Do you want to know what it’s like to be a professor at a teaching campus? The single best thing you can do to figure this out is to visit.
All through grad school, I was pretty sure I wanted to work at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), if only because I went to one and liked it so much.
At the time, I didn’t really know what the job was like. My time as an undergrad didn’t give me any idea about what it would be like to be a professor at one. I knew what life as a PI at an R1 university was like from being in the lab, seeing what what faculty were doing all the time, particularly my own advisor.
A teaching campus is really, really, really different from where you went to grad school and did your postdoc. It’s hard to learn what it is like unless you spend some real time at one, and not as an undergrad. Interviews don’t count at all, either. That’s a magical time when money flows easily, everybody has time for you, anything you choose to ask for can be agreed to as a possibility, and they are trying to convince you to take the job. It’s different once you’re there.
The best way to do this is to take a job as a visiting Assistant Professor, on a sabbatical replacement spot. But that choice would lead you near-permanently off the road towards a tenure-track position at a research university. If you aren’t sure about your calling, this is an extreme step. Those jobs aren’t easy to get, anyway. Adjuncting at a teaching campus doesn’t count either. If you’re an adjunct, then your experience will be fundamentally different than the tenure-track experience.
The best thing to is to visit. Call some colleagues up — if you don’t know anybody, ask around — and ask if you can spend a day or two on campus. Ask if it’d be possible to give a talk. Visit a fancy expensive small liberal arts school, and a 4-year regional teaching campus (North Southern Western State), and whatever else that isn’t too much of a drive. If you went to one for college, go back and visit. Your old professors would get a kick out of seeing you, and they can give you an honest take on their job.
This is how I cure premeds. I ask them if they’ve volunteered in a hospital, or if they’ve shadowed a doctor. Most premeds don’t know what it’s like to be a doctor on a day in, day out kind of basis. If they’re spending time with a doctor, then they’ll see it’s a pretty boring job, and with a lot of monotony, and with little freedom. You shouldn’t be a premed unless you’ve spent lots of time in a hospital. This is prerequisite for an informed decision.
Likewise, you shouldn’t be applying to PUIs unless you know what it’s like to be a professor at one. I’m writing about the various challenges we have, and the wonderful things that happen too, but the understanding is primarily experiential. What is it like to teach that much, and how does it affect what else I do? How do you relate to students, what do they expect, what kinds of resources are available in labs, and how do your collaborations work?
These things all very greatly from campus to campus. But unless you know exactly what the experience might be like on a daily basis, you won’t know what to look for when you’re interviewing. Putting in the time up front will help. And, when you go to conferences, hanging out with the faculty from those kinds of schools will give you a good idea, too.
So, give some of us a call. We’d love to hang out with you for a day or two. It won’t be the most exciting thing, but you’ll see what we do, what we can do, what we can’t, and how we balance things. Better yet, you can look up someone with whom you want to collaborate, and it can be a working visit. (If you’ve got some serious community assembly mojo, you’re particuarly welcome at this moment. I’ve got something with 2% left that’s driving me nuts.)