From the Teaching column of the December 2006 Perspectives
Preparing Future Faculty Program a Fixture at FSU
Michael Creswell, December 2006
In 1998, the history department at Florida State University (FSU) inaugurated a Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program. Eight years later, the verdict is in: the program is a resounding success. PFF helped the vast majority of students who have completed the program to obtain academic positions. The program has also provided them the knowledge necessary to flourish both in and out of the classroom. This success has enabled the PFF program to weave its way into the fabric of the FSU history department.
Although several members of the FSU history department participate in PFF, Associate Professor Jonathan Grant cheerfully shoulders the primary burden of administering the program and leading most of its sessions. The FSU program, which partners with a group of nondoctoral institutions, including Bainbridge College, Florida A&M University, Rollins College, Tallahassee Community College, and Valdosta State University, seeks to imbue its participants with a sense of professionalism by teaching them, among other things, aspects of their chosen vocation that might otherwise remain a mystery.
To increase the effectiveness of the program, we encourage all graduate students to attend the PFF sessions. The program allows students to enter at any point in their graduate career between matriculation until the defense of the dissertation. While we recommend that students complete the entire program, those who fail to do so still accrue benefits. These benefits entail acquiring the skills needed to gain employment and to enjoy a thriving academic career.
Among the many topics dealt with in PFF sessions are the crafting of effective cover letters and curriculum vitae, strategies on publishing, the value of service to both the department and to the profession, and what to expect in both an AHA or phone interview, and the on-campus interview. Often a handful of faculty members are on hand to share their experiences and to give advice right on the spot. Students and faculty are invited to suggest topics they think would be useful to cover.
The PFF program at FSU has evolved over the years, continuing to expand, hone its message, and gain institutional support. On the latter point, the history department has adopted a standing departmental PFF faculty committee that coordinates the program's activities. Furthermore, work on this committee offers faculty members credit towards their official department service. As a result, faculty support has grown apace. Many members of the department serve on the PFF committee and some take an active part. In 1993, the PFF committee consisted of two faculty members. At present, the PFF committee consists of six faculty members, or roughly one-fifth of the department. Moreover, other faculty members take part in PFF activities without formally joining the committee. This enhanced faculty participation has enabled PFF to offer more workshops and to reach more students. This expanded menu means that PFF has carved out a secure place for itself in the history department.
Although participation in the PFF program is optional, many students embrace the wisdom of attending. Participation has increased to roughly 50 percent (66 students). This greater student participation would mean little, however, unless there were a payoff at the end—an academic job.
On this score, the PFF program has not disappointed. Its alumni boast much higher than average job placement rates in tenure-track positions than those students who did not participate. In 2002, three FSU history grads obtained tenure-track positions; all had participated in PFF. The following year's results mirrored that of the previous year: three for three. In 2004, out of a total of 10 graduates who secured academic jobs, eight were PFF grads. Of the 10 who got jobs in 2005, 3 were PFF grads. Although it is a bit too soon to close the book on 2005–06, five PFF participants graduated; two of them have accepted tenure-track positions, one is teaching high school, and one of them has chosen not to pursue an academic route. Thus since 2002, those of our graduate students who have participated in PFF activities are 9 for 9 (100 percent) in gaining tenure-track positions compared to 57 percent placement for the department overall in the same period.
Yet the numbers tell only part of the story. Alumni of the PFF program at FSU attest to its effectiveness. Sarah Franklin (PhD 2006), an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, highly recommended PFF: "It had a great deal to do with my earning a tenure-track position my first year on the market." She said that she began attending PFF workshops four years before her job search: "I learned early on what I needed to do to be ready for the job market, and consequently had a much stronger c.v." She advises graduate students to participate in the PFF program from the beginning of their graduate study, warning that "the year before a student goes on the market is too late to build a strong c.v. that will generate interest among search committees. Because of PFF, I learned what I needed to do all along the way, including conference presentations, teaching experience, and service experience. These things cannot be achieved in a few short months before undertaking the job search."
Brian Parkinson (PhD 2005), an assistant professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, credited PFF with helping him in three areas: teaching, research, and job placement. He said that PFF improved his teaching by providing him a mentor at Florida A&M University, also located in Tallahassee. This experience enabled him to observe a teacher at another university with a different student body, thus providing him a more varied perspective than he would have had otherwise. Parkinson also noted that the PFF program also gave him valuable advice on conducting archival research, alerting him what to expect while at archives overseas. He also contended that PFF prepared him for the job market by taking him through the many steps he needed to navigate, all the way from the application process, to the job interview, and to the job talk.
However, the most valuable thing he learned from PFF was that being a professor meant much more than just teaching; it also includes service to the university. Given his positive experience, Parkinson stated that "I would certainly recommend PFF to all graduate students."
Kevin Witherspoon (PhD 2004), who recently joined Lander University, found PFF to be an "invaluable tool" as he entered the professional world. "I think its greatest use is in allowing graduate students to experience the rigors and hardships of the profession in a safe and sanitized setting," he said. Students are exposed to the realities and the challenges of the profession without enduring them firsthand." Witherspoon said that the most useful exercise was attending and evaluating numerous job talks: "When it came time for me to give a job talk during the interview process, I was acutely aware of my own presentation and prepared for the kinds of questions that arose. I can say in truth that none of the job talks I have given were as daunting as the ones I witnessed in the PFF sessions, for which I am thankful. There may be no substitute for experience in mastering this difficult profession. But PFF runs a pretty close second."
Jeffrey Strickland (PhD 2003), who teaches at Montclair State University and is the editor of the Urban History Newsletter, asserted that the PFF job market seminars made him a more attractive candidate. "The c.v. and cover letter that I crafted in PFF helped me schedule numerous interviews," he said. I also benefited from mock job talks in which faculty and graduate students attended. The on-campus interview process became easier with each visit. The various interview tips helped me minimize mistakes. Moreover, writing workshops taught me how to craft successful conference and grant proposals. I am confident that PFF workshops made me a more well-rounded candidate and the tools I learned in the program continue to assist me in the history profession."
Associate Professor Eric Tenbus (PhD 2000), now at Central Missouri State University, found the program extremely helpful: "It was nice to be able to discuss these issues with faculty away from the classroom and almost as future colleagues. I believe that PFF helped me in my job search by giving me a sense of what to expect in an interview, how to prepare for those campus visits, and what questions to ask."
All the hard work invested in the PFF program in history at Florida State University has paid off handsomely. The program serves a large number of graduate students by integrating PFF elements into the classroom and complementing them with the workshops outside. This approach has brought concrete benefits, such as improved job placement and increased participation, while not overtaxing available resources of time and money. This excellent track record has ensured that the program will remain a fixture at FSU.
—Michael Creswell is associate professor of history at Florida State University.