New Program Prepares Graduate Students for Careers in Academia
By Robin Herron
Students working on a PhD are often so focused on their research that the next step—preparing to enter the academic job market—doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. Some departments at Mason have their own program to address the need, but until last fall there was no university-wide program.
“Our doctoral programs do excellent jobs of training students on research, but then there’s an unequal focus on exposing students to development of their teaching skills and preparation for careers in academia,” says Michelle Marks, vice provost for academic affairs.
She and Kim Eby, associate provost for faculty development and director of the Center for Teaching and Faculty Excellence (CTFE), designed the course PROV 701 Preparing for Careers in the Academy as the first in a series of programs for graduate student professional development. Offered for the first time in the 2011-12 academic year, the class was targeted to students in the final year of their programs and offered at no cost by the Office of the Provost to 17 students selected competitively.
Building the Job Portfolio
Josh Eyler, associate director of the center, conducted the two-semester program. In the fall, the group met for two hours every other week. The class read What the Best College Teachers Do and talked about good teaching practices, as well as “the nitty-gritty of the academic job market,” says Eyler. Each student worked on drafts of a curriculum vitae (CV), which is the academic version of a resume; a sample teaching philosophy; a course syllabus; and a research statement. The class then discussed the materials as a group. At the end of the semester, each student compiled their revised drafts into a sample job portfolio, which Eyler reviewed.
In the spring, the program was even more individually focused, with Eyler having mentoring sessions with each participant and observing the classes of those who were teaching. There was also an online discussion community.
“The feedback on the breadth of the program was that students really liked a place where they could come together and talk about teaching and learning in ways that they hadn’t thought about before,” says Eyler.
One of the best aspects of the program turned out to be the variety of disciplines the students brought to the program: nearly every school and college in the university was represented.
“The interdisciplinary nature of the participants really opened up the conversation and led to new ways of thinking about teaching and academic work,” says Eyler. “It allowed you to break out of the bubble of your discipline and see how other people do it.”
He adds, “I always think that those kinds of conversations lead to the best new ideas about teaching and learning.”
Taking the Mystery Out of University Teaching
Mason PhD information technology candidate Rosana Stoica, a program participant, found the multidisciplinary perspectives as one of the greatest benefits to her. She says she also profited from the discussions of the academic job market as she considers pursuing a tenure-track position.
“The academic culture is very different than the corporate and government engagements,” says Stoica, who has worked in both arenas and has taught part-time at several universities. “It was also enlightening learning about the distinctive academic tracks [research or teaching focus], as well as the unique academic hiring cycles and requirements,” she says.
A measure of the program’s success is that all three of the program participants who were “job-market ready” landed their first-choice positions. One of them is Brittany Hott, a PhD candidate in education who successfully defended her dissertation in June. This fall she joins Texas A&M University-Commerce, where she’ll teach research methods courses as a tenure-track assistant professor of special education.
Hott, who has taught at Mason while completing her degree, taught an online course for Texas A&M this summer. She says she used concepts and reflected upon conversations from PROV 701 weekly. “One of the best takeaways from the course is that syllabus and course content must not only meet the class objectives but also the students’ needs,” she says.
As a result, Hott says she found herself adding content mid-course when her students seemed confused about a particular concept—something she wouldn’t have considered doing before.
Other participants valued the class interaction. “[The program] was one of the best things that happened over the entire course of my nursing PhD program at George Mason,” says Kim Cox, who currently works as a clinical nurse specialist at the National Institutes of Health. “The seminar took some of the mystery out of teaching at the university level. It also made me alert to the sobering politics of higher education and how valuable a community of supportive like-minded colleagues is.”
The program will be repeated this academic year with minor modifications based on class feedback.
“It is incredibly exciting to have had such a positive response to the initial seminar,” Eby says. “Josh’s leadership and investment in the program were critical to its success, and the center looks forward to offering additional professional development opportunities for graduate students.”
This article originally appeared on the university’s News site.