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Postdoc Proper Doc?

Actually, my headline is a little cynical, even for me, but I couldn’t resist the play on words. Phil Hanlon’s first big initiative, which he announced in his Inauguration/Convocation speech, is the Dartmouth Society of Fellows: he has opened the College’s gates to “dozens” of postdocs — newly minted Ph.D.’s who want to work with senior professors — to study/research/teach at the College.

Give Phil applause for political subtlety. While his announcement generated good press, anyone who was listening had heard about this initiative a while ago. For example, he spoke about it when he addressed the Dartmouth Club of the Upper Valley on August 9, saying that newly graduated Ph.D.’s bring “energy” to a school and to its faculty. A good consensus builder does not spring surprises on an institution. Look to Phil to telegraph future ideas in this manner, so that he can judge the Dartmouth community’s reaction to a proposal in advance of committing himself.

Postodoc Association logo.jpgThe College has long brought in postdocs — so often that the group has its own organization: the Dartmouth College Postdoc Association. And while it seems that postdocs’ design sense leaves something to be desired, these scholars can add a great deal to the College, as long as they are chosen with an eye to teaching ability as well as scholarship. Look at the Dickey postdocs who were announced on August 23: six scholars (three men, three women, to a man seemingly very smart), all specializing in international security and foreign policy:

Postdocs Comp.jpg

Here are the 2012 Dickey postdocs. Many of them already have teaching positions lined up at other schools following their time in Hanover.

These folks are not grad students, but neither are they tenure track faculty nor adjuncts. Especially in the sciences, post-doctoral work for young scholars is a way to deepen their research efforts, and their presence in Hanover gives our faculty the opportunity to work with people from the best graduate programs. In addition, academic departments get to conduct what amounts to extended interviews with people whom we might want to hire in a year or two. Watch if we don’t keep the best among them.

The idea of bringing more postdocs to the College has been proposed in the past, to deaf ears in stuck-in-the-mud Parkhurst. In contrast, Phil seems open to ideas from below. Good for him. His new program is similar to Harvard’s longstanding Society of Fellows, who number approximately 30 at any given time. However Harvard’s postdocs do not teach; Phil made clear at Convocation that ours will.

In addition, young scholars such as these fit into Dartmouth’s tradition of growing our own faculty, i.e. we hire young professors who believe in the College’s focus on undergraduate teaching and who see it in action early in their careers, rather than bringing in established research stars who view students as a nuisance rather than an important object for their best professional attention.

Finally, lo and behold, the price is right for these ambitious scholars: if the salaries paid to the Math Department’s John Wesley Young postdocs are a fair indication, they make little more than half the salary of newly hired junior faculty; in fact, they are paid only about 50% more than Dartmouth’s lowest-paid dining hall workers, many of whom haven’t completed high school. But that’s a story for another day.

All in all, how nice to see an idea that could lead to improved teaching and additional intellectual horsepower at the College. It’s been a long time since we have been able to talk about such things.

Addendum: I would be remiss not to note Phil’s undoubted ulterior motive in bringing dynamic young scholars to Hanover. The College has too many departments filled with long-term associate professors — people who have never finished that second book nor work at a high enough level to rise to full professorship. A crop of lively postdocs could give them and the intellectual life of their departments a little goose.

Addendum: The Neukom Fellows program brings three postdocs to Hanover each year to do interesting research and teach a course.


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