Thursday, July 31, 2008

A revelation

Today, I attended another teaching-related workshop at UNC Chapel Hill. This time, it was an Introduction to Faculty Careers, which was facilitated by two professors from NC State University, Rebecca Brent and Richard Felder. Some excellent tips on what to do and typical "newbie" mistakes to avoid were presented. I thought it was quite helpful.

As I sat there, digesting the information, I came to the realisation that through my graduate student and postdoctoral fellow career, I was being groomed for a position in academia. Okay, nothing earth-shattering there. Naturally, one might assume that if you were to follow the same path I took (go to graduate school to get the Ph.D., and then immediately after obtaining said degree, or even slightly before, go get a postdoctoral fellowship or two), you would be heading for a career as a professor in a university whose primary goals are research and teaching (more emphasis probably on the former than the latter).

I'll admit that I had been muddling through all steps. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I just had some nebulous idea when I was in high school that I wanted to help find a cure to cancer and AIDS. At that point, what did I know about how to go about doing the things needed to fulfill that ambition? I suppose all along the way, I happened to have met the right people who would have helped me meet the goals I thought I had. After a shaky start, I managed to finish my degree and get a few postdoctoral positions. I'd be lying if I were to say it was all peaches and creme - it wasn't. I met some wonderful people along the way, and some not-so-wonderful people in addition. Somehow, I managed to publish some papers and a couple of book chapters, made presentations at conferences, had the opportunity to network with researchers in the fields I was studying at the moment ... I was even given the opportunity to write, and successfully obtain funding from an outside source (in my case, the National Institute on Drug Abuse).

I started thinking about all of this when we were discussing strategies for preparing for an academic career. In the "Next-Stage approach", we were encouraged to think, look, and act ahead of the stage we were currently occupying (in most of our cases, that would be graduate student or post-doc) to the one we would be hoping to occupy (most likely, faculty position at a university or college). A list of possible activites was given, and it was after having looked at this list that I had my realisation. Perhaps I should have known it all along; I will admit that this is the first time I really became aware of it. (I suppose that makes me Queen Dunderhead for not understanding this from the beginning.)

  • Technical reviewing. I was given the opportunity to review a paper before it was published. My advisor gets requests all the time, and she passed one of those requests along to me as she felt the subject discussed fell closer to my area of expertise. I wasn't sure I was up to that challenge, but accepted the request to review the paper. I made my suggestions, returned the paper with my comments to the publisher, and a few months later, noticed that after the paper came out in print, my suggestions were incorporated. That made me feel good. In addition, we were encouraged to proof-read any papers, grant proposals, etc. that were generated from the lab, which gave great experience in being able to improve our technical writing, as the more we did this, the more we would have an idea what to write and how to write it as efficiently as possible.

  • Proposal writing. As I mentioned above, I was given the opportunity to write a proposal for extramural funding through a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. I will admit that I never expected it would be funded on the first go, but sure enough, it was, and I received the second-best score out of all the proposals that were received and reviewed at that time. I received funding for three years to carry out the research I proposed, in addition to time for me to further my professional development in hopes of being able to find that faculty position.

  • Supervision of other students. I had the opportunity to do this as well. Actually, come to think of it, I started on this whilst in graduate school. We had the occasional undergraduate student who wanted research experience, and my thesis advisor would assign one of the graduate students to mentor that undergrad student, and in some cases, supervise them on their research. I essentially had an assistant one year. By the end of the academic year, we were able to present her work in a poster that was presented at an undergraduate research conference on campus. My mentoring of students continued through my postdoctoral career. At RTI International, I mentored a couple of students from North Carolina Central University. After I moved to NCCU, I was mentoring high school students as they were carrying out their summer research. (I had the pleasure of meeting one of them recently - she completed her bachelor's degree at Campbell University, and is continuing there as a graduate student in their Pharmacy program.) After moving to UNC, I didn't mentor students in an official capacity, but I did tutor a couple of friends in their General and Organic Chemistry courses. Of course, as a graduate student, I had to supervise students as a TA in organic chemistry lab courses.

  • Publishing. I published a couple of first-author papers as a graduate student, and had a few papers and book chapters as a post-doc. I know that publishing is very important as a research academic - it's the way the funding agencies would be able to keep track of your work, and future funding is contingent on how much progress you've made. What better way to notice this than to track the papers you've published on your research!

  • Conference presentations. I never had this opportunity as a graduate student. It wasn't really emphasized or encouraged. However, I was given the opportunity to present my research within the first 6 months of my first post-doctoral appointment. I was encouraged to do this at least once a year, or more often as the research warrants. It's a great way to meet others in the field, and I've made some wonderful friends via this route..

  • Relations with industry. This is the one area I did not do. Yes, I know people who work at some of the pharmaceutical firms, but that's more because of where I live more than my actively seeking to network with people who work there.

  • Teaching. I had heaps of experience teaching (well, really more TA'ing labs) as a graduate student. I am getting lots of experience now as an Adjunct Professor at Campbell University. And, I find I am enjoying this very much. This has made me realise that perhaps my future does lie in teaching, but I will admit that if I were to follow this route, I would prefer to do mainly teaching, and preferably at the college level.

Hence, my spending the time to attend these workshops. I suppose I needed the time away from the lab to realise what it is I wanted to do. Writing my thoughts down like this is helping.

So I'll go and think about this more, and put together a Philosophy of Teaching statement. At least if I start working on this now, when an opportunity comes up, I'll have something ready, and most of my agonising over what to write will have passed.

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