practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

The following was originally posted on the Junior Prof’s website.

As a graduate student, I wasn’t initially sure that a postdoc would be the right decision for me.  I had entered my program 10 years after completing my undergraduate degree and was pursuing a second career, moving from evaluation research to academia.  It seemed more appropriate to dive right into the road to tenure at my age given that the Assistant Professors in my department were younger than I was. When I told my mentor this, she nipped that thought in the bud with something to the effect of “why wouldn’t you take time off the clock to push forward your research?”  (For the record, she was right.) So during my year on the job market, I applied to 12 postdocs and got lucky enough to land one, a diversity postdoc at New York University, along with a tenure-track position. I negotiated a delayed start with my job (yes, this is possible) and in August of 2018, I filed my dissertation at UC Berkeley, moved my family across the country, and started as a postdoctoral fellow for the year.  But what I experienced as a postdoc was not at all like my past as a grad student nor my future as an Assistant Professor. Being a postdoc was isolating, as the position itself is liminal by definition. As I describe below, it took effort on my part to feel a sense of integration and belonging.  

Stepping foot on campus on my first day as a postdoc, I was excited about the opportunity to spend time on my research, develop a new syllabus, and connect with a new department and new people.  But I quickly realized that it was going to be challenging to find a space for myself in my new and very temporary department. Postdocs are the people who are at a university the least amount of time.  Undergraduates spend 4-5 years on campus, MA students 2-3 years, PhD candidates 5-10 years, and faculty and staff anywhere from 2-3 years to a lifetime.  I was there for a year, which is barely enough time to learn the names of the faculty members in the department let alone to establish relationships and make connections for the future.  This was especially the case because of the selection process for my postdoc program, which happens outside of the academic departments in which the postdocs are housed. I applied with a mentor in the department who committed to supporting me during my time there, but the department hadn’t selected me for the position, which meant that only the department chair and my mentor knew that I was coming prior to my arrival.  This was in sharp contrast to admissions to grad school where a group of faculty members decided to offer me a spot and court me through my decision. It was also distinct from the hiring process for my tenure-track position where the department faculty decided I should be on the short list and knew that I had accepted the invitation to interview, been offered a position, and accepted said position. In fact, I got emails from practically every faculty member in the department both when I got an offer and when I accepted the position.  

Because of this difference, I felt isolated and unseen in my first month on my postdoc.  I was the only postdoc in the department, so there was no departmental orientation. The other postdocs in my program were scattered throughout the university and I saw them roughly every 4-6 weeks.  Since some of them were teaching in their first semester and many were located in offices 15-20 minutes away from mine, they weren’t easy to connect with for community building. Within the department, my office was back among the graduate students where faculty rarely visit.  

It became clear that I needed to do something when a graduate student in an office near me looked up from getting his coffee to ask me what I was doing in the department since he had seen me often enough to know I wasn’t just passing through for an appointment.  Not only did I feel alone despite the faculty, graduate students, and staff just around the corner, but those same faculty, graduate students, and staff either didn’t know that I was there or didn’t know what I was doing there.  

So I figured out a course of action.  As an introvert, I knew I wasn’t going to walk around knocking on doors to introduce myself, so I asked others to lay the groundwork.  I asked my mentor if the department could distribute an announcement that I was there for the year. She immediately sent an email to her colleagues and the graduate students, which led to a few folks knocking on my door to introduce themselves and some more stopping in the hallway and kitchen to welcome me to the department.  I also asked my mentor and the department chair if I could attend a faculty meeting for the purpose of introducing myself, which was granted.  

Finally, I realized that part of my feeling of isolation was because of my level of involvement during grad school.  I was an organizer for a graduate student group, a participant in a workshop and three writing groups, and an attendee at talks across campus.  I had community on several levels through these activities in addition to the friendships I had developed over the course of six years of graduate school.  Just being visible wasn’t quite enough. I decided that a writing group would give me a sense of belonging in the department as an intellectual home, so I reached out to a few graduate students I knew were doing research in one of my areas, urban sociology, and invited them to join me.  While the department didn’t have a culture of writing groups, they were open to it so we met every 2-3 weeks to discuss a draft paper, proposal, or fellowship application and provide feedback. The space gave me a chance to connect with the graduate students while learning about interesting research happening in the department.  Engaging with this group really gave me a sense of connection with the broader department that I had been lacking. This paired with teaching an undergraduate course in the spring gave me a sense of purpose beyond advancing my own research and a sense of belonging in the space outside my office door.

Even though the faculty and students in my current department all knew I was coming, these same strategies will be helpful in my transition to a tenure-track position this year.  Asking other faculty for introductions, providing graduate students with an opportunity to connect, and making myself accessible to undergraduates through my teaching and office hours will all help me establish roots and a sense of belonging in my new home department.  As someone who pursued a career in academia because, beyond loving research, I have a passion for teaching, mentoring, and role modeling, feeling like I have an intellectual home is an important part to feeling integrated. Establishing connections with faculty and graduate students plays a central role in that.  So, you might even find my door open to encourage the faculty, staff, and students passing by to stop and say hello.  

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