Teaching Postdoc Program Trains Thoughtful and Effective Instructors
Many of the instructors in the Biotechnology Program are participants in the teaching postdoctoral program, which is a three-year program focused on mentoring postdocs through teaching experiences. Unlike other teaching postdoctoral positions, the BIT Program emphasizes honing the craft of teaching by providing a mix of opportunities, both in the laboratory and the classroom, designed to allow participants to grow and evaluate their own skills. If you’re a doctoral graduate looking to improve your teaching abilities or get serious teaching experience for the first time, this is the program for you.
The program has been designed to last for three years, though there is flexibility for postdocs who find positions earlier. The instructors start out team-teaching the core molecular biology course (BIT 410/510), which allows them to get some experience teaching a class that has the main elements already in place and a repository of prepared materials. As the main requirement for the BIT minor, this course is offered every semester, with 4 sections each in Fall/Spring and one section in the summer. Because of the importance of students obtaining a baseline set of skills before moving on to more advanced courses in the program, this course has set learning outcomes and lab activities. However, the instructors for each section work together to construct novel assessments each semester, including project-based take-home exams and multiple-choice exam questions to cover the learning outcomes.
Instructors may also co-teach another course in their first year with a more senior instructor. Dr. Sophie Noel, the BIT Program’s newest postdoctoral hire, is currently co-teaching the BIT 501 Ethics course with Dr. Andrew Hasley, another postdoctoral instructor. “It’s been really wonderful,” she said, “we have different perspectives, but taking both of those into account has helped make the course a success, I think.” While many of the instructors will co-teach courses, it’s particularly beneficial for those in their first semester or two, because it allows them to get some practice teaching while also integrating them into the culture of the program.
Many of the postdoctoral teaching scholars join the program because they are interested in getting more teaching experience, or because they want to refine the teaching skills they have already picked up from prior experience. “After doing a research postdoc, I realized that I wasn’t as ambitious about it as I thought I would be, and the BIT Program seemed to be a good bridge between research and teaching,” said Dr. Lentz, a former postdoc. As part of the program, he was able to get hands-on experience working with students of all levels and ages. “I learned how to work with students and determine what kind of nurturing they needed to be successful,” he said, “and I was able to build and modify my own course around that.”
And that experience helped him transition into his current job as a scientific instructional designer at Promega, where he creates content to educate the company’s employees on their products and how they work. While it’s a different environment than a traditional educational setting, he still uses a lot of the skills he learned in the BIT Program. “In the BIT Program, I really learned to focus on developing quality content that is learner-focused,” he said.
Dr. Arnab Sengupta, another former postdoc who now teaches at Georgia College, also pointed to this as one of the main benefits of the program. He was able to take the Teaching and Communication Certificate program, which is offered through NC State’s Graduate School. “I took a class called Structuring Content, where I learned a lot of things that have really shaped my teaching style,” he said. “An example would be backward design, where you start with your learning objectives and build your content and exams around those.”
Dr. Sengupta also feels that the BIT Program’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic helped make him a more flexible teacher. “I started in the fall of 2019, and taking those classes during my first year made it easier for me to transition my own course to an online format in the fall of 2020.” One of our current postdocs, Dr. Dums, started in the fall of 2020, which has given him a very different perspective than many of his predecessors. “I had a pretty heavy course load, and we had to move everything online after two weeks, so it was a challenging first semester,” he said. “But I got a lot of help and support from the rest of the BIT instructors.”
In fact, most of the postdocs, both current and former, said that the community and support from their fellow instructors was one of their favorite parts of the program. Dr. Christina Garcia, a former postdoc who now teaches at Centre College, said that her favorite memories involve her coworkers. “We used to buy the really weird flavors of Oreos and keep a tally on the whiteboard in the break room to see how many people actually liked them,” she said. “Most of them were okay… except for the Swedish Fish ones.”
And Dr. Andrew Hasley, one of the current postdocs, was encouraged by the supportive response he received in his first semester when he suggested integrating the universal design for learning (UDL) more into the program’s teaching practices. “I was nervous the first few times I brought it up, but everyone responded so well, which made me feel really hopeful.” The BIT Program is committed to excellence in teaching, and modifying their courses to help students learn is part of that.
Members of the BIT Program also work to improve their courses and teaching methods by gathering student data and publishing their findings in education journals. Participation in this area of research, generally referred to as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL), represents another unique departure from traditional research postdoc positions. While some BIT postdocs do publish papers in scientific journals as a result of the research they conduct in their courses and over the summer, the focus of the Program is on fostering SoTL research. Postdocs work with their mentors to conceive projects about different activities designed to improve the learning experience, such as methods to encourage participation. This encourages instructors to reflect on and improve their own teaching practices and the content of the courses they teach, and produces more skilled and thoughtful teachers. The teaching postdoc is designed not only to provide teaching experience for those who want it, but also to train instructors to think critically about their teaching methods so that they can reach their students more effectively and contribute to the larger teaching and learning community.
Even when a program is specifically targeted toward your interests and experience level, it’s hard to be fully prepared for the reality of it. “I wish I had explored more academic jobs,” said Dr. Dums. “My current position is really different from my TA experience, and in ways I didn’t expect. The picture I had in my head was very incomplete, so I wish I had done more research before diving in.” While some of the postdocs start the program with more teaching experience, like Dr. Noel, who was an adjunct professor before beginning this January, many haven’t been in an equivalent position before. “This is definitely not something that you should plan to do on the side,” said Dr. Hasley, who didn’t anticipate the amount of preparation that was needed for each class.
But even when postdocs’ teaching experiences line up with their expectations, they may still find themselves unprepared to take full advantage of everything the program offers them. “I wish I had realized how valuable the time was and taken advantage of additional opportunities,” said Dr. Carlos Goller, who is now a full-time instructor for the BIT Program. Besides the resources for training and learning that are available to postdocs, they have a cutting-edge selection of tools available for them to use in their courses and research. Dr. Sengupta, who now teaches a smaller school, found the transition a little hard to navigate, despite the fact that he anticipated the decrease in resources. “I knew that smaller schools would have fewer resources than the BIT Program, but I still wasn’t fully prepared for the experience of having to hunt down those resources,” he said. The teaching postdoctoral program at NC State is a big commitment, especially for instructors who haven’t had similar experiences before. But it’s also an environment full of other instructors who want to see you succeed and grow during your time there. It’s designed to prioritize mentorship, and it has the resources necessary to help instructors focus on their students. Check out the training program’s webpage to learn more about this opportunity if it sounds like something you’re interested in!