How to figure out if you want to work at a teaching university


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.)

7 thoughts on “How to figure out if you want to work at a teaching university

  1. Let me know if you want any insight into getting to a teaching university, realizing it really wasn’t going to work, and then getting into a research University.

    • Josh, I’m interested in hearing your insights on switching.

    • Josh, feel free to take up as much real estate in the replies as you wish. Also, some other ant community ecologists also have taken the same route in the past too :)

  2. My story is probably similar to what a large number of people will and are going through. Good CV but not amazing, specialized research interests, some teaching experience. I applied to over 100 permanent positions at all kinds of institutions during my nearly 5 year post-doc and got 4 interviews and one job offer – at a mid-size state university that was essentially a teaching college. I got 5k in start-up, a shared research space (with 2 other professors), and a nice microscope. Our teaching load was 12 hours per semester, which was essentially nearly a 4/4 teaching load because the university, in their infinite wisdom, only counted labs as 0.75 hours (partial credit). My colleagues were great, I coordinated the teacher training program, and the students were earnest and appreciative. I taught a broad variety of classes, most of them small to very small and worked really hard to become a successful teacher, with modest success. I managed to remain relatively productive and then got a standard NSF grant in my third year and this changed everything. The issue basically became competition for my time between teaching and research. I requested a 3 credit hour release per semester as getting a grant of that size for my university was very unusual. The administration said no, with no discussion (a long and strange story). This was a deal-breaker for me because I literally could not do it all and also have a life (I have an ambitious spouse with her own successful career and 3 kidz) and I really didn’t want to be “one and done” with my grants and research. So, I started applying, but only to a few places that really fit my geographic and research interests.

    The process of applying to faculty positions had somehow changed – I only applied to 3 places and got a short list and two interviews. Having a sizable grant, significant teaching and service records, and a reasonable (1-2 paper per year) publication record as a faculty member seemed to move me up the ranks considerably from where I was 3 years prior. Luck was almost certainly part of this and I’m thankful for whatever good luck I managed to snag.

    Okay, so what advice can I give. First, Terry is spot-on with his views about the realities of teaching schools, and how little most science people who are trained at research universities, yet often wind up with positions at teaching schools, understand about this part of the academic world. It is not a place for the “cast-offs,” it is simply an atmosphere with different values and pressures than many folks are familiar with. It is also in no way a “dead end” for a research career. As Terry has demonstrated with his discussion of his work, you must be more flexible, things often move more slowly, and you may need to sacrifice some of the things that can be taken for granted at research institutions (like having your own research space and PhD students and post-docs around to work on things). You will become a better teacher in this atmosphere, and this may actually improve your research by forcing you to think about how you communicate ideas and get people excited about what you do.

    Second, some people may find that they don’t want to move back because there are some truly great things about many teaching universities, like a notable absence of pressure during tenure earning beyond staying engaged with students and becoming a more effective teacher. However, if it is to be, moving back to a major research university will require the expected things: publications and grant money. How much of both probably depends on where you apply. Your ability to teach and your other experiences may make you a much more appealing candidate in some circumstances that could compensate a bit for less grant money and or publications. If you have a broad teaching background this can also really help with the mysterious “fit” that seems to be so hard to pin down for many post-docs as even research universities will sometimes hire, at least in part, out of a need for someone to teach certain classes.

    Third, a word of caution: there is probably a short window for the move back. If you don’t get a sizable grant before you get tenure, it could be difficult to move, unless it is a late career move when you’ve become a distinguished professor already. As time goes by it is also increasingly difficult to work around the burdens of teaching and service (the latter of which can, and is expected, to increase enormously, another aspect of teaching schools that is often misunderstood or not known). That said, it was so much better applying for research positions with a permanent salary (albeit crappy) and good benefits than in the tenuous funding climate of temporary post-doc employment.

    Thus, when asked, I always recommend that grad students and post-docs should apply broadly and seriously consider almost any faculty position because in the current employment climate many, many, many people will simply not get research University positions because it is a statistical improbability. There is much to love and dislike about both career trajectories and both are viable. It is possible to transition between them, but luck will almost certainly play a role and persistent hard work, too. Collaborating and speaking with a lot of people will also help, both with learning about each path and finding other examples of people who have navigated both successfully.

    • Wow, that was great. Thanks, Josh. Also agree with the advice.

      I’m going to write a lot more about dealing with administration, grants, and reassigned time. Until then, my experience was kind of like Josh’s. I negotiated for 3 units/semester time if the grant came in. Then the grant came in. I had a new provost who didn’t honor the deal of the previous provost, and a dean that didn’t have my back. I was just about to tell the program director that I was going to *turn down the grant* because my admins couldn’t find the time for me to do the project. Then they gave me the time that was promised. It wasn’t a bluff, either. If they didn’t come through, I’d be long gone by now, I would have taken the grant to a different job. Untenured faculty can’t use those hardball tactics like I did though. Now that I’m tenured, it’s harder for me to move like Josh did. Current (different) circumstances have me applying elsewhere, and I’m willing to go back to assistant and go through tenure review a third time, but it’s hard to move as an associate or full without taking an admin job. I’m sure something will come through if I have to move, but I’m mostly happy and don’t want to. I’ve read elsewhere, and this is a great notion – real tenure is portable.

  3. Thanks Josh. That’s helpful info. I’m in my 2nd-year on tenure-track at a teaching school with a slightly lighter teaching load (9 hours/semester and correspondingly higher research expectations) than where you were. I’m pretty happy where I am and am becoming more so. So I’m at the point where I’d only think about applying elsewhere for a highly ideal position.

    I actually come from the opposite direction compared to many in that I went to a teaching school for undergrad and applied to, and completed, grad school with the plan to get a job at a teaching school. During my postdoc, I started to really enjoy the research and begin to look for a job where I’d have time and resources to do at least some publishable research. I wasn’t really qualified for a R1 job at that point because I’d put myself on the track for a teaching school – more teaching experience as primary instructor than most people but not many pubs.

    Terry, I look forward to hearing about administration, grants, etc.

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