Preparing Future Faculty prepares graduate students and postdocs for careers

2020 will be the 18th year of Preparing Future Faculty (PFF), a program that helps Iowa State graduate students and postdoctoral scholars prepare for securing and excelling in faculty positions. The application deadline for the 2020-21 academic year is March 1.

Every year, about 65-70 graduate students and postdocs enroll in PFF. In the first two semesters of the program, participants meet weekly to hear panelists, including alumni of the PFF program, speak about their experiences as professors at various universities. They also attend discussions about issues including teaching strategies, communication skills, grant writing, and practical life skills such as saving for retirement and work-life balance.

Throughout the first year, participants also work in small groups and with faculty mentors to prepare and polish job application materials, including CVs, cover letters, and teaching, research, and diversity statements. The groups are comprised of students from various disciplines, so every participant can get a wide range of perspectives on their application materials. Consultants from the Center for Communication Excellence also evaluate PFF participants’ materials to help make them even stronger.

Participants report the workload does not lengthen time to graduation. Mohamed Selim, who completed the PFF program as a Ph.D. student and stayed on campus after accepting a faculty position in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said, “The things they were asking me to do were actually helping me in preparing material for jobs. It’s not homework for the course, it’s homework for myself, and I have to do it whether I’m taking the course or not.”

After they complete the first two courses and earn a PFF Associate certificate, students and postdocs can choose to participate in PFF for an additional two semesters to earn Fellow or Scholar distinctions. During this time, they observe and evaluate each other’s teaching and complete hands-on, customizable independent studies.

“Our program tries to cover everything that we can to produce tangible results and documents, so [graduate students and postdocs] can go into their first jobs and have as much success as they can,” said Karen Bovenmyer, program coordinator for the PFF program.

In addition, PFF participants are required to pair with a mentor who is not their major professor or part of their Program of Study Committee. They meet with their mentor at least twice a month throughout the program to discuss faculty life, job application materials, and anything else they deem important to their success.

“When we have our meetings with our major professor, then we mostly talk about writing papers, research, writing grants. We don’t really talk about our professional development. But we can share that with our [PFF] mentor,” said Shawana Tabassum, a postdoctoral scholar in Electrical and Computer Engineering who began the PFF program in the summer of 2019.

During Selim’s time in the PFF program, he was paired with associate professor Hongwei Zhang. Selim recalls Zhang telling him about a mailing list for open positions specifically in their field. After he subscribed to that list, Selim was notified of an opening for an assistant professorship in his own department at Iowa State. He applied and was offered the position.

Now in his second year as a faculty member, Selim has continued to learn from Zhang and even co-taught a class with him in the spring of 2019.

“Without his help, maybe I could have [learned of the opening at Iowa State], but probably not as directly,” he said.

Selim added that because of PFF, he felt very well-prepared for his job interview.

“My interviewers knew I was taking PFF and said, ‘Maybe you know more than us about this position,’” he said. “I learned from PFF all these details [about the interviewing process], so when I was given the opportunity to ask a question, I was not asking the regular questions that people are asking just to fill the space.”

Tabassum impressed her interviewers while searching for a faculty position as well, by describing a course she had designed as part of her independent study in PFF.

“I developed a new course syllabus, new assessments, all the units of the course through this workshop,” she said. “I told them about the course and said I looked at their course list and didn’t really find this kind of course, and I would be happy to offer it in their institution.” Tabassum has since received an offer for a tenure-track position at the University of Texas.

Both Tabassum and Selim recommend that participants enroll in all four semesters of PFF to get as much as possible out of the program.

“[PFF goes] beyond just applying for the job to how you are going to be a good professor. They’re preparing you not only to get the position but also to perform as a professor,” Selim said. “They have classes on giving assessments and exams, how you will deal with students and diversity. It’s very important to take the whole series to prepare to not only start the new position but succeed in the position.”

Tabassum added that enrolling in the third and fourth courses helped her gain more valuable input from her peers.

“We discussed all of the concerns that each of us has in our own classroom and how to better deal with those situations, and I got to learn a lot from them,” she said. “This is something we might not learn in the first two semesters, so it’s delving deeper into teaching.”

The comprehensive nature of PFF has helped students decide to come to Iowa State for their graduate studies. It has also drawn the attention of other universities when they’re looking to fill faculty positions.

“Other schools have called us to say, ‘We want to hire some professors, and we looked around for schools that have professor prep programs, and yours frankly is the best, so therefore we want to mail you job openings that we have and want you to forward those openings to your students and encourage them to apply, because we want the best professors at our school,’” Bovenmyer said.

Selim and Tabassum both feel the desire to give back to the program that helped them prepare for faculty life. Selim has been a PFF panelist twice since he began his faculty position, and Tabassum hopes to help start a similar program when she begins her new faculty position.

“My mentors and the panels who came in the PFF classes to share their experience, they really inspired me to give back something,” she said. “As a faculty at my new institution, I would really like to introduce this kind of program if they don’t have one. And who knows, maybe I can even ask Karen for a collaboration. PFF is the best program I’ve encountered so far in my career.”

Re-posted from Iowa State University Graduate College website.