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November 9, 2001

Program helps aspiring faculty -- during graduate school

by Anne Krapfl
A national program aimed at helping graduate students make the leap from school to faculty careers arrives on campus spring semester. The 9-year-old "Preparing Future Faculty" currently seeks:
  • Up to 30 students who want careers in higher education.
  • Faculty members who can help recruit students or volunteer for a variety of mentoring or one-time teaching assignments.
PFF targets graduate students who are in at least the second year of their academic program. Over four semesters, PFF participants attend topical seminars, meet at least twice monthly with a faculty mentor, teach first a course unit and later a course or course section, and complete another independent project. They receive graduate credits for their efforts.

The program emphasizes a faculty balancing act of teaching, research and service. "But what don't most research universities give their students? Teaching opportunities," said Donna Kienzler, associate professor of English and assistant dean in the Graduate College who is coordinating Iowa State's PFF program. Thus, the practical experiences tend to focus on preparing and delivering courses.

"This program is designed to be very flexible," Kienzler said. "It's designed to pick up where departments leave off." She said ISU departments vary in how much guidance and experience they offer graduate students in areas such as grant proposal writing, ethical and legal issues related to teaching, promotion and tenure processes, using technology in the classroom, faculty roles in departments or public service.

She called PFF "a wonderful balance of practical and intellectual."

What it looks like
Assistant professor of curriculum and instruction Barbara Ohlund participated in PFF as a graduate student at Arizona State. She said the first year of the program provided lots of helpful information about what life in academia looks like and the range of faculty options from community college to Research I universities. The second year, she said, provided her a chance for cross-disciplinary collaboration on teaching and service projects with colleagues in engineering, chemistry and exercise science. "That was a good snapshot of what you should be doing as a faculty member," she said.

Li Cao, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is a PFF graduate from the University of Minnesota. She, too, cited the program's helpfulness in identifying the type of institution that best suited her career interests, and the experience of managing a course over a full semester rather than an occasional lecture as a teaching assistant. Cao said the relationships with other graduate students and faculty members were valuable for getting answers to lots of questions.

"When I arrived at Iowa State (fall 2000), I was not that mature as a teacher, but because of PFF, I knew what direction I was going, what I needed to do, what the expectations were," she said. "PFF is just terrific."

The Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council of Graduate Schools sponsor PFF. Early funders of the start-up effort included the National Science Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. While the schools that piloted PFF received external funding, Kienzler said time and experience have shown that the program works best when it is funded within a college or university.

"Once some of those initial grants ran out, the programs floundered," she said. Faculty commitment to the program also is crucial, she said.

Funding for PFF on this campus came from new tuition money (as strongly advocated by the Graduate Student Senate) and a reassignment of staff duties within the Graduate College.

As Iowa State's PFF program grows, the plan is to build a network with other higher education schools in an expanded mid-Iowa region and to add a minor in higher education to the ISU graduate curriculum. The "cluster" system allows programs to draw on the faculty expertise at member schools. It also gives graduate students more options for their teaching experiences.

For more information, visit the PFF national Web site,, or contact Kienzler, 4-4533.

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