Teaching universities as the farm league


Many people seek faculty jobs at teaching universities even though they would prefer to work at a research university.

This isn’t unethical. A job is a job, and just because some people see a job as a calling or a sacred vocation, most people in the world are doing it for a paycheck above all else.

I have seen plenty of professors at teaching institutions look down upon their research-active colleagues in their institution, even though these researchers may be teaching quite well. (Of course, it’s even more common for some faculty at research institutions to look down upon, or feel sorry for, faculty at teaching institutions.)

Which is a more desirable job? Being a professor at a teaching-centered or a research-centered institution? What do objective measures say? There are two obvious ways to use numbers to answer this question. First, there is significantly more demand for the research faculty positions. Second, the salary of research faculty positions is appreciably higher than the salary of faculty at teaching institutions.

More people want research positions. Maybe they’re not more desirable, but they are more desired. (This makes sense, because the training required for a faculty position is all about research training and typically includes no training in teaching whatsoever.) A number of scientists who are excellent in all respects, but still don’t get a research position, might wind up taking a job at a teaching institution, even though they may continue to pursue their primary goal of being a faculty at a research institution. Is this wrong? No, it is not.

Nevertheless, because of the politics and emotions that people invest into their jobs, it is not socially acceptable at a teaching institution to communicate to others that your preferred job is at a research institution. This doesn’t require dishonesty, but it definitely means that you can’t be fully honest and you might have to be a little deceitful if this is your goal. You never want to say at your job that you want to eventually leave, after all, and this might even be true if you’re flipping burgers.

Though more people want jobs at research institutions, jobs at teaching schools are still mighty hard to land. Given this keen competition, and the huge differences between what happens on a research campus and a teaching campus, teaching institutions get to have their pick of candidates and have the latitude to pick out job candidates who, more than anything else, want to be at a teaching university. Ideally, a campus wants to hire someone who isn’t immediately looking to leave. So, teaching campuses prefer to hire people who are dedicated to working on teaching campuses.

That is, if search committees can identify who those people are. Good luck with that.

Faculty who want a research position seeking a job at teaching institution, if they are to be successful, need to mimic the true believers who are passionately interested in spending their careers (if not their lives) at teaching institutions.

To put this in context, let me offer a one-paragraph lesson in mimicry. In biology, we recognize a few kinds of mimicry. Batesian mimics falsely adopt the signal of another organism that honestly signals its status. (The classic example is a viceroy butterfly, which isn’t filled with toxic cardiac glycosides, but it looks a lot like a monarch butterfly, which picks up toxins from feeding on milkweeds as caterpillars.) In contrast, Müllerian mimics are only distantly related to one another but they have evolved a set of characteristics to honestly communicate their defenses. (The classic example is a set of mimicry complexes among Heliconius butterflies). Another kind are aggressive mimics, which could be predators that resemble their prey (such as jumping spiders that often look like their ant prey) or a caterpillar with a pattern that looks like the head of a viper, or a moth that looks like the face of an owl.

So, when scientists who want research positions choose to apply for teaching positions, what kind of mimic are they? It varies.

They could be Batesian mimics, which essentially are parasites on the system and reduce the effectiveness of the honest signal of the organisms that they mimic. These mimics don’t want to teach much at all, aren’t interested in developing that skill, and calculate the amount of effort they have to put in to just keep their job as long as necessary. They want to maintain this mimicry signal, and the quality of mimicry varies. They do hedge bets and are interested in being perceived as teaching-focused just in case they aren’t successful at moving on.

Aggressive mimics of teaching faculty actively reveal their colors as soon as they’re hired. These people are toxic and everyone identifies the mistake right away. Including the person who took the job. Let’s forget about these, because they’re both rare and annoying people in general.

There are Müllerian mimic professors, too. These are those that would prefer a job at a research university but they are also mighty pleased with a teaching institution too. They are showing their true colors when they say that they are dedicated to the teaching mission of the institution. They do belong, and they look like the dedicated faculty of the university because, in fact, they are.

What is the relative proportion of the Müllerian and Batesian mimic varieties? Or, in other words, how many professors in teaching positions who want to move on to research positions are actually dedicated to doing a great job at their current institution?

I don’t know the answer to that question.

Here’s a question to which I do know the answer: Among the faculty who move on to research positions, how many of them were dedicated to doing a great job at the teaching institution before they left?

That’s an easy one. In all of my experience, these people were wholly dedicated to their teaching jobs and before they left, they were recognized locally on their campus as spectacular in all respects before leaving.

I’ve worked with and known a goodly number of people who have moved on from teaching jobs to research institutions (and there are a number of commenters on the site who fall that pool, some of whom I know well and some I don’t). In every case of which I’m aware, the departure of that faculty member was a great loss.

These great losses were not the departures of the research programs, but because of excellence in teaching, collegial performance of service, and contribution to the institution as a whole. The departure of these people was seen as an inevitable “moving up” to bigger and better things. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, but nonetheless people were uniformly happy for them. We all recognize that when dealing with employers, you need to look out for yourself above all else, as only you can be counted on to make choices in your own best interest, even if you have dedicated your career and then some to a specific institution.

I imagine these professors who moved “up” to research jobs may have always wanted such a position, and they essentially published their way out of their teaching position. That’s the standard interpretation. However, if you choose that route, then my experience indicates that you can’t just publish your way out. You have to do it while earning the respect and admiration of your colleagues. (This is something that can’t be done by faking it. There are people on my campus who are faking it, and it’s pretty obvious.) You have to be dedicated and do a good job and have the interests of your students and your institution in mind. All of these people who I know that have made the move have been tremendously nice people above all other identifying characteristics.

This much is clear: most faculty don’t move to a research institution once they start a teaching position. What happens to these people who don’t move, over the course of their careers? Here are a variety of possibilities:

  • Love teaching and accomplish lots of great research too
  • Love teaching and lose the passion for research
  • Teach badly, focus on research and be miserable
  • Hate teaching, give up on research, and be bitter
  • Be ambivalent and focus on doing the minimum
  • Be mediocre with delusions of grandeur
  • Move into administration
  • Don’t get tenure, and find a job outside academia

I’ve seen all of the above, and there are probably varieties I’m missing.

Where do I fall into this pool? I’m not in this group – I deliberately looked for a teaching-centered position from the outset, even though my initial motivation in taking a job at a teaching institution wasn’t well informed.

Since I am doing a decent amount of research at a teaching institution, is a research university a preferred job? I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a single ideal job. I do really want to go to a university where I can do more research and where it is valued, but there are lots of teaching-centered institutions that fit that label. I evolve over time, and my attitude towards research and teaching are very different from when I started out.

I’m mostly satisfied in a teaching institution, and I don’t think I’d be more satisfied at a research institution. Nevertheless, I would consider a good move. There are a few crippling aspects of my current position that I would hope to ameliorate. First, I’d like to be in a department that is adequately staffed to support its own students; I am feeling increasingly guilty for complicity in an organization that is undermining it own mission. As a small example, it’s unfair to our students (as well as myself) that every professor in my department has >100 advisees every semester. Second, our campus research infrastructure is experiencing continued neglect, and the people in charge of promoting research on campus aren’t focused on what matters. (Last, and this isn’t a small thing, I would be nice to be paid market rate.) I’d have to be sure that a job I move into wouldn’t have other hidden problems that are worse than these ones, of course.

If I do move, then I wouldn’t see it as “moving up” even if others at my university would see it that way. Most of my job is working with students, in the classroom, in the lab doing research, and in the field. That would happen wherever I go, and since I’ve been in my current job I’ve been blessed with a string of incomprehensively wonderful students. Every time I bring students to my field station in Costa Rica, my colleagues here uniformly remark, “you always have the best students.” And I agree with them. I’ve been blessed, and I doubt that blessing could transfer to a different institution.

Ultimately, in my book, the desirability of the job is in how much I enjoy each day, on a day to day basis. It doesn’t matter too much if it’s a teaching or research institution. This is regulated by the collegiality and professionalism of my colleagues and the opportunities that are seized by my students.

If you enjoy both research and the teaching, a true move “up” wouldn’t be about the relative emphasis on research or teaching, but the overall capacity to do both well.

12 thoughts on “Teaching universities as the farm league

  1. “So, teaching campuses prefer to hire people who are dedicated to working on teaching campuses. That is, if search committees can identify those people are. Good luck with that.”

    We’ve generally had good (though not perfect) success at identifying people who have no interest in teaching. Phone interviews are often very revealing. Candidates will often give long, detailed answers about their research, and garbled, short answers about teaching. A lot of potential candidates take themselves out of the job pool with nothing thinking about, or plain bad attitudes, towards teaching.

    • This does work, but I think the extreme selective pressure of recent years has led to better mimicry. But if you can do a really good job of faking an interest in, and knowing about, teaching, then I suppose they can “fake” for many years. Then that’s not really faking it, is it?

  2. This may seem somewhat strange, but one of the things that was exciting to me about “moving up” to an RU VH was actually the teaching. How so? Well, teaching was and is important to me. At my first faculty position I had a 4/4 load, approximately. I never felt like I could deliver true effort and quality into any one course/section/lecture, whatever, because I was always running or prepping for the next. Not to mention the research effort that also interfered with quality of teaching. Here, I have a 1/1. I feel like I have more quality time with the courses. The research burden and expectation is higher, granted, but my teaching has benefited some, too, because I have fewer teaching related distractions for any particular course/section/lecture.

    • Yes. This. While some research faculty might not be as dedicated to teaching, they also might actually spend more time on it and do it as well, or even better, than their overworked colleagues who are teaching a big load and also are getting research done, too. And, of course, many faculty at research universities genuinely do care about undergrads and teaching, even though that’s counter to the stereotype.

  3. Sorry to be this guy as I enjoyed your post, but despite your initial definitions of Batesian and Müllerian mimicry being correct, your later expansion was incorrect. Undefended Batesian mimics are normally considered to be parasitic on their defended models. This is because they reduce the model’s fitness because they increase predation on the models. Conversely, Müllerian mimicry can be thought of as a form of convergent evolution and is thought of as a mutualism as both species that share the aposematic signal and are defended.

  4. Great post! I recently accepted a post at a teaching centered institution which is a great fit for my interests (research with undergraduate students, teach courses that I am passionate about), but noticed some fairly dismissive attitudes towards it from my mentors at research institutions. I love my teaching responsibilities and really enjoy working with my students, so I actually see this as a good fit from for me, but have definitely been made aware that some people (including a few of my new colleagues) see it as a a farm league position.

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