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USF postdoc program gives recent grads an edge

TAMPA, Fla. -- It’s still a tight job market, no more so than for humanities and social science scholars with advanced degrees.

Although there are fewer of the proverbial “Ph.D.s pumping gas” out there than during previous downturns, thanks in part to new postdoctoral programs at a growing number of U.S. colleges and universities.

Freshly minted doctoral grads, caught up in the turbulence of the overall economy as well as its particular impact on education and research as a result of declining dollars, are finding opportunities to continue with their academic pursuits and professional aspirations courtesy of campus-sponsored initiatives at institutions including the University of South Florida, University of Southern California, University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin.

So, rather than being disheartened at the cruelties of a difficult marketplace and setting their dreams aside in order to set food on the table, more recent post-docs feel encouraged about their prospects.

And, if the immediate evidence is any indicator, they should.

At USF, where Provost Ralph Wilcox was among the earliest adopters of the concept, 19 humanities and social science concentrators have joined the program since the bleakest days of the Great Recession in 2008-09 and thereby gained a chance to further burnish their résumés by expanding their research abilities and honing their teaching skills.

Already, six have advanced to assistant professorships and another three to other postdoctoral scholarships at institutions including Stanford University, the University of Georgia, Connecticut College, Mount St. Mary College, Oakland University and the Barcelona Institute of International Studies.

The balance of the cohort continues on at USF (the program typically is a two-year commitment), where each member receives a salary of $40,000 a year, insurance benefits, and funds for research travel. In return, collaborating closely with junior faculty mentors, they teach, helping to alleviate some persistent staff/schedule issues posed by USF’s sheer size and scope. As of fall 2011, the members had contributed to courses representing more than 2,300 student credit hours.

They also write, producing a combined 36 articles, books or book chapters to date. At least eight other publications and three manuscripts were pending.

“I was able to finish my book manuscript in my first year here,” says Kathryn Dolan, a postdoctoral scholar in English from Boulder Creek, Calif., via UCLA, San Jose State and the University of California, Santa Barbara. “I am also well underway on my second book-length project and have been able to get three more articles accepted at journals. This edge will help immensely in a tough job market.”

Preserving access and availability
Particular to the USF initiative -- currently counting nearly 200 applications for spots in the program -- participants are required to combine their talents in an interdisciplinary research project, as well. Last year, the cohort looked at the myriad environmental, political, social and historical ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The year’s group currently is zeroed-in on the 2012 elections and what it sees as the government’s “crisis of policy” about the country’s energy needs.

“In our view, and in these times especially, efforts like the Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholars Initiative in the Humanities and Social Sciences are absolutely vital to preserving both access and availability within the academy,” said Karen Liller, dean of the Graduate School and associate vice president for research and innovation, who developed the program and continues to guide its fortunes. “Access, in terms of scholars looking to move up into permanent faculty positions, and availability, in terms of colleges and universities needing to find qualified candidates to fill positions.

“We may have encountered a slow patch,” Liller adds, referring to nagging high unemployment nationally. “But, that shouldn’t interrupt the preparation pipeline for these incredibly bright and talented scholars, who, as we’ve seen, only need this kind of bridge to find success.”

There still is long-term demand for college classroom and laboratory talent, she observes.

Indeed, in 2004, the last time the National Study of Postsecondary Faculty was completed by the U.S. Department of Education, the average age for full-time, tenured faculty members was 54 (a decade earlier it was 51), leading the American Association of Colleges and Universities to predict in the "Graying of the Professoriate” that as the faculty “bulge” of the 1960s nears traditional retirement age, there is likely to be “high faculty turnover in the next decade.”

Freeing the ‘Literary Barbarians’
Calling from the commuter train en route to his new position as an assistant professor of English at small but highly regarded Connecticut College, Jeff Strabone was quick to credit his experience in USF’s post-doc program with giving him the necessary career lift onto the tenure track.

“It was the first occasion in my academic career when I felt totally free to innovate and create a course that I wanted to teach,” Strabone said. Although USF’s program requires post-docs to teach some assigned courses, it also provides them opportunities to devise new ones of their own. In Strabone’s case, it was Literary Barbarians: Revising the Nation in Eighteenth-Century Britain, a class that covered a wide range of genres -- poetry, novels, ballads, travelogues, lectures on rhetoric, periodical essays -- in an examination of the role that literature played in questions of Britishness after England and Scotland formed the United Kingdom in 1707.

The outing was so successful, Strabone now has introduced a similar course on campus in New London.

“The other thing [the initiative] did,” said the Dartmouth and New York University product, “was enable me, along with one of my fellow scholars, to organize an interdisciplinary conference (the university’s 21st DeBartolo Conference on 18th and 19th Century Studies in April 2010) that brought scholars from across the U.S. and Canada to Tampa. And in the humanities post-doc world, that kind of opportunity is a real credential booster.”

The Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholars Initiative in Humanities and Social Sciences supports up to 10 new postdoctoral scholars per year in these areas. It is coordinated through the Graduate School’s Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, the mission of which is to serve as an administrative and academic center of excellence for postdoctoral scholars across the multi-campus USF system. The office strives to foster a robust postdoctoral community, providing opportunities to enhance the postdoctoral experience and future success of its constituents, while also serving as a dedicated resource for postdoctoral scholars, faculty and administrators.


Filed under:Arts and Sciences English    
Author: Kevin Burke