from Grad Student to Professor Brooke Hester
CAREER | FOCUS
Making the Leap
Doing a teaching stint right out of graduate
school is an often overlooked alternative to
carrying out a postdoc that can allow you to
explore new topics, interact with students and
keep your options open.
Courtesy of Brooke Hester
Where my story begins is familiar to many—in the land of “need
to find a job.” In late 2009, I was a University of Maryland Chemical Physics
graduate student working in the Optical
Tweezers Laboratory at the National
Institute of Standards and Technology
(NIST) in Gaithersburg, Md., U.S.A.
I was nearing the end of my stretch as
a Ph.D. student and wondering, what
now? Where would I go next?
Like many other Ph.D. students in
the sciences, I felt immediately pressured to search for a postdoctoral
research position. I knew my end goal
was primarily to teach but I also wanted
to do research in a university or college setting. I had heard from friends,
colleagues and professors that getting
that postdoc position immediately was
the thing to do, no questions asked,
especially if you want a tenure-track
position. I did not consider other alternatives until my Ph.D. advisor suggested
that I apply for one- to two-year university teaching positions. He knew that if
I could get a year or more of university-level teaching experience under my belt,
it may increase my chances of securing
at least a semi-permanent teaching position later on.
Exploring the options
With this mission in mind, I embarked on
the job application adventure. I checked
the job listings in the typical journals
and magazines, created a profile on every
applicable job-finding website and contacted friends and colleagues to ask about
openings. I attended many conferences
My Ph.D. advisor knew
that if I could get a year
or more of university-level teaching experience
under my belt, it may
increase my chances
of securing at least a
position later on.
and exchanged many business cards. Even
with the non-ideal economic climate, I
found an abundance of these short-term
teaching positions for which I could apply.
In the end, I submitted 10 applications
total and gambled that at least one of
those positions would work out.
In May of 2010, I was offered and
accepted a one-year teaching position at
Appalachian State University’s department of physics and astronomy. I moved
to Boone, N.C., began a new job as a visiting assistant professor in August 2010,
and, thanks to an equipment loan from
NIST as well as a large deposit of optics
equipment from the physics and astronomy department at Appstate, I was able
to start a new research lab in December
of 2010. I am now teaching full time,
carrying out research and expanding my
career horizons more than I ever could
Why teach right after
There are several viable reasons to choose
teaching as your one- to two-year job just
after you complete graduate school. For
one, it provides a nice change of pace.
By the time you graduate, you will have
likely spent countless hours in a lab. The
teaching environment is a fresh change
from that scene.
Also, if you have some unpublished
results, taking a year or two to teach
gives you some time to finish up manuscripts leftover from your Ph.D. work.
On the other hand, if all your graduate
10 | OPN Optics & Photonics News