Being taught to teach: MAE FAST Program aids grad students in finding faculty positions in academia
When Mo Samimy began working in academia over 36 years ago, he was not entirely prepared for the transition. Just getting a job at a university was hard, and then becoming a successful professor was even harder.
As an academy professor at Ohio State today, Samimy and MAE professor and current acting department chair Rob Siston have created a program for senior doctoral students interested in pursuing a career in academia to help them secure a position and ease into being a professor: the Future Academic Scholars Training or FAST program.
“I’m considered a relatively successful faculty, but I wish I had a program like FAST when I was a graduate student,” Samimy, an academy Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the founder of the Aerospace Research Center at The Ohio State University, said. “It not only would have made my own journey much smoother and my career much more successful, it would have made a tremendous difference in the lives and careers of all my mentees who are now successful faculty across the nation.”
The FAST program is a two semester-long course that covers all the essential materials graduate students need from how to prepare themselves while in grad school and develop appropriate and competitive credentials to apply for faculty positions, interviewing, gaining funding, hiring graduate students themselves, how to manage classroom teaching and what are the best teaching practices, and how to balance work and life.
FAST, which has become a signature program for MAE, delivers all these using panels of successful MAE faculty who have vast experience in all these issues and volunteer to participate on these panels in order to train the next generation of successful faculty.
“We normally have 14 panels, 2 to 3 faculty and myself on each panel, to discuss details of the issues mentioned above,” Samimy said. “I constantly learn from other panel members, as each one of us has taken a different path to get where we are and bring to the panel a different experience set.”
The main goal of FAST is to get students placed in a faculty position by giving them the knowledge to work on developing required credentials to maneuver the difficult interview process and to become a successful faculty.
“By taking FAST the students learn how to develop their credential to make themselves competitive in the faculty search process and to demonstrate to their future faculty colleagues during the interview process that they have right credentials and know how to succeed in an academic environment,” Samimy said. “FAST helps their placement by preparing them well for all the processes involved.”
Before getting FAST students placed in academic position, teaching the graduate students in the program how to teach is extremely vital, Siston said. The program discusses all aspects of running a class like creating a syllabus, grading scales, and the day-to-day interactions within a classroom, and even offers opportunities for mock teaching exercises.
“All across academia, there is a working assumption that a new faculty member has the ability to teach simply because they have a PhD,” Siston said. “In reality, effective teaching is a skill that needs to be developed. It is a thrill for me to see students realize how challenging it is to teach well, receive specific feedback on ways to improve within the safe environment of our class, and then try again in another mock teaching exercise. You can see the students begin to systematically analyze the practice of teaching, quickly realizing that there is more than one way to teach besides how they were taught.”
Nidhi Seethapathi was a graduate of the FAST program who was recently hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences, with a shared appointment in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, starting Jan 2022. Her lab will be affiliated with the College of Science and the new Schwarzman College of Computing at MIT and will work on building predictive computational models of human movement with applications to autonomous and robot-aided neuromotor rehabilitation. Nidhi worked with Manoj Srinivasan, an Associate Professor in MAE, on her Ph.D. research.
“The FAST program at MAE was a great way to get introduced to the nitty-gritty of the faculty job search process and subsequent life as a faculty, a few years before it was time for me to actually start looking for a position,” Seethapathi said. “Being a part of this program as a graduate student gave me enough time and information to help me decide if a faculty career would be right for me, and made me aware of what I need to work on over the next few years to succeed in my job search.”
For Seethapathi, one of the beauties of life in academia is the ability to "choose your own adventure": to choose important problems that you are passionate about, to choose great colleagues and mentees to work with, and to choose the right environment for you.
“Along these lines, I was really pleased that the FAST program truly emphasized the diversity of faculty jobs one can be happy with, and the types of labs faculty can successfully run once they obtain a position,” Seethapathi said. “Ultimately, your success in the faculty job search will depend on a lot of factors including your research topic, your ability to convince people of your vision, how supportive your mentors are, your productivity, how well you fit with the department, etc. But, the FAST program will definitely help you strategize as you take your first steps on this journey to academic independence.”
Another graduate of the FAST program, Yu She said he believes the program was extremely beneficial in preparing him for the difficulties of securing a position in academia, especially in creating a compelling academic application process. He was recently hired as a tenure-track assistant professor at Purdue University. Yu worked with Haijun Su, a Professor in MAE, on his Ph.D. research.
“The class taught us almost everything related to an academic life, such as how to prepare a compelling academic application package, how to become a good teacher, how to write proposals, where to find funding agencies, tenure timelines,” She said. “There is much more information from this class that I can benefit in the near future, such as preparing proposals, planning tenure, and faculty life.”
The FAST program is a unique opportunity that many other universities do not offer, he said.
“For those who plan an academic career, definitely try your best to join the FAST program. This is a unique opportunity at OSU MAE,” She said. “It offers almost everything you need to know to get started in academia. We have learned many course materials about math, engineering, physics, etc. But most of the materials from the FAST program are not taught elsewhere.”
The FAST program will aid She greatly in his career moving forward.
“The course materials are kind of a textbook for my academic life. I would review the corresponding course material whenever needed,” She said. “It is great honor to be an alum of the program.”
The FAST program always celebrates when graduates accept faculty positions at a range of institutions. However, an even more important impact for the program is the several diverse women and men who have been inspiring for many undergraduates in the MAE department.
“FAST scholars serving as an instructor of record for a core undergraduate class not only provides them with an excellent opportunity at a trial run of being a faculty member for a semester (running a class and still conducting their own research), but it allows for the undergraduate students to be taught by a diverse set of instructors.” Siston said. “These FAST instructors have told me that many undergraduates have come up to them asking about undergraduate search opportunities and applying to graduate school solely because they could finally see someone like them teaching one of their classes. The ultimate effects of this program are far reaching, and I look forward to continued success in the future.”