It’s not easier, just different


When I was applying for faculty positions, I had a number of reasons for focusing on small liberal arts colleges and other teaching institutions.

Among those reasons was that I didn’t want to have to worry about grant pressure at a research institution. I didn’t want to have to constantly think about keeping the money train rolling, as a constant source of anxiety. I think I was prepared to write a lot of manuscripts, but I wasn’t too confident that I’d be able to the land the grants that would be required to convert a tenure-track position to a tenured position. And, even if I did get those grants, I didn’t want to be in a position of “running a lab” instead of “doing research.” I wanted to be a small-town grocer instead of Wal-Mart.

At my field station, I saw that PIs swing through, give orders to grad students, get a token couple days in the field, and then move on. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be out there taking part in all of the stages of science.

With the grant thing and the not-being-a-manager-but-being-a-scientist thing, a teaching school seemed the way to go. And, oh, yeah, I really liked teaching.

I was naïve.

Here’s a related story that puts it in perspective. A couple weeks ago, I went to an evening coffee at the house of someone I didn’t know, to talk about a middle school in my local school district. Within the next year, my family will have to decide among middle schools for my kid. So, I’m starting to do my homework. A great-hearted nonprofit in my town is built to educate parents about school options, and sets up evening coffee discussions among prospective parents and current parents.

The coffee would have tolerated a boost of scotch, but alas it was a dry event. Sending your kid to middle school is freaky and scary for a number of reasons. Parents of elementary school kids have all kinds of concerns and worries about what their middle school is like, and they ask all kinds of questions to address their concerns. There was a lot of talk about certain worries regarding safety and supervision.

One parent made an excellent point, far too late in the discussion, that helped put people on track. She has been involved in a study addressing the concerns, strengths and weaknesses of the middle school experience in the area. One recurring theme, she reported, was that both elementary parents and middle school parents had big concerns about the middle schools. However, the concerns of the current middle-school parents had little to do with the concerns of the prospective middle-school parents. Once their kids actually started school, all those early concerns faded away and were replaced with entirely different issues on the ground.

Picking your middle school on the basis of your concerns as prospective parents won’t do too much to result in a good choice. Your concerns as a prospective middle school parent, that affected your choice of school, seem to fizzle once you get there and you’re dealing with the actuality of being in middle school. You realized that the factors you used in picking a school were mostly superfluous, and you should have looked at the process differently.

I don’t think I need to explain how this story can be modified to produce more generalized advice for scientists choosing among career options.

I’ll never forget the observation from one of my undergraduate professors that has been a model and mentor for me. Just as I was telling her about my concerns and grant pressure and all that stuff, she told me:

It’s not easier. It’s just different.

I asked her to amplify on this, and she did. She explained how the regular day-in and day-out demands of a faculty position at a teaching institution are not any easier than the demands of a high-profile position running a big lab at an R1 institution. She explained the various responsibilities pulling her in different directions, and claimed that her job was just as much work. In addition, it was not only an equivalent amount of work but it also was just as stressful, and the demands of getting grants and keeping a lab up weren’t substantially easier than everything that she was juggling.

It was just stressful in a different way, but not in an easier way.

I was skeptical. After all, one of my reasons to work at a teaching campus was to avoid the grant pressure. So, I wasn’t glad to hear that I was just trading one stress for another.

It took several years of experience for me to really understand what she meant. She’s entirely correct.

Your PhD advisor might disagree, and other faculty at research institutions might also be skeptical of this notion. Skepticism is fine, but belief without knowledge isn’t.

In my community, white middle class families have harbored a fear of public schools ever since forced desegregation in 1970. That was before I was born, so many things have changed. Our neighborhood school isn’t okay, it’s amazingly great. It is a shameful display of ignorance when 1/3 of all of the families in my city insist on sending their kids to private school, mostly out of fear of the demographics of the population in public ones. (Whereas I’m afraid of the private schools because of the demographics of the population in those schools. That, and the underpaid and undertrained teachers. I have lots of experience with these schools, so this fear isn’t based on ignorance.)

There’s plenty of old money that can only be spent on fanciest prep schools, but there are a lot of middle-class families going broke to send their kids to those same prep schools, mostly out of fear.

Among the public school advocates in my town, there’s a truism: don’t talk smack about the public school until you’ve visited one.

I’ve talked to so many people who say, oh, the public schools in our city have so many problems, I couldn’t send my own child there?! Then I ask, in feigned naivete, really, what have you heard? When you visited the schools what did you see that was wrong? That usually switches the conversation to a topic that involves less ignorance on the part of the public school vilifier.

By corollary, if you want to know what the daily life of a science professor at a teaching institution is like, you aren’t going to learn about it from a professor at a research university. Your concerns about the job before you head in are going to be inevitably very different from those when you are in the position.

All of the reasons that I had for picking a teaching school over a research school weren’t really that good. It is true that I am glad that I don’t have to worry about funding a lab of employees by bringing in grant after grant. However, the machinery that I do keep running, in various aspects, also requires constant fuel and lubrication. I’d be just as happy trading in those stresses for the need to get a big grant once every few years, or more often. It’s more complex than that, of course.

Should I have listened more to my mentor when I was choosing a job? I don’t think so, because at the time I did listen to her and valued her perspective. I didn’t think she was wrong at the time, I just didn’t adequately understand her. That’s because understanding required experience.

I accept the fact that when we make decisions – about schools for our kids, about our own careers, and most other things – the bases for these decisions don’t pair up with the functional positives and negatives once we’ve committed. You should still try to assess carefully when making decisions, but the assessment will be more effective if it emphasizes the actual experiences of others over your best guesstimate about what your priorities might be in the future.

Being naïve means that you don’t have experience. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you just need to know that when you do make decisions, you have no choice but to be naïve to the consequences, because after all, they haven’t happened yet.

11 thoughts on “It’s not easier, just different

  1. Really like this post. Definitely harder to describe than it can seem. One interesting exercise can be just to jot down the amount of time that you “do” different types of things over a month period and see the changes. I found this insightful when my PhD advisor did this for our lab group about how he actually spent his days (and often nights or weekends). Although every day is different, it can be informative to see it plotted out.

    • I have a number of failed attempts to keep a time budget. I once kept a running word processor file in which I wrote everything I worked on. I also have a mostly empty lab book for the same purpose sitting on my desk at home, underneath other stuff….

  2. This is a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I have until April 15th to choose between two excellent but very different PhD programs, and I’m trying to figure out what factors should matter in my decision, knowing full well that whatever list I come up with is likely to completely change! I suppose eventually you just have to take your fragmentary information & decide…

    • Congrats! That’s a good position to be in. I suggest that the primary criteria are: 1) are the students in the program/lab that you choose happy? and 2) are those same students getting jobs when they leave?

  3. Thanks for your blog! I’ve been found it super helpful and relevant to my situation as a postdoc at an R1 planning to apply to teaching-focused colleges/universities.

    I get what you’re saying with this post. But I have some follow-up questions. Have you found that your previous ideas about a teaching institution are correct? Specifically, that you get to be a scientist day-to-day rather than just a manager?

    You mention that there are different kinds of stressors that come with this type of position. I have a fairly good idea of these from reading other posts, but I wonder if you could expound on what the most difficult challenges are that you face in this setting?


    • If I want to publish anything, and stay funded, then yes I still need to do all parts of the science. But also, with lots of students and collaborations, I also am a manager. So, now I have to do plenty of both.

      I didn’t imagine, back then, that I might want to spend more time making sure that cool projects happen in my lab than being the one to do it all myself. If only I had postdocs and grad students who were writing their own manuscripts.

      The challenges? You should subscribe to the site and get posts by email! No shortage of challenges.

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