Transitioning From a Postdoc to a Tenure-Track Position

Stephen J. Aguilar shares what he's learned.

May 29, 2018
 
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I am a first-generation Mexican-American scholar, and while I am not the first person in my family to attend college, I am the first to earn a four-year degree, a master’s and a Ph.D. In addition, I am also the first postdoc from my program at the University of Southern California to transition to a tenure-track faculty position.

This fall, I will be an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Stories like mine often foreground grittiness and/or persistence as characteristics necessary for success. While it is true that my larger story is filled with examples of overcoming structural barriers, I am ultimately uninterested in framing my story as a hero narrative.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that hero narratives in academe, especially when they are about people of color, are dangerous because they encourage searching for flawless beings rather than searching for great scholars who are imperfect -- just like everyone else. They can also discourage reflecting on why being a “model” or “exceptional” minority is a requirement to begin with.

Now that I have told you what I won’t be doing, it seems prudent to mention my goals. In a series of monthly pieces for Inside Higher Ed, I will focus on how I navigate the tenure process from start to finish. I hope to share lessons learned from my perspective in hopes that other people can learn from it. While each topic will be different, I will ground them all on my belief that success in higher education is not only predicated on one’s work but also on how the scholarly community receives that work. Understood in that way, success in the academy can be reframed as enacting a semipublic persona successfully -- one that is positioned to be relevant within and beyond one’s discipline -- while still being an authentic representation of who one wants to be.

I often liken this process to playing a game of chess. In chess, the positions of the pieces matter more than the pieces themselves. At the start of the game, a player’s most powerful piece, the queen, is isolated and relatively useless. It isn’t until the weakest pieces, the pawns, move that the board opens up. Yet, even then, the pieces must work in concert and be well positioned in order to win the game. Along the way, some pieces are sacrificed for the benefit of the player’s advancement.

Similarly, the purpose of my essays will be to share insights about positioning oneself to be successful -- to communicate my understanding of the academic chessboard.

To start, I will share what I have learned during my transition from being a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty member. While any such advice is necessarily coupled with a person’s particular experience, I hope my perspective will nonetheless be helpful to other postdocs who are about to begin their appointments, or who are in the middle of them or close to finishing them.

What does it mean to transition from being a postdoc to holding a tenure-track faculty position? Ideally, it is the culmination of thoughtful planning. You can’t just enter into a tenure-track position after being a postdoc by chance. As a postdoc, you must attend to many context-specific variables if you are to avoid being simply seen as an advanced graduate student instead of the independent scholar you aim to be.

Before Starting Your Postdoc

Postdocs typically know where they are headed months ahead of time. This gives an incoming postdoc valuable lead time to research the position, the new institution and the people who will make up their new academic community. If you are about to begin a postdoc, then the following questions should guide the research you do before you arrive.

How are you funded? There are many types of postdocs, and it is important to know what kind you have. The most common postdocs are supported by grants. Being a grant-funded postdoc means you will work for the principal investigator on the project. Thus, the goals of the project -- and by extension the goals of the PI -- generally come first. Depending on the project’s maturity, such postdocs might allow you to develop more publications and help you build relationships across the university.

On the other end of the spectrum are postdocs that are funded by the university or through external fellowships. These are often coveted positions because they are generally not tied to a particular project or principal investigator. Instead, such postdocs can offer you the freedom and flexibility (and sometimes the budget) to develop your own line of research from the start. The downside, however, is that they may not provide formal mechanisms for you to become a member of a broader research community. Having freedom may also feel daunting because you will be forced to develop your work independently as soon you begin, with limited supervision.

In both of the above cases, you should work to fend off feelings of being an impostor, which can persist beyond graduate school. Have faith in your training and in the distinct qualities and perspectives you have. (Read the previous sentence a few more times until it sinks in.)

Who is your faculty mentor? Often, postdocs are assigned a faculty mentor. Note that mentors should not be confused with advisers; the former guide your work and serve as sounding boards with the expectation that you are a (junior) peer, while the latter generally focus on teaching you how do to the work to begin with. Think of it as the difference between riding a bike with someone who knows the trail you are on well (the mentor) versus learning to ride a bike with someone who has attached training wheels on your bike first (the adviser).

You should have at least one mentor but not feel limited to only one. Do research beforehand and identify faculty members whom you can learn from. Perhaps you know someone who is a successful grant writer. Talking to that person might help you identify parts of their process that work for you. Perhaps another faculty member runs a very productive lab. Talking to them might give you an idea of what efficient procedures look like. No matter whom you identify before you arrive, do so with the goal of learning from them and potentially finding a nexus between your work and theirs.

What are your goals? Postdocs have a limited amount of time to do the work necessary to be viable on the market. Before you start, know what your goals are and where you have shortcomings. Be honest with yourself, and don’t let those shortcomings define who you are as a scholar. Instead, use any identified gaps to guide how you will proceed. (Perhaps you need more publications or a record of writing grants, for example.) Don’t ignore gaps, because they do not go away unless you make an effort to fill them.

Once those gaps have been identified, plan backward to make sure that you have lined up opportunities and resources to fill them. If you lack publications, establish protected time to write. If grants are important, plan to write a few during your postdoc to get a feel for the process -- or better yet, win one!

During Your Postdoc Experience

Once you have settled in, it’s time to begin doing the work necessary to make yourself viable on the market.

I plan to write another article on undoing the stigma associated with networking and how networking is simply a different word for building relationships that can be rewarding and productive. For now, suffice to say that you need to build relationships. Schedule coffees and other meetings with faculty members in your department or school. Those meetings will contribute to your professional development and also help you get a feel for what your community sees as important.

Meeting with faculty members is important because the outcomes of such meetings can yield new collaborative projects that also signal your ability to work independently. Trust in your ability to start collaborative projects from scratch by getting to know other faculty and postdocs around you. As an assistant professor you will be expected to do this work, so you might as well get the practice during your postdoc years.

If you are on a grant-funded postdoc, you might become so absorbed with project-related tasks that you neglect developing your own research agenda. Avoid this if at all possible, because the ultimate goal of every postdoc should be to develop a track record of independent research. That might simply mean taking the lead on a part of the project no one else has the time for or interest in.

Regardless of how you are funded, take initiative by starting new projects, attend faculty meetings if you can and find grants to lead. (Note that you may not be able to serve as the formal PI, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take an active role in initiating and shaping a grant.)

Finally, determine if there is a viable pathway forward at your current university. It is rare to transition from a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty position at the same institution -- unless, of course, your postdoc is designed to do it. If you identify an opportunity to stay, know what the metrics are and whom to inform when you’ve succeeded in meeting them. Also make it known that you would like to stay, but avoid doing so in a way presumes you “should” stay. Even if there is no formal pathway, you should still demonstrate that your work has value, is innovative and is (probably) fundable.

At the end of your postdoc, it is unlikely that a position will be created just for you, but the time you have taken to build relationships and projects will pay off in the long run. Remember, academe is a relatively small sector, so developing a good reputation can pay dividends well after you’ve completed your postdoc.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is a provost postdoctoral scholar at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California and this fall will transition to a tenure-track assistant professor appointment, where he will lead the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab (LAPeL). You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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