Thoughts on a ‘Teaching Postdoc’ position

I have visited some mathematics departments that offer “teaching postdoc” positions.  Clearly, this is a 2-3 year position that involves more teaching than a ‘standard’ postdoc. So, what exactly are these teaching postdocs positions and what are their benefits? The most common pitch for a teaching postdoc is that it trains you to prepare for a tenure-track job at a four-year college.  These postdocs are for people who seek a career in teaching.

The idea seems appealing to most people that are looking for jobs and especially to those who enjoy teaching. It might seem that you get the best of both worlds: you get a postdoc and you get to teach! However, I think it is important to know that a person who accepts a teaching postdoc is instantaneously making a career choice.  The position typically carries a substantial teaching load, like 3 courses per semester.  This is softened slightly by requiring only two preparations each semester (teaching two sections of the same course).  Ambitiously, you might think that there will be some time left to do research, but the reality is that there is not enough time for you to remain competitive for research faculty positions later.  Yes, there will be some exceptional people that can manage both sides of this equation, but that is not the norm.  You should recognize that you have put all your eggs in the teaching basket and you will be competitive only in the teaching school market.

If this is what you want as a career, the teaching postdoc can offer several benefits. For instance:

  1. you get to teach a variety of undergraduate courses and build experience teaching at all undergraduate levels.  This is very important when you interview for tenure-track jobs and you can say that you have experience teaching freshmen through seniors.
  2. you get opportunities to learn and implement new instructional techniques and develop curriculum. In a good environment, you can learn new teaching techniques from more advanced postdocs and faculty.
  3. your postdoc supervisor should visit your classes and provide valuable feedback. This is part of the mentoring that should be available to you.

I have to stress that it is up to you to make these happen.  I know teaching postdocs that have not been visited in class or have been visited but received no valuable feedback.  When this happens, talk to the department Chair and ask for someone else to visit your classes. Think of the fact that you will need excellent teaching recommendations when you leave and so you need faculty who know first-hand how you teach.  The danger of teaching postdocs is that, without proper mentoring, they can degenerate into an instructor-like position without guidance and without much feedback. Ironically, this is especially true if you are a decent teacher and the department receives no complaints from your students. Teaching postdocs are often departmental postdocs and it can happen that no particular faculty member is designated as your supervisor.

It is up to you to make sure it is clear who your faculty supervisor is and that he or she will write a letter of recommendation for you later.  Make sure some type of helpful evaluation takes place at least annually and that opportunities for you to grow as a teacher are available to you.


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4 Responses to Thoughts on a ‘Teaching Postdoc’ position

  1. sarah-marie belcastro says:

    There are some teaching postdocs that do not fit the mold described here—at elite small liberal arts colleges, a teaching postdoc often has a 2-2 or lighter load, and sometimes a research mentor or potential collaborator is associated with the position. And, while I agree that taking a not-research-focused postdoc means that someone will not be competitive for high-level research faculty positions later, this doesn’t take one completely out of the running for permanent university positions. It just means that one will need to work hard to get research done, and aim at less prestigious institutions.

    • Ricardo Cortez says:

      I am glad you pointed out that there are some teaching postdocs with a reasonable teaching load. Thanks.

    • Dagan Karp says:

      Related to what you point out, here at Harvey Mudd we have a Teaching and Research Postdoctoral Fellowship, with only a 1-1 teaching load. But as the name suggests, the TRPF isn’t a “standard” teaching postdoc of the sort Ricardo was discussing. The focus is really on both teaching and research. The hope is that our postdocs will strengthen both their teaching and research portfolios and be more competitive for positions at peer institutions.

      Just as there are so many kinds of “research” postdocs (visiting assistant professorships, sabbatical replacements, mathematics institute postdocs, etc), there are an assortment of “teaching” postdocs. Thanks for pointing this out!

  2. Dagan Karp says:

    Thanks for this, Ricardo! Coming from a liberal arts college, in a department that just concluded a tenure-track search, I’ll add a tidbit of advice. Teaching postdocs can be a huge benefit, but, as Ricardo points out, you have to use them wisely. In addition to the proactive suggestions above, I suggest using a teaching postdoc as a time to learn innovative teaching strategies, and engage in outreach.

    Just as one searches for innovation in a research postdoc, a teaching postdoc is an opportunity to explore different pedagogical methodologies and classroom practices. Experiment with the classroom, and find what works well for you, given your personality, and what works well for your students. And just as you want to be aware of current research trends, it doesn’t hurt to familiarize yourself with contemporary teaching practices (the list of buzzwords is long and ever changing).

    Outreach is not only important in and of itself (as Robert Moses might say, broadening participation in mathematics is a key civil rights struggle in the US), but it can also be good for your career. Many departments are making efforts to be more inclusive, and meaningful outreach experience is significant.

    A tenure-track application from a candidate who has thought deeply about classroom practice, has experience with innovative pedagogy and a substantial outreach portfolio may really stand out.

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