing marked contraction, as well.  Funding from the NSF and NIH, among other long-relied on agencies, is in steady, probably long-term decline.  Two ideas that were repeated throughout the meeting were 1) the funding levels and number of research programs that characterized the past 2 decades are unsustainable; and 2) the “PhD machine” must be dismantled, assessed, and re-calibrated to reflect actual funding availability as well as academic workforce demand.  In the meantime, postdocs–and, it turns out, all doctorates–must be prepared to look into, prepare for, and seek employment beyond academia.  Moreover, they’ve got much to learn about how to represent the wealth of their abilities in ways that address the array of characteristics named in position descriptions (read: transferable skills!) and that are transparent to employers. Among other recommendations, speakers urged postdocs to develop the art of informational interviewing.  (Barb and I immediately agreed that a workshop on informational interviews should be on deck for spring term.) There were also warnings/reminders that some of the very characteristics that make one successful in academia are negatively correlated with success in jobs in other work environments.  I don’t yet have access to the slides from the presentations containing the data I’m responding to in this post, but I’ll post it once it’s been made available.  Meanwhile, I welcome guesses about those pesky characteristics.

As I listened to the sobering pronouncements for postdocs, I quickly realized that the same warnings and recommendations apply to graduate students.  After all, they’re currently in the belly of the machine, and it’s likely that they’re harboring the contemporary legend that hard work, rigor, publication, and sacrifice lead without fail to a tenure line academic position.  It also occurred to me that undergraduates, from seniors down to first-term first year students probably ought to be developing the skills associated with maintaining a broad and creative outlook regarding knowledge and skill acquisition, not to mention informational interviewing, adapting descriptions of one’s experience to align with position descriptions, and imagining multiple possible–and rewarding–futures.  One important difference between the postdocs and first year students, though, is in the sense of self-efficacy.  The presenters spoke from the assumption–and the many nods and spoken affirmations among postdocs in the crowd confirmed it–that revising one’s career plans is not magical or arbitrary but a process one must actively and intentionally undertake.  And for that group, a process that requires learning and acquiring new skills is just one more in a long series of challenges to be faced and overcome.  I don’t sense the same thing with first-year students.  Lots of courage, yes.  Lots of willingness, too.  But a sense of the how and the why of things, or the awareness that even without a clear map the way will arise if one will begin asking questions and taking notes, these are kinds of knowledge with which people new to higher education do not typically arrive.

More to come.


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