PFF Fellows Series: Samantha Deffler

 April 28, 2014

As a graduate student at Duke with the desire to teach, I am awash in opportunities to improve my pedagogical abilities. I have attended numerous Teaching IDEAS workshops, taken classes through the Certificate in College Teaching program, and taught during two summer sessions. However, the most enlightening experience that I have had in my journey to becoming an effective educator was my participation in the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program. PFF pairs graduate students with mentors at partner institutions (basically, schools in the area that are dissimilar to Duke). We also travel as a group to each of the partner schools to learn about the institution, the student body, and the experience of being a faculty member. Through my mentor, Dr. Sarah Estow at Guilford College, and my visits to other institutions, I have learned many things that I did not know before I participated in PFF. Here are three of the most important lessons:

  1. I have choices when it comes to faculty positions. Choices?! Despite the warnings of the depressing state of the job market, I do have a choice when it comes to where I end up. Before PFF, I had only experienced life as an undergraduate at a small liberal arts university (Bucknell University, Go Bison!) and as a graduate student at Duke. These were two very different experiences, and they were also colored by the positions I held at each of them. Through PFF, I was able to view my different options through the lens of a faculty member. There are colleges, community colleges, and universities; heavy and light teaching loads; HBCUs, women’s colleges, liberal arts colleges and research institutions; varied service expectations; different institutional cultures; different town/gown relationships. In graduate school, I feel as though we often hunker down in our little corner of the academic universe (this comic comes to mind) and rarely look out at all of the career options that we have; PFF made my options for post-graduate school salient.
  2. It is important to know and like the institution where you teach. A common refrain among faculty members at the schools I visited was that successful job candidates (and successful faculty members) know the institution they are applying to and may teach at. We need to be careful to tailor our application to each job posting we apply to and to only apply to jobs that will satisfy us. Knowing the institutions allows for an informed choice, but it also allows you to sell yourself as a good potential member of the faculty.
  3. There are many different kinds of students. Just like there are differences between institutions, there are also differences within institutions – not all students are the same and they certainly will not all mimic that distinct brand of “Duke Students” that I have taught and mentored as a graduate student. I remember my first meeting with my mentor, Sarah. We covered a myriad of topics, but the one that stuck out the most was the point that as an instructor, knowing and appreciating the diversity of the student body will help you to reach your students and tailor your instruction to their needs. A corollary to this point also came up: not all students will be actively engaged, despite our best efforts.

All in all, participation in PFF has left me well-equipped to engage in an informed job search. The three points above are distilled from a year’s worth of experiences; I could have added many more. I encourage graduate students with all types of career goals to consider applying to be a PFF fellow; it is one way to gain “insider” information about faculty life and the world outside of graduate school.

Samantha A. Deffler is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. She studies autobiographical memory and self-knowledge and will be teaching a course on those topics in Fall 2014 through the Bass Instructional Fellowship.