UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In today’s highly competitive higher education job market, fledgling academics often find themselves facing an uphill climb when trying to land their first post-doctorate faculty position.
Looking to address the issue in a mutually beneficial way, Penn State’s College of the Liberal Arts has partnered with the Office of the Vice President for Commonwealth Campuses (OVPCC) on the new Commonwealth Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Program in the Liberal Arts.
The initiative gives doctoral students who have defended their dissertation the chance to apply for a one-year non-tenure-track position at a participating Penn State campus — Abington, Behrend, New Kensington and York are the initial four — with the possibility of renewal. There, they can gain experience teaching in a smaller liberal arts environment while also pursuing their research and working with faculty mentors.
The program’s first postdoctoral fellow is Mikaela Karstens, who was hired at Penn State Behrend after receiving her doctorate in political science earlier this year. She’s teaching two courses per semester this academic year in Behrend’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, receiving a salary at the rank of lecturer with full benefits, plus additional funding for relocation and research/travel expenses.
Funded by the College of the Liberal Arts, OVPCC, and the host campus, the fellowship comes with several goals, among them improving the job placement status of Liberal Arts graduates and bringing more diversity, equity and inclusion to the campuses, both in terms of faculty and course offerings.
“The big thing here is that Liberal Arts is collaborating closely with the campuses in a way that hasn’t really been done before. It’s been a very smooth process to work out and get rolling, and we think it has a lot of really good potential,” said D. Scott Bennett, senior associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of the Liberal Arts. “Within the college, we’ve been trying to address some of the difficulties of the academic job market, because there just aren’t as many jobs as there were years ago. We want our students to get jobs at both major research institutions and at excellent teaching-focused colleges.
“Our campuses offer the teaching side of this mix — the faculty members there are doing research, but they’re more teaching-oriented and offer something different than a 50,000-student campus. Within Liberal Arts, we have a very diverse collection of graduate students in a lot of different programs who can teach some courses that the campuses otherwise wouldn’t be able to offer.”
David Callejo Pérez, OVPCC's associate vice president and senior associate dean for academic programs, said that if the program proves successful, it could lead to additional colleges and campuses getting involved.
“What I really value is that this is a genuine partnership with the campuses, our office, and Liberal Arts to address real needs and provide a unique experience for everyone involved. Everyone wins,” said Callejo Pérez, who initially pitched the idea for the program to Clarence Lang, Susan Welch Dean of the College of the Liberal Arts. “For the postdoctoral fellows, they can get a job but still stay within the Penn State system. For the campuses, they get a good, motivated professor teaching courses that wouldn’t normally be taught at the campus. And the campuses are providing the fellow with a welcoming environment with access to quality mentors.”
“Aside from the wonderful opportunities for Mikaela, Behrend and our students, I think this is an important — and I hope precedent-setting — step toward a mutually beneficial collaboration that bridges many divides between the Penn State colleges at University Park and the Penn State colleges and campuses elsewhere in the commonwealth,” added Pamela Silver, associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State Behrend. “I deeply appreciate the opportunity to work with OVPCC and the College of the Liberal Arts to realize a vision with so many benefits to students in both colleges.”
“The big thing here is that Liberal Arts is collaborating closely with the campuses in a way that hasn’t really been done before. It’s been a very smooth process to work out and get rolling, and we think it has a lot of really good potential."
—D. Scott Bennett , senior associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of the Liberal Arts
'A Great Fit'
Karstens applied for the position in the spring, going through the full interview process that comes with any open faculty position.
“I did some research on the Penn State campuses just to see what kind of setup they had, the classes they taught, and what their individual needs were. It seemed like Behrend was a great fit, especially since they grant degrees in political science,” Karstens said. “So far, the campus itself has been lovely. It has that small-college liberal arts feel, but still retains that Penn State feeling. And the humanities and social sciences faculty members have been extremely collegial and welcoming.”
This semester, Karstens is teaching the courses PLSC 291: Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies and PLSC 451: The Politics of Human Rights.
More than anything, she said, the courses are providing her with valuable undergraduate teaching experience. In addition, the small class sizes are giving her the opportunity to forge real relationships with her students, as well as the chance to collaborate with several of them on undergraduate research projects.
“From my perspective, from someone who is a research-focused scholar, we want our teaching to inform our research,” Karstens said. “My students, while they’re learning, they’re also sharing these really interesting insights during our discussions. And that really informs my own research. It’s a nice give and take. My approach to political science is very quantitative, but here the courses are more qualitative with more critical analysis, so to have exposure to that approach has been helpful in terms of developing my own skills.”
Karstens’ interest in political science developed during her undergraduate years at the University of Minnesota, when a trip to Rwanda to interview government officials about the country’s 1994 genocide got her thinking critically about matters of human rights and political oppression.
Eventually, she headed to Penn State to pursue her master’s and doctoral degrees, finding a political science program that rigorously prepared her for the type of data-driven research she specializes in.
In the spring, Karstens successfully defended her dissertation, “Exploring the Relationship Between States and Territorial Contenders,” in which she examined how states can achieve their goals through various violent and nonviolent repressive strategies.
At Behrend, Karstens has employed her expertise to good effect with her students, using discussions on everything from the war in Ukraine, to the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, to the United Nations’ “right to health” tenet as the jumping-off point for broader conversations about human rights.
“The nice challenge for me is helping students understand these concepts by talking about them from an academic perspective and not a polarized personal perspective,” Karstens said. “I have my views and so do my students, but in class it’s best to talk about it from a professional perspective. I’m trying to train them to be informed, analytical global citizens who have the skills to go out and do what they need.”
“It’s been an invaluable experience so far,” she said of the fellowship. “I’m really hoping this initiative continues because I think it’s a great idea.”