Providing opportunities for the next generation of PUI faculty

Are you a graduate student considering a career at a primarily undergraduate institution? Are you a PUI faculty member with an interest in mentoring future faculty? In this post, Dr. Carolyn Anderson shares a clever strategy to build-in NSF funding for a visiting graduate student researcher over a 10-week summer.


As a graduate student in a high-power synthetic organic chemistry research group, the avenues to a job in either academics or industry seemed fairly clear. Get a post-doc (or not!) and then get a job. It really wasn’t that complicated. And yet, as I learned more and began to see myself focusing on an academic career at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), everything seemed to get more muddled. How I would obtain such a position? What type of experiences I would need to do so? Would a standard research based post-doc prepare me well for such a pursuit or might there be other options? My graduate advisor wisely pointed me towards the, now defunct, Dreyfus Foundation Teaching Post-Doctoral Fellowship program as a solution to my quandary, and after a bit of finagling, I found myself as a teaching post-doc at Pomona College. That opportunity provided me with the opportunity to not only make all of the rookie teaching mistakes before I started my tenure clock, but it also allowed me to be emerged in a productive and established undergraduate research laboratory. While the first was useful, the second enabled my independent career to take off, almost before it had started!

My graduate advisor wisely pointed me towards the, now defunct, Dreyfus Foundation Teaching Post-Doctoral Fellowship program …That opportunity provided me with the opportunity to not only make all of the rookie teaching mistakes before I started my tenure clock, but it also allowed me to be emerged in a productive and established undergraduate research laboratory.

Dr. Carolyn Anderson

With such a great training opportunity available, everyone who wants to go on to a PUI career must have access to this type of productive teaching post-doctoral opportunity, right? While that would make sense, the Dreyfus Foundation program ended with my 2003 cohort and no foundation has stepped in to fill this gap. Individual faculty members, most often at elite liberal arts colleges (e.g. Pomona College, Smith College), have managed to negotiate for teaching post-doctoral positions that offer similar types of benefits, but across this board, the opportunities for recently minted PhDs to gain this type of first-hand knowledge, particularly within the undergraduate research environment, are extremely limited.

2019 Anderson Research Group

So, what is a well-meaning faculty member like myself supposed to do? I clearly recognized the advantages that this type of training provided me, and I wanted to share it with others. First, I attempted to build funding for a teaching post-doc into my NSF grant applications. This should work, right? The post-doc could gain the important teaching experience, while helping to move my proposed research agenda forward, and I would gain additional time to work on research as well. I figured that this would be a slam dunk – win-win for everyone. Despite being well-reviewed (twice!) and my grants being funded (twice!), the requested budget was always reduced by the amount equal to funding my post-doc. Conversations with NSF program officers revealed that they just did not believe that I could get such a post-doc a job after they had finished their time in my group, despite the fact that I was evidence to the contrary.

With NSF funded teaching post-docs off the table, I started to think about what the most valuable aspect of my post-doctoral experience had been. Yes, it was great to teach and develop materials for the courses that I was most likely to teach once I was an assistant professor somewhere, but with the proliferation of “Preparing Future Faculty” courses and workshops, and the willingness of many research institutions to allow PUI minded graduate students to teach independently, this seemed less critical to my success. Rather, it was my immersion in an entirely undergraduate research environment that had made the biggest difference.

Why might that be? Perhaps a story is illustrative here. On my first day as a post-doc at Pomona, I was eager to get back into the lab after a bit of a hiatus. My mentor’s group was large, boasting 10 undergraduates. It was midsummer when I started, so they were already well established and working fairly independently. Having set up a reaction early in the day, I moved to work it up and isolate the material during the afternoon. At 4:50pm, I put my nearly complete reaction on the rotovap to remove the solvent and retired to my office (I had my own office!) to check my email. When I left the lab, it was still bustling with all ten students scurrying around and seemingly fully involved in their efforts. However, when I wandered back in at 5:05pm, I was shocked to find the lab empty. Not a single student was still present; just my sad little flask, spinning on the rotovap. In that moment, I knew that working in this type of environment was going to take some getting used to, and figuring out how to be successful with novice students working limited research hours was going to require an adjustment of my expectations.

If future PUI faculty benefit most from working in an undergraduate research environment, then why not invite senior graduate students to join the lab for the summer, when we are at our busiest?

Dr. Carolyn Anderson

It was out of this recognition that the NSF-funded visiting graduate student program (VGSP) was born. If future PUI faculty benefit most from working in an undergraduate research environment, then why not invite senior graduate students to join the lab for the summer, when we are at our busiest? Perhaps it isn’t a full post-doc, but if funding could be acquired to pay for their salary and housing, wouldn’t many research advisors be thrilled to have their soon-to-be graduates gain this important experience that they themselves cannot provide?

And so, in my most recent NSF grant application, rather than asking for the funds for a teaching post-doc, I requested monies to support a senior graduate student’s salary and housing expenses for each of the three years of the grant, and this time, the grant funded at full budget. Gone were the concerns about being able to get these students a job. The VGSP preserved many of the advantages of a teaching post-doc, while minimizing the risk to both NSF, the visiting graduate student scholar, and myself. It really was a win-win!

So how does it work? Applicants apply in the fall and are selected by early January, which provides them with enough time to make the necessary arrangements with their graduate institution. They then relocate and join my group for our 10-week summer research stint, serving as both senior researchers as well as junior mentors to the group. I meet with these scholars regularly for discussions about what life at a PUI is really like and strategies for getting a PUI job and doing it well once they do. After they leave, then they have me as a reference, mentor, and support for both the job search and beyond.

And it works! The program is now in its third year. Last year, after hearing about my program, a colleague at another local PUI requested funding for a similar program in his NSF grant, and now we do a joint call for applications. Having two visiting graduate student scholars in close geographic vicinity allows us to amplify the value of the program further, as these students can interact not only with each other, but also with both of us, providing additional sources of guidance and mentorship.

I meet with these scholars regularly for discussions about what life at a PUI is really like and strategies for getting a PUI job and doing it well once they do. After they leave, then they have me as a reference, mentor, and support for both the job search and beyond.

Dr. Carolyn Anderson

Further, the students have excelled after leaving the program. My first scholar completed her degree at UC-Davis and proceeded to obtain one of the few prestigious teaching post-docs at Smith College, where she is thriving. Last year’s scholar, is in the process of completing her degree but has already secured multiple offers for tenure-track faculty positions to start in the fall of 2020! She attributes her viability for these positions, without having first done a post-doc, to her time in my group and the experience that she gained through this program.

Despite these successes, the VGSP isn’t perfect. It doesn’t currently provide this opportunity to everyone who could benefit from it nor is every graduate advisor willing to let their students take 10-weeks away from their graduate work to participate. But it does begin to address a very real gap in graduate training, and it is potentially scalable. Could you be a part of it? Absolutely! The more productive undergraduate research groups acquire funding for this type of program, the more we can band together and build a network of VGSPs around the country to provide this important training opportunity to young scholars, which also serves to enhance the experience of our undergraduate research teams and might even provide us with a bit more breathing room during those busy summer months. I hope that you will consider joining us in this venture.


Dr. Carolyn Anderson is a Professor of Chemistry at Calvin University Grand Rapids, MI. Anderson’s research efforts involve developing facile methods for the synthesis and application of N-alkyl pyridones, and projects with undergraduates include: optimization of new organic and organometallic reactions, evaluation of reaction scope, and mechanistic studies.

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