How we need to improve postdoctoral education (essay)

If higher education is underappreciated and under threat, then highest education -- postdoctoral fellowships -- may be even more so. Some observers have suggested that too many people are pursuing such advanced training without clearly related direction or the potential for job placements. But while some aspects of postdoctoral education may need adjusting, our country must appreciate the value of highest education and do more to ensure that it flourishes.

When I refer to highest education, I mean those most advanced studies in any field in higher education -- be it medieval history, international relations, heart failure cardiology, polymer nanoscience, biological anthropology, systems engineering, 19th-century French literature or ancient Taoism. This is not an elitist concept but rather a description and acknowledgment of the highest levels of training, specialization and educational attainment in any area of human endeavor. I use the term here to draw attention to an important -- and vulnerable -- element at the apex of our education system.

After obtaining highest education in various fields, people go on to faculty careers or other professions, continuing to learn and sharing the benefits of what they know and how they think. And those benefits are great, in the academy and beyond, given the experience and perspective accrued along the way. People who have obtained the highest education contribute to leadership in myriad fields and to the critical reasoning and discourse vital for a civil society.

That is not to say that advanced training is necessary for brilliant insights, breakthroughs and leadership. History is replete with individuals who have made extraordinary contributions and have great wisdom without formal education -- let alone higher education. And many people with advanced degrees have proceeded successfully without postdoctoral-level training. But postgraduate education allows for the larger-scale sharing, transfer and development of deep expertise in an academic or professional field. And in this age of interdisciplinary scholarship, deep doesn’t necessarily mean narrow -- such advanced studies may confer a broader, integrated perspective.

Most forms and levels of education rely, at their best, upon the close interaction between student and teacher. In highest education, the interaction between advanced students and highly expert faculty enhances the work of both, and through research or qualitative studies, advances human understanding. Their discoveries occur at the edge of what is known and what is unknown, and can involve specific observations and overarching or paradigm-shifting insights. Either way, areas of human endeavor move ahead, hopefully guided by ethical considerations, sometimes informing policy or creating whole new fields and industries.

Indeed, people with advanced, specialized training fill an important niche in the discovery, innovation and application of new knowledge. They also serve as stewards of acquired expertise and perspective within and across disciplines and fields. Those with postdocs in engineering can be highly sought after by Silicon Valley, Wall Street or academe. In medicine, they can lead top academic medical centers and help patients suffering with complex conditions. In the economic and social sciences, they can serve in a myriad of fields in industry, government or academe. In the arts and humanities, they can manage museums, orchestras and other nonprofit organizations. Some develop their own niches.

Not all postdocs succeed in their chosen areas, as with any area of human endeavor. That may be due to a range of issues unrelated to their training, or to work force needs and capacities that do not always match their aspirations. Thus, advanced training can be a risky investment, though if pursued for its inherent value, quite worthwhile -- and often in unanticipated ways. It can give students highly developed, transferable thinking skills that allow them to excel in a wide range of careers as well as to respond to emerging new needs for expertise -- for example, in specific sects of Islam or biomaterials science.

Today’s Challenges

Preparing people for successful trajectories at the fellowship or postdoc level presents considerable challenges, especially in a resource-constrained environment. It requires focusing explicit attention on the specific elements of education at this level.

But highest education often doesn’t get the attention and resources it requires and deserves. Because programs are usually smaller, they do not always receive dedicated budgetary support. Funding may be precarious, depending upon faculty grants, training grants or individual grants for students from the National Science Foundation and other organizations. A decrease in support from the National Institutes of Health, and the gap between tuition and rising institutional costs, puts particular pressure on fellowship programs.

Universities are increasingly aware of the need to secure sustainable sources of support, whether philanthropic or from other institutional sources, but options are limited. As a result, the right-sizing of programs is crucial. The pursuit of a fellowship because a student doesn’t know what else he or she wants to do, or because a faculty position is not available, should be discouraged. Overly prolonged or multiple fellowships are not helpful, either, unless there is continued advancement and specialized, multidisciplinary training. And while success on the job market should not be the sole criterion for academic pursuits, the overproduction of advanced trainees in a given field can be counterproductive.

Fellowships and fellows themselves face certain challenges. Salaries for advanced trainees are frequently inadequate, considering the nature of the work and the life stage of the trainees. (Families are often being started). Postdocs and fellows can be exploited by faculty members and others in their departments. They may feel pressured into doing supportive work without adequate mentorship or growth. Finally, many postdocs can be relatively isolated in laboratories or divisions of departments, without a common voice, experience or infrastructure.

New Programs

To address such challenges, many research universities are developing or enhancing programs and policies specifically aimed at the fellowship level of education. They are taking the model from that of ad-hoc apprenticeships to one of carefully considered didactic and experiential learning, optimized for this stage of educational development.

Institutions are also creating structured, social, peer-oriented activities for postdocs that such advanced students often miss. The number of trainees in any one area may be small, but the number of trainees at similar levels in related or unrelated areas is often large. Bringing people together has enormous benefits for morale, networking and transdisciplinary collaboration.

An example of such developments can be found at Dartmouth College, which offers a broad array of resources, initiatives, events and services for fellows. A new School of Graduate and Advanced Studies, with its own budget, provides an administrative home for postdocs and graduate students across departments, and integrates with Dartmouth’s graduate professional schools. Some of its many benefits include:

  • It synthesizes goals and policies across programs and disciplines and reduces administrative red tape without interfering with the core instruction and mentorship that happens within academic departments.
  • It facilitates interdisciplinary study and helps to make sure elements of the scholar’s trajectory do not fall between departmental cracks.
  • It provides workshops and instruction in relevant areas, such as ethics, writing, online courses, correspondence, grant preparation, CV preparation, and academic and nonacademic job searches. It also offers courses in interviewing, communication and teaching skills.
  • It facilitates an independent development plan based upon an individual’s interests and skills, to help define and achieve long-term career goals. Similarly, it facilitates research-performance progress reports that faculty members fill out for trainees.
  • It connects fellows with cross-cutting academic initiatives addressing pressing societal and global problems.
  • It provides a central place where postdocs in various fields can congregate.

In addition, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning prepares fellows to incorporate contemporary, experiential educational methods and provides resources to share best practices in processes such as teaching-assistant orientation. It offers individual and group consultations in instructional design, science education outreach and other areas, and it sponsors a teaching series as well as career fairs and travel grants. Other workshops address collaborative learning techniques, teaching philosophy, syllabus design, digital learning, diversity in the classroom, learning styles and academic computing.

Postdocs themselves run the Dartmouth Postdoctoral Association, which organizes and provides talks, social events, research days, career development resources, networking and job information sessions. It also addresses specific issues facing postdocs, with links to the National Postdoctoral Association, which addresses postdoc concerns on the national level. Postdocs have access to Dartmouth athletic, health and wellness programs, as well as other campus facilities and services, and are being incorporated into new housing communities.

Another recent Dartmouth initiative to enhance the interdisciplinary intellectual community is the creation of the Society of Fellows. It provides three years of support for outstanding postdocs, who come together with senior faculty fellows and visiting fellows. The rising scholars pursue their own research while serving as lecturers or teachers and mentors in the departments and programs they join. They participate in society-sponsored symposia and events and receive pedagogical training, in addition to the resources offered to all postdoctoral fellows across the various schools. Dartmouth also offers Academic Diversity Fellowships for underrepresented minority postdocs or those studying areas underrepresented in academe.

These examples from Dartmouth illustrate the trend at leading universities and provide an evolving set of mutually enhancing programmatic innovations that specifically and effectively address the needs of today’s postdoctoral fellows. They also provide explicit mechanisms for beneficial integration with graduate and undergraduate programs and students. Carefully constructed integration need not preclude a strong focus on undergraduate education as well.

Other universities should develop programs along these lines. Some additional administrative infrastructure is needed to adequately support such developments, but need not be excessive. Core faculty leadership and staff are important for oversight, coordination, facilitation and advancement of cross-departmental and cross-school initiatives. More educational research is also needed to provide evidence-based guidelines and best practices for such program development. This will help to optimize impact and to demonstrate value.

Drawing upon educational experiences as a student, trainee, faculty member and educational administrator across a number of fields and levels, I have found that it is possible to create advanced programs that are transdisciplinary yet deep, organized yet creative, and rigorous yet caring. Our students and society deserve no less. With current economic pressures and attacks on facts, evidence and expertise, it is even more imperative to do so.

Moreover, as postdoctoral highest education starts to get the attention it deserves, it doesn’t need to detract attention or resources from other types of education, which are equally important. Educational options are not mutually exclusive and can build upon and complement each other. We must aim for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, to have access to all educational offerings, based on their needs, preferences, situation and dreams. That includes K-12, special, community, vocational, liberal arts, STEM and other forms of education.

But let us not forget the value of highest education for those who seek it and for our society. Everyone benefits from the specialists it produces across all domains of human inquiry and endeavor.

David Silbersweig is chairman of the department of psychiatry and co-director of the Institute for the Neurosciences at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. He is also Stanley Cobb Professor of Psychiatry and an academic dean at Harvard Medical School.

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How to deal with parental leave and other pauses in research (essay)

Many faculty members remain uncertain about how parental leave and other gaps should be treated professionally, write Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra, who provide some advice for both job seekers and institutions.

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Students at Penn remove portrait of Shakespeare

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Students at Penn set off debate by replacing image of the Bard in English department building with a photo of Audre Lorde, the black feminist poet.

Exploring CiteScore, Elsevier's new journal impact metrics

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Elsevier explains the thought process behind CiteScore, its new journal impact metrics. Critics worry about potential conflicts of interest.

Historians Issue Statement on Civil Liberties

Hundreds of historians have issued a joint statement on the need to be vigilant about civil liberties.

"As scholars of United States history and related fields, we have experienced concern and alarm as we went from a divisive campaign season to the election of Donald Trump as our president-elect. On the eve of a new administration whose key players have traded in hateful rhetoric and emboldened the harassment of various targets, we urge Americans to be vigilant against a mass violation of civil rights and liberties that could result if such troubling developments continue unchecked," says the statement. "Looking back on World War II and the Cold War, we recognize how easily the rights of people have been suspended during times of great uncertainty. A key lesson of such ordeals has been to never again repeat these mistakes, and so we issue a call to recognize and act upon the critical links between historical knowledge, informed citizenship and the protection of civil and human rights."

The full statement may be found here.

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Professor Leaves California Due to Threats

The professor of psychology who was secretly videotaped talking about Donald Trump has left the state of California following a series of physical threats, The Orange County Register reported. Hundreds of people demonstrated at Orange Coast College for and against Olga Perez Stable Cox, the professor, this week, as her faculty union said her classes will be covered by someone else through the end of the semester. “Someone emailed her a picture of her house, with her address,” Rob Schneiderman, president of the campus's faculty union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, told the Register. Another email read, “You want communism, go to Cuba … try to bring it to America and we’ll put a [expletive] bullet in your face,” the newspaper reported.

A videotape of Cox saying in her human sexuality class after the election that Trump’s victory was an “act of terrorism” was shared on the campus’s College Republicans’ Facebook page last week and promptly went viral. Cox did not respond to a request for comment, but Schneiderman has said she was answering a question from a student. The context of Cox’s comments is not clear from the video itself. Two students in Cox’s class told the Register this week that Cox also asked students who voted for Trump to identify themselves. “She tried to get everyone who voted for Donald Trump to stand up and show the rest of the class who to watch out for and protect yourself from,” said student Tanner Webb. Schneiderman disputed the account, saying that Cox told the class some people would be happy with the election results, and asked students to stand up if they wished, after one student did so without prompting.

Shawn Steel, a Republican National Committee member from California and an attorney who is representing the Orange Coast College Republicans, has previously said he wanted Cox to apologize but now says singling out Trump supporters is grounds for possible dismissal. “That’s a deal breaker for me,” he told the Register. The college is investigating the matter.

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A scholar examines some of the ethical dilemmas of academe (essay)

If we as faculty members can’t be honest among ourselves, Steven Conn asks, will we be surprised if our professional autonomy gets taken away by administrators or boards of trustees or state legislators?

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Advice for faculty members about overcoming resistance to teaching online (essay)

As a teacher, you may prefer traditional classrooms full of residential students, but virtual education is here to stay and offers significant benefits, writes Robert Ubell.

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After the election, academics should pursue a form of radical dialogue (essay)

I am a professor of sociology who did not vote for Donald Trump, and I do not know of a single academic colleague who did. (And if they did, they are certainly not disclosing this in academic circles.)

I remember sitting with colleagues before the primaries when Trump was gaining ground. They laughed him off. They did not know anyone who would vote for him.

The pollsters got it wrong, too, and they all seemed to get it wrong in the same direction: in favor of established liberal Hillary Clinton. They are already writing about the statistical reasons this may have happened. I am going to set those aside for now to address a sociological, qualitative reason.

Sociologists have long studied the tendency of people to bond with others like them. Case in point: I love my academic colleagues because they are a lot like me. We are a group of passionate people who care deeply about the poor. And we are similar in other ways, too. We like to read dry academic articles and make arguments that contain the word “nuanced.”

And politically, many of us lean to the left (or even the far left). When I am with other sociologists, I tend to de-emphasize the things that are different about us and emphasize the things that are similar: I talk a lot about how my husband is an equal partner in care for our daughter, how I come from a biracial family and how I am raising my daughter in, as much as possible, a gender-neutral fashion.

That is starkly different from the way I was brought up.

I was literally raised on Podunk Road, where trailers and beat-up cars dotted the landscape. Our family was probably among the richest of a group of poor white people. Among those I went to school with, I am one of the only ones who attended an Ivy League school, Cornell University. I was likely let in under affirmative action because of a land grant that required the university to take in a proportion of local farm kids. I fit this description.

When I am with my colleagues, I talk less about how most of my family were church-going, card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association or how I still go to church every week.

The truth is, academics at elite institutions tend to be more liberal, less religious and more in favor of big government than the rest of the American population. Most of us would be hard-pressed to give a well-reasoned, conservative argument in response to any social issue. And more than one academic colleague has told me that if their neighbor had a Republican sign on his lawn, they probably would not make any effort to get to know the neighbor.

I join my colleagues in the fight against social inequality in all its insidious forms. But many academics like me have not spent much time trying to understand the groups of people who likely voted for Trump, nor have we spent much time trying to translate our academic work to these groups. And given the demographics of the United States, we forget that, for Trump to win, he needed to have some of the people whose interests I think his views work against actually vote for him -- including poor people, immigrants, women and Latinos.

For most academics, our candidate did not win the presidential election. We now face a crossroads. Will we lock ourselves in our ivory towers and face the outside world with cynicism? Or will we concede that our best social scientists got the prediction wrong?

Now is the time to move forward in pursuing a form of radical dialogue that we do not hear very often on university campuses. I would advocate that we move forward as leaders in listening to and learning from the entire world outside the academy. We need to live up to the best vision of the university, where everyone is welcomed to hear and be challenged by views different than their own.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Challenge yourself to find the best voice on the other side. Academics are human, and it’s tempting when dealing with controversial issues to choose an unattractive opponent. I study religion, and I have heard many debates between erudite, attractive academics and inarticulate faith leaders. We must find the most attractive, well-spoken person on the “other side.”
  • Claim the best vision of the university as a protected space for dialogue. Each month, through the Religion and Public Life Program that I direct at Rice University, I host a discussion or reception for 20 to 30 religious and civic leaders at my home. In the midst of polarized faith communities and tensions between faith and secular communities, the leaders who come say that this is one of the few places in their lives where they have the opportunity to meet with someone who is different. I have seen conservative and liberal faith leaders, people who would never meet under another circumstance, come together around common social justice issues.
  • Claim a nonutilitarian vision of the university. Universities have fallen prey to business principles. Some of this is unavoidable as funding streams narrow. In its best form this utilitarianism is born from a desire to do work that really counts. But universities can be the soul of society. Sometimes we academics -- who are busy with committee work, raising funding for projects and getting out the last possible publication for the academic audience -- forget what a privilege it is (especially for those of us who have stable academic jobs and even stable academic jobs with tenure) to work in a university context where we get paid to do work that we love.

In its worst form, the academy is often rightly criticized as being in an ivory tower with no central importance to helping solve societal problems. But in their best form, universities can provide society spaces to stop and reflect. That is why, in particular, the modern university needs the humanities. In my university classes, I learned practical skills for a job, but the best classes I took were my history and philosophy and writing classes -- those that prepared me to think, reflect and appreciate beauty.

I write this from a sabbatical in France. I grew up among the rural poor, but I do not know many of them anymore. In the next few months, I will return to America, to reality and, I hope, to trying to understand this new reality and sharing that knowledge with my colleagues, students and the rest of the world.

The election has changed me. When I return I want to be a better teacher and do a better job incorporating views and traditions different than my own in my classes. I might spend more time trying to translate my work to a broader public that can benefit from it and from whom I can learn. When colleagues say things that cut off dialogue or say that certain views are not welcome, I might feel freer to gently challenge. I might spend more time in my community translating my work, and I might take my students with me. I might try harder to bring that community to campus. In the best case, the election provides a chance for the academy to reflect on itself and achieve a new vision of service to the broader society.

Elaine Howard Ecklund is the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences at Rice University, where she directs the Religion and Public Life Program.

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Colby-Sawyer Cuts Positions, Majors

Colby-Sawyer College, a private college in New Hampshire, has announced cuts in staff positions and is also eliminating some majors. A message last week from Sue Stuebner, the president, said that seven faculty members and 11 staff members had been told that their positions were eliminated. An additional 19 faculty and staff members who are leaving will not be replaced. Stuebner said the college has been operating at a loss of $2 million the past two years, and this year's projections are for another loss, of $2.6 million. Enrollment has fallen from 1,500 four years ago to 1,100 this year, and the president's message said consultants have said the "optimal size" for the college is closer to current than past enrollment levels.

The Valley News reported that other cuts include five majors: English, philosophy, accounting, health promotion and health care management.

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