Teaching Postdocs to Be Professors

For 14 years, a National Institute of General Medical Services (NIGMS) initiative has worked to increase those numbers. The Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards (IRACDA) program has supported some 550 postdocs from a wide variety of backgrounds, placing most of them in tenure-track faculty jobs. The formula employed by the program’s participating consortia—partnering a research-intensive institution with one or more institutions with a large minority enrollment—combines a mentored research experience with structured training in academic career skills, especially teaching. More than two-thirds of IRACDA graduates end up in academic careers, most of them at teaching-focused and minority-serving institutions.

What the program allowed me to do was demonstrate that I could teach an established course and also design my own course and teach it effectively. And it showed that I could balance teaching and research.

Research plus pedagogy

A map that includes participating minority-serving institutions .

IRACDA postdocs also invite their students to participate in research at their host institution’s labs, including summer research programs. Professors at the partner institutions may also take part in the research program, strengthening ties between the institutions.

Meet (some of) the postdocs:

The opportunity to work at minority-serving colleges, helping train the next generation of scientists, was a major motivation for several of PENN-PORT’s former postdocs, including Michael Wheeler Lipscomb, who was recruited by PENN-PORT officials while studying at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was doing a Ph.D. in immunology. Teaching at Lincoln University afforded Lipscomb, who is now an assistant professor in the biology department at Howard University in Washington, D.C., a cultural opportunity he says he missed as an African American who went to “majority” schools most of his life. “It’s pretty important for me because I didn’t have the historically black college experience as an undergraduate or graduate … so it was a great opportunity for me to immerse myself in the culture.” Lipscomb continued his immunology research as an IRACDA postdoc, studying the interaction between dendritic cells and T cells in the lab of Janis K. Burkhardt. Now that he’s at Howard, he says, he’s been able to remain productive despite a heavy teaching load. He regularly recruits undergraduates to work in his lab and uses his research to reinforce his department’s curriculum. “There’s no doubt in my mind that I want to blend research and teaching,” he says. Despite the challenge of teaching heavy loads while continuing to conduct research, these postdocs are all grateful that they were able to find good jobs in academia. The job market for teaching-focused positions in academia is a bit better than it is for research-based positions, Paterson says, which could be encouraging some postdocs who otherwise would have pursued research-intensive careers to think about teaching. That’s what happened to Muñoz. He began his doctoral program at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, with the aim of becoming a professor at a research university, but eventually realized he didn’t like the idea of devoting his whole career to research. He pursued a PENN-PORT postdoc to make himself more competitive for faculty positions with a greater emphasis on teaching. That experience, he says, helped him land his job. “What the program allowed me to do was demonstrate that I could teach an established course and also design my own course and teach it effectively,” he says. “And it showed that I could balance teaching and research.” Varamini had a similar experience. “A lot of the schools I interviewed with expressed to me, ‘Hey, you have something that a lot of other folks don’t.’ And I think that’s what got me a few of my interviews and eventually my job.” IRACDA Director Shiva Singh, chief of the Undergraduate and Predoctoral Training Branch in NIGMS’s Division of Training, Workforce Development, and Diversity, has tracked the outcomes of the approximately 350 postdocs who have completed the IRACDA program. Of those, 69% took jobs in academia, nearly three-quarters of which were at teaching-focused colleges and minority institutions. Twenty-one percent found work at government agencies, nonprofits, or other educational organizations, and 10% took jobs in industry. Apparently, Singh says, IRACDA postdocs are finding academic jobs at a higher rate than their peers who do traditional postdocs. “Especially in the current jobs climate, I think the more tools we can give to the postdoc, the more skills we can teach them, the more likely they’re going to find a job,” he says.

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