My title is, admittedly, intentionally flippant, seeking to grab your attention in this clickbait age. Yet beneath its flippancy is a serious claim: that teaching postdocs can be a high-impact way to address and enhance the job prospects of new humanities Ph.D.s in an increasingly dire academic job market. Such, at any rate, has been our experience in the writing and communication program at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where the Marion Brittain Teaching Postdoctoral Fellowship has provided scores of early-career scholars wide-ranging opportunities to develop as instructors and researchers and to gain experience in multiple areas allied to their professional interests.
Recently, the program has been shockingly successful. In the past year, for example, 18 of our postdocs have secured faculty jobs. The teaching postdoc, I want to argue here, should be seen as an invaluable means by which humanities Ph.D.s can be mentored and supported as they seek to shape their professional futures during that uncertain limbo between the degree defense and landing a continuing position.
To ground an argument about the potential vitality of the postdoc for humanities Ph.D.s, however, one must first establish the nature of a postdoc. According to the National Postdoctoral Association, a postdoctoral scholar is “an individual who has received doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored and advanced training to enhance their professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.”
To be a true postdoctoral experience, then, the program must include systemic professional development aimed at expanding the postdocs’ career possibilities and professional skills. Given that new humanities Ph.D.s often need precisely such development experiences, postdoctoral opportunities offer a rich path for professionalization.
Most immediately, the teaching postdoc can create space for experiences that simply do not fit into 21st-century graduate education. With each passing year and the further tightening of the academic job market, it seems as if Ph.D. candidates must continually prove they know more, know it more deeply than ever before and have contributed more to the scholarship of their field than ever before. This race toward specialization leaves them scant time for broader reflection, for learning about the written genres of the job market or for discerning professional opportunities beyond the tenure track.
A well-designed postdoctoral program, however, provides resources for postdocs to consider what options might give them the deepest professional satisfaction as well as time to develop their job market skills accordingly. For example, our fellowship includes both required postdoctoral seminars and optional workshops and lectures that support teaching, academic and nonacademic writing, and job searches both in and beyond academe. The postdocs themselves, having cleared the bar of the Ph.D., can now attend more deeply to such initiatives and the opportunity provided to consider how they will use their newly minted credentials in the world.
Teaching postdocs can also “even the mentoring playing field.” Not all Ph.D. advisers have the time, training, resources or, frankly, disposition to mentor new Ph.D.s in the current job market. After all, their qualifications for their roles and success in them are primarily based upon their expertise in the field of study.
In my own prior position as a faculty member in a doctoral English program, for example, I regularly directed candidates in my field. That work was both satisfying and challenging, as it required me to deepen my own understanding in my advisees’ areas of study. I learned much, for example, about rhetorical theory in the medieval and early modern periods, undergraduate reading strategies in the digital age, and the strategies of eloquence seen on the stage in the 18th and 19th centuries. While I was, of course, committed to my students’ professional success, read their job materials closely and thought carefully about the recommendation letters in which I represented their work, I spent the majority of my time with them developing the scholarly expertise necessary for their projects and supporting their initiation into the rites and passages of the academy.
Now, by contrast, as a faculty member leading a program staffed with postdoctoral fellows, I can focus on amassing the skills and knowledge that supports the postdocs’ growth. The time I dedicate to my postdocs is not spent expanding my knowledge in their areas of scholarly inquiry, developing their specialized scholarly knowledge or reading their dissertations. Rather, it focuses on developing programs and resources to support their professionalization broadly, creating a network beyond my immediate field and enhancing my understanding of the career possibilities they might wish to pursue. Directing a postdoc program, then, creates the necessary time and space for faculty leaders to engage expansively and intentionally with the issues and possibilities new humanities Ph.D.s have before them.
Helping Scholars Find Their Futures
Beyond resources and mentoring attention, however, the change in location that comes with moving from one’s grad school department to a postdoc program can itself foster innovation and development. When a postdoc enters a new program, adapts to a challenging curriculum that develops their instructional skill set and works with a new student demographic, it adds depth to their CV and opens new avenues for career exploration.
In the case of my own program, for instance, postdocs gain experience with a highly qualified STEM-heavy undergraduate population, enhance their multimodal teaching ability and do so within the contexts of a highly competitive institution and a dynamically evolving city. Indeed, we regularly caution our new postdocs to plan carefully so that they can make optimal use of all that the university and the city afford. Not surprisingly, we’ve also seen postdocs leverage their skills not only to secure academic positions but also to carve out careers in the local tech industry, nonprofit management and college and private sector administration.
To be sure, postdoc programs are not a silver bullet to all the problems that beset the academic labor market. For one thing, the kind of program I describe is highly context dependent— a very specific set of resources and institutional commitments must be in place to make it possible.
For another, once you move beyond the National Postdoctoral Association’s broad definition, there is little uniformity when it comes to postdocs: positions designated as such vary wildly in their terms of employment, compensation and the amount and quality of professional support they offer. As with the graduate programs that they are completing, a prospective postdoc would be well advised to research carefully whether the position they are considering is a true postdoc experience and not simply a thinly disguised temporary instructor position.
And, finally, it has to be acknowledged that even the best postdoc programs are part of what has become one more stage in the academic credentials arms race—adding a further layer of hurdles to jump in a profession with already far too many requirements for success.
In sum, then, postdoctoral teaching positions are not going to fix the entire academic labor market, and certainly not all teaching postdocs are created equal. At their best, however, such programs provide structures of professionalized support and development and afford new Ph.D.s the time and resources to plan the next stage of their careers. For institutions that can commit to supporting the humanities in this way, they can be a valuable and worthwhile strategy in which to invest. And, to return to the title of this essay, teaching postdocs alone may not save the humanities, but they can help individual scholars find their own futures and so improve our fields one postdoc at a time.