Nichole Orench-Rivera Discusses the Preparing Future Faculty Program

Nichole Orench-Rivera Discusses the Preparing Future Faculty Program

Nichole had always wanted to teach at the college level. So to help her gain some much-needed experience, she applied and was accepted to Duke’s Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program, where select PhDs and postdocs learn the realities of day-to-day faculty life and are mentored by professors affiliated with five local colleges and universities. Nichole was paired with Dr. Catherine Silver Key, a geneticist in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Department at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). Nichole liked Silver Key’s job mix, which is the perfect combination of teaching and research at a primarily undergraduate institution. During the year-long program, she occasionally shadowed Dr. Key as she went about her day-to-day responsibilities, guest lectured her course a few times and met with her for career advice.

Upon completing her PFF program, Nichole was lucky enough to be hired as an NCCU adjunct professor, teaching biology for non-biology majors. Her class of 25 consisted of mostly freshman from varied majors such as nursing, computer science, and criminal justice. During her last semester, she even taught some highly-engaged high school students from Durham Public School’s Early College Program.

In designing her course, Nichole used a previous syllabus, peppered it with her own teaching techniques, and brought the class to life using real-world examples and case studies on different biology topics. She adjusted her delivery for a smaller class size because she learned the dynamic is quite different from a large lecture hall where you can’t reach everyone, and have to rely on self-taught group work. It was also critical that Nichole figure out strategies to clarify any misunderstandings of the course material and to engage her students. To keep their attention, she worked on balancing how much to speak, how not to overwhelm her students with too much jargon, and how many hands-on and active learning activities to offer that would increase student participation. Asking for mid- and end of term feedback to improve her class, Nichole figured out what worked and what didn’t and finessed the course’s level of detail.

What did Nichole get out of the PFF and adjunct experience? For one, it validated her love of public speaking, helped her appreciate the bonds she built with her students, and strengthened her confidence. Second, having designed and taught her own class, she satisfies the teacher of record requirement when applying for faculty positions at teaching-intensive schools. Nichole wants other PhD students to realize it’s possible to take on responsibilities outside the lab (with approval from your PI) because you can always find strategies to manage your time.

After graduating with her PhD, Nichole hopes to find a position at a small liberal arts school (or a primarily undergraduate institution like NCCU). And with what she learned through her PFF experience and being an adjunct, she is one step closer to making it a reality.