A Different Kind of Postdoc

October 01, 2001

As a doctoral student at Duke University, Mark Healey was taught to aspire to a tenure-track position at a major research institution. But shortly after receiving his Ph.D., he was faced with an enviable dilemma.

He had an enticing tenure-track offer from a highly respectable university. But he'd also been offered a two-year postdoctoral position at a prestigious institution where he would be able to engage in interdisciplinary research and have a light teaching load that would give him time to turn his dissertation into a book. Mr. Healey chose the postdoc: "It seemed like a much better opportunity to get my wits back after finishing the dissertation, to scout out what academic life would be like, and to figure out whether this was what I wanted to do -- not to mention an incredible chance to finish my book without the stress of teaching many classes at the same time."

Many young scientists expect to start their careers in a postdoc position, but Mr. Healey is a humanist -- a Latin American history scholar, and one of the first Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellows in the Humanities.

He is now in his second postdoctoral year at New York University's International Center for Advanced Studies. He has an office at the center, subsidized university housing, and computer services. He participates in regular seminars with other scholars and teaches upper-level courses in his field. Members of his department serve as his mentors.

For 30 years academe has been struggling with the lack of career opportunities for humanities Ph.D.'s. For the past three years we at the foundation have been experimenting with one possible solution. The Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Humanities have provided the first new form of support for the academic humanities in many years.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation's small endowment could not support this program alone, so we offered universities $10,000 for every postdoctoral position created. But we required the universities to contribute their own money to ensure a salary of at least $30,000 plus benefits. We stipulated that it be "fresh" money, i.e., money that was not diverted from existing faculty openings. We also required that the postdocs receive office space and equipment, a real teaching experience, and strong help from mentors.

"We thought this was an audacious proposal," says Robert Weisbuch, president of the foundation, "and hoped for favorable responses from a handful of the 30 universities we approached. Nineteen contacted us immediately!" This fall, 30 postdoctoral fellows are working under the program at 22 institutions, with an additional 19 fellows to be chosen this academic year.

"We wanted to give exceptionally promising young scholars an enriched transition from graduate school to faculty careers," explains Mr. Weisbuch. "These postdocs are designed to enlarge the pedagogical experiences of our next generation of scholar-teachers, offer undergraduates the cutting-edge intelligence of the best young faculty, and jump-start the most promising academic careers."

To accomplish these goals, the fellows divide their time equally between teaching and scholarship. They are placed in interdisciplinary settings to counteract the narrowness of graduate training. Because they usually teach only one course a semester, the fellows are able to continue their research, prepare their dissertations for publication, design a new course or two, and begin a new research project, all of which will make them more competitive when the time comes to seek permanent employment.

Ritu Bhatt, who received her Ph.D. in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2000, is in the second year of her humanities postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley's Townsend Center for the Humanities. She spends much of her time converting her dissertation into a book, The Aesthetic in an Anti-Aesthetic Postmodern Culture. But she and other postdocs in the Wilson program also say the fellowships have given them an opportunity to experiment in the classroom. Ms. Bhatt taught a graduate seminar on debates in contemporary architectural theory and design. "Teaching a course in aesthetics at a time when its relevance has been radically questioned has been a great challenge so far," she says.

Mary Lewis, who holds a Ph.D. in modern French history from NYU, is now a humanities postdoc at Smith College. "I have always felt comfortable in the world of research," she says, "and therefore I am fortunate that this fellowship also provides formal experience in a less-well-charted territory for me: teaching. And with the luxury of time that my fellowship affords me, I am now working on developing some of the broader implications of my research. ... What great fortune to have two years, with no tenure clock ticking, to begin sorting this out."

For others, the teaching experience has reinforced their original commitment to academic life. Anne Cavender, a Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Washington, is now in the second year of her postdoc at the University of Redlands. "I've known all along that teaching was what really called me to this profession," she says, "and at Redlands the emphasis really is on teaching and on the vibrancy that scholarly research brings to it."

The practical side of the postdoc program is that it introduces young Ph.D.'s to a new institution, and in the process, expands their network of contacts in academe and exposes them to the inner workings of different academic departments. Ms. Cavender, for example, served on a search committee. She says her postdoc at Redlands has helped her understand some of the challenges facing interdisciplinary scholars. "These can be little things, such as the fact that my mail sometimes is lost in between the Asian-studies department and the English department," she says. But there are larger issues, such as "the struggle not to surrender to the gravitational force of the English department, which is huge compared to Asian studies."

Many in the program say the most surprising fact of academic life is, as one fellow put it, "the unbelievable amount of time professors spend serving on committees!"

The big question, however, is whether the postdoctoral experience will prove helpful to humanities Ph.D.'s on the job market. It's still early in the program, but several of the first round of fellows have already received job offers. The extra experience in research and teaching has helped. And they say it seemed to give them a leg up on the market to be able to note that they had been chosen after a national selection process to participate in the postdoc program.

Mr. Healey accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Mississippi but arranged for it to be deferred for a year so that he could finish his postdoc. Ms. Lewis, the Smith College postdoc, has accepted a tenure-track offer from Harvard. "I can't imagine having been in a position to compete" for the Harvard job, she says, "had I not been gaining such invaluable experience as a postdoctoral fellow."

The list of participating institutions in the program now includes Harvard, New York, Rice, Rutgers, and Yale Universities; Smith College; the Universities of California at Berkeley, Irvine, and Los Angeles; and the Universities of Colorado, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, among others. Some institutions have formed partnerships to offer postdocs. For example, the Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware, with its rich historical resources, has partnered with Rutgers University at Camden to create a postdoc that offers research experience as well as the opportunity to teach in an inner-city setting.

This year the Wilson foundation has added a new kind of postdoc to the list. Two public school districts -- in Trenton, N.J., and in South Brunswick, N.J. -- are seeking postdocs interested in educational policy making. They will work in a school and teach both schoolteachers and high-school students. They will also have access to major universities in the area, and have faculty mentors.

For more information on the Woodrow Wilson Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Humanities and electronic applications, see

Judith Pinch is vice president of the Wilson foundation, and Hadass Sheffer is director of the foundation's Humanities at Work program.