Blake Thomas and Michelle Herridge
Season 5 - Episode 528
Postdoctoral researchers are a fixture on research university campuses, and their numbers are growing at Baylor. In this Baylor Connections, discover the ways postdoctoral researchers enliven research and contribute to Baylor’s R1 recognition. Blake Thomas, manager of Baylor’s Postdoctoral Scholars Program, and Dr. Michelle Herridge, postdoctoral teaching fellow in Baylor’s Academy for Teaching and Learning, highlight the significance of the position in higher education and share how Baylor serves this important group of scholars.
Derek Smith:Hello, and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking about postdoctoral research. Postdoctoral researchers play an integral role in Baylor research across campus. Nearly 90 postdocs serve in departments all across the Baylor campus, nearly half of which have been hired in the last three years as a part of Baylor's postdoctoral hiring program. Our guests today are Blake Thomas and Michelle Herridge. Blake serves as Manager of Baylor's Postdoctoral Scholars Program. Dr. Michelle Herridge is a post-doctoral teaching fellow in Baylor's Academy for Teaching and Learning. The Postdoctoral Scholars Program, which they are a part, is the fruit of substantial investment by Baylor. Nearly $012 million since 2019, to be exact, to attract top postdocs to campus and to support them both personally and professionally within the university community. Well, Blake and Michelle, it's great to have you here. Great to have you talk about this position that I imagine we'll find people have heard of, but maybe they don't know everything about. So Michelle and Blake, I really appreciate you coming on today.
Michelle Herridge:Thank you so much for having us.
Blake Thomas:Thank you very much.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Well, I want to ask you both this and Blake, I'll start with you. Then Michelle, you can jump in. What percentage of people when you say postdoc give you a look that they're kind of vaguely familiar with it but are a little bit unsure about exactly what a postdoc does.
Blake Thomas:\ Derek, when I'm on campus at Baylor, I find most people are pretty familiar with what a postdoc is and what they do. Out in the rest of the world though, I find that a postdoc is not a position that is very well understood by most of just the general population.
Derek Smith:What about you, Michelle?
Michelle Herridge:I think that was said really well. I am still explaining to even my close friends what it is exactly that I do every day.
Derek Smith:Well, we're going to find out a little bit more about what that is and paint the picture maybe for people who don't know more about this role and its importance to the individual scholar and to the universities at which they attend. Blake could I have you give us the definition here? What is a postdoctoral researcher and what role does that position play in higher ed?
Blake Thomas:Well, the National Postdoctoral Association has a definition of postdoc that they put out. They refer to a postdoctoral scholar as an individual holding a doctoral degree, who's engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing. Postdocs are very important parts of the university community. You'll find postdocs working at most universities as well as at Baylor all across campus, from the traditional hard sciences to the social sciences. Even in the arts and humanities, we find postdocs as well. Postdocs perform a variety of different tasks within their labs, within their departments. They may be actually doing the hands on research work that goes on in a lab. They may be writing proposals to help their labs secure funding for future research. And you'll often find postdocs writing scholarly articles and books, manuscripts, to disseminate the results of the research from their lab. So they're really a very important part of the research that goes on all across campus.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Blake Thomas and Michelle Herridge. Now Michelle, with that definition in mind, you've been at Baylor about a year in this position after earning your Ph.D. I know you have career goals that you want achieve as an independent scholar. So when you think about your future, how important, what is this postdoc step mean to you as you think about where you've been and where you're going?
Michelle Herridge:I think that a postdoc is so important because it gives another perspective. After a Ph.D. program, you've grown up sort of under a primary investigator, whoever your boss, was during graduate school, and you learned so much from that person. But you also learn that one perspective usually. So doing a postdoc position really gives me an opportunity to branch out, learn another way of doing things, another style of doing research, giving me additional mentorship by various people so that I can be better suited for my future goals. I'm hoping to continue in higher ed, hopefully going into a faculty position. And so, learning additional ways to do the faculty position is really going to support me. Meanwhile, I'm learning those skills and improving my research, improving my writing, getting teaching opportunities, without having to take on the full role of an assistant professorship, really giving me time to understand who I want to be as a faculty member and really deciding where it is that I want to go with my future because I'm a postdoc now and have the freedom and the support to do that.
Derek Smith:Michelle, I know there's probably some similarity, some overlap when you think of yourself as a doctoral student versus being a postdoctoral researcher. How different is it this last year, being able to focus on some of these things, without the pressure of having to pursue your Ph.D.? Is that the biggest difference or what are some of the other differences?
Michelle Herridge:I think some of the biggest differences are that idea that I get to have a lot more control. In my position now with the ATL, I have a lot of leadership in as far as writing proposals, being a primary investigator myself, leading the charge on some new projects and new ideas, still aligning to the research and the goals of the department that I'm in, but still saying, "I have done this once. Let me try it, maybe not quite as strong of training wheels, but still taking the first step, still figuring it out." And so, the difference for me has really been being able to build things that are my own ideas and figuring out how to meet the goals and the missions of the university and my department without being handed a project that I need to be a part of.
Derek Smith:Blake, as Michelle describes this, as you have stood up and grown the Postdoctoral Scholars Program here at Baylor, what is unique about the postdoc position within the university setting, and what are some of the reasons it's important to provide a support group and different ways for them to plug in?
Blake Thomas:Well, a postdoc is a unique sort of time in one's career because a postdoc is not a graduate student anymore, but they're also not part of the faculty. They're in a sweet spot between being a graduate student and being a faculty member themselves. And so, as a result, as Michelle mentioned, that does give some benefits in terms of the freedom that it can provide. It can also be a bit of a lonely time. It can be a time when there's not a lot of connections possible because a postdoc is not a part of one of those two groups, either graduate student or faculty. And so, what we want to do, and as we look at peer institutions around the country, we found ways that other universities are supporting their postdocs. We wanted to be able to provide that same level of support to our postdoc community as well. As we were doing some of the research prior to setting up this office, we looked at factors that make postdocs more likely or less likely to be happy and successful in their roles. What we found is that postdocs are happiest and most successful when there's a match between the expectations of the postdoc coming into the position and the expectations of the principal investigator or the mentor that postdoc works for. And so, what we hope to do is give postdocs the tools that they need to be active participants in their own mentorship so that they can have a clear sense of their own needs and their own ideas and their own expectations, and they can bring that to the table as an active participant and an active part of the lab working in collaboration with their mentors.
Derek Smith:Blake, as we talk about this, positions like the one that Michelle holds here, we have a lot more of those than we did three or four years ago at this time. Let's go back to 2019 a minute. I remember when we set up the postdoctoral hiring program, how did it begin? What spurred it and what were the goals?
Blake Thomas:The postdoctoral hiring program got started because we recognized that if our goal was to reach R1 classification, of course it has been for a number of years, when we looked at the ways in which we wanted to approach getting to that R1 classification, we looked at the metrics that the Carnegie Foundation uses to determine where a university is ranked. The number of postdocs that are on a campus is one of the metrics that they use to evaluate universities for that R1 designation. That's not just chasing that metric for the purposes of chasing a metric. It is a metric in R1 classification because of the importance of postdocs to that university community. And so, Dr. Brickhouse's leadership on this led to the establishment of the hiring program, which really brought a great influx of really talented postdocs to campus, and really gave Baylor the opportunity to make some great strides in that area very quickly.
Derek Smith:To your point, that it's about more than metrics. You look at the Postdoctoral Scholars Program, that a lot of it is either morphed into you or just sort of you graduate to once you get here, how did you build, say, okay, we're attracting more postdoctoral scholars here, how do we serve them as you just described? Have the expectation meet the reality and plug them in. How have you built towards doing that in the program itself?
Blake Thomas:Well, a lot of that work involved looking at some research that had already been done in other places about postdocs and looking at factors that worked either positively or negatively to impact the success of that arrangement. Once we knew what some of those factors were that positively impacted postdoc happiness and success, we started to look at peer institutions around the country and saw how are they providing, how are they creating the circumstances where those positive factors are most likely to exist. And so, a lot of what we did involved really just looking around campus at resources that already existed in one form or another, and bringing them all together into one place where we could offer them to postdocs and serve as something of a clearing house where postdocs can find information that, while it probably exists in lots of different places, it hadn't ever been collected together in one place before.
Derek Smith:That's great. So, Michelle, so now we got to ask you. How have you been able to be involved and what are some ways that you've been able to interact with the office in trying to reach its goals in working with you?
Michelle Herridge:I was really excited this past spring. I was working with the office to host a workshop on applying for faculty positions, specifically some of the documents and statements that you write as part of those packets. I know that this fall we're hoping to extend that even further and do a multi-week series of as a postdoc what materials do you need to apply for faculty positions. How do you search for those and really supporting other postdocs as a postdoc, as we look ahead to what's the future for all of us. So it's been a pleasure to work with Blake. It's been a pleasure to work with other postdocs, and continue to support professional development. Because it's part of my role with the academy for teaching and learning is to do professional development for faculty. With the postdoctoral office, I get to also help postdocs in a very similar way.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Blake Thomas, Manager of Baylor's Postdoctoral Scholars Program in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, and Dr. Michelle Herridge, postdoctoral teaching fellow in Baylor's Academy for Teaching and Learning. Michelle, you mentioned the work you do with ATL. Baylor isn't where you attended undergrad. So as we talk about your work at ATL, first, I'm just curious, what was it that attracted you to Baylor and how did that intersect with your academic background and goals?
Michelle Herridge:As I said, I work with the ATL now doing professional development. My master's and my Ph.D. a re both in chemistry and I focused on chemistry education research. I really have thought a lot about assessment in particular and in general, instructional choices. So coming out of my doctoral work, I was really interested in broadening my experiences and working beyond just the chemistry department and getting experiences with all of the sciences, and in fact, arts and humanities as well now to really understand instructional choices that are made by all level of instructors and all disciplines. And so, being at Baylor really gave me an opportunity in this particular position. I'm a STEM education support person with the ATL. So I get to work with a lot of different people, but I also really get to understand how higher ed is structured. Being in the Academy for Teaching Learning, I'm not within a specific discipline and I get to understand a lot more about these different types of support structures, and really gain an appreciation that I don't think that I would've had or been exposed to in a different institution or different position.
Derek Smith:Is your role even unique in the world of postdocs? I know most of the postdoctoral researchers I've met, if you know, they're a chemistry or they're an environmental science. You've got a really all encompassing kind of role.
Michelle Herridge:I was so excited when I heard about this position. When I applied, the most excited I've ever been after an interview was with my first round here at Baylor. It is a very unique position. While there are positions that are similar for education research, this one being housed in an institute or a center for teaching and learning is very unique. I think it's going to benefit me greatly going forward as far as the diversity of experiences. That being said, I graduated from a hard science program. I know a lot of people going into or currently in hard science postdoc positions. I know that they also feel very passionately about their position. So I think we all end up where we need to be. I think that the postdoc experience is always going to help you grow and is always going to be, as I said, that sweet spot between grad school and a faculty position, where you just get to learn so much and really invest in learning for the sake of learning. So I'm so excited to be a Baylor. I've been having a great time. I love what I do. I get excited to go to work every day.
Derek Smith:Blake, I want to ask you now. When potential postdocs are looking at Baylor or when they are officially coming to Baylor, what are some of the ways that you let them know you're here? When do you get involved?
Blake Thomas:We don't really have much involvement with postdocs prior to the point that there's an offer and an acceptance of employment. But once they've officially accepted the position, the faculty mentor puts them in touch with us and we reach out just to welcome them to Baylor. We also offer them an orientation where we sit down with them one on one, usually over Zoom these days, and just tell them a little bit about our office. Tell them a little bit about the resources that we offer, and just offer to answer any questions that they have as they prepare to enter this new phase of their life. A lot of postdocs are coming into the position, they're not coming in alone. They're either married or have a partner, or they may have children that are coming with them. And so, we want to help them to feel like they're not just coming here for a job, that they're really coming here to be part of the community. And so, that involves things like directing them toward resources about schools or childcare, directing them toward ways they can help their spouse or partner find a position in Waco. And so, we really want to give them the feeling that we're here to support them professionally as well as personally.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. You mentioned some of those resources. Once the year starts, are there some annual things on the calendar, whether it's on a weekly or monthly basis or even annually basis that stand out?
Blake Thomas:Sure. As Michelle alluded to, we do have monthly workshop sessions where we bring a speaker to meet with the postdocs and present on a variety of different topics. We've covered things anywhere from searching for research grants to help with funding, to tips on presenting your research to a non-scientific audience, to, as Michelle mentioned a great session that she actually led, on putting together some important application materials as the postdocs are going out to look for faculty jobs. The topics that we cover in those workshops are aligned with the six core competencies identified by the National Postdoctoral Association. And so, the goal is to help our postdocs to gain a more solid footing in any of those competency areas where they may need a little bit of additional development to help them to become ready to move on to their own independent research career.
Derek Smith:That's great. Well, Blake and Michelle, as we wind down, we have a couple of minutes left on the program. I want to ask, as you alluded to earlier, Blake, we've recruited postdocs here, excuse me, as we've thought about moving towards R1 recognition and we are there. So, Michelle, I guess you can always tell people that Baylor didn't reach R1 until you got here and maybe take some credit there somewhere. But I know that had to be exciting for both of you. When you think about R1, what role do you feel like postdocs have been able to play in that? Michelle, you might have a different perspective. Blake will have a different perspective, but I'll ask you, what did that mean to you?
Michelle Herridge:So I think that Baylor reaching R1, I have been at quite a few different universities now, and I am excited for Baylor to engage in research at a level where there are opportunities for postdoctoral work to sort of build the footprint and show the impact of research at a school where teaching is so important. So I think Baylor really does a great job with the undergraduate experience, and reaching R1 and involving postdocs doesn't diminish that at all. I think that Baylor has really proven that that's possible, which is very exciting to say.
Blake Thomas:Well, as I mentioned, it's widely recognized throughout academia what an important role postdocs play. And so, we're just so thrilled to have them as part of our community. As Michelle mentioned, the postdoc experience involves the postdoc getting a new set of perspectives and a new set of experiences from their career. And I think that really works both directions. One of the great things about having postdocs come to the university is the experience and the expertise that they bring from perspectives and in other areas that their mentors may not have. And so, just the same way that a postdoc comes to Baylor and expands their own experience, those postdocs also bring research expertise, research capabilities, research competencies that may not have been represented on campus before. And so, the benefits of that arrangement really work both ways. The hope is that as our postdocs continue to contribute to the research environment here at Baylor, and they go off and pursue their own very successful research careers in the future, that that reflects highly on Baylor and on the experience that they received here. And so, that continues to help us here at Baylor to accomplish our mission as we seek to raise the profile of the university and we seek to really expand the impact of the work that we're doing here beyond our campus into the rest of the world.
Derek Smith:That's great. It all works hand in hand for sure. Well, Blake and Michelle, I really appreciate you taking the time to not just give us a postdoc 101, but to really take us inside the role and what it means and all the great work that's taken place here. So, thanks so much for joining us today.
Michelle Herridge:Thank you.
Blake Thomas:Thank you so much for having us.
Derek Smith:Dr. Michelle Herridge, post-doctoral teaching fellow in Baylor's Academy for Teaching and Learning, and Blake Thomas, Manager of Baylor's Postdoctoral Scholars Program, our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.