Applying for positions at teaching institutions: identifying opportunities for serious research


Are you looking for a job at a teaching institution but and want to pursue an aggressive research agenda? Are you advising grad students or postdocs who might move into a job at a teaching school? Here are some opinions.

Let’s get two important points out of the way, that you should consider before applying for a job at a teaching school.

First, if you dislike teaching, don’t apply. This is in your own interest. As I’ve written before, if you’re going to move “up” from a job at a teaching university to a job at a research institution, you’ll have to be awesome, and to do that, you’ll have to be great at the job, including teaching. The people who leave teaching schools for research universities are the kind of people who get awards for their teaching. I have yet to see a person who doesn’t like teaching to be truly great at it, even though some have claimed it’s possible.

Second, if your primary goal is research fame, you’ll never become famous for your research while working out of a teaching institution, at least in the sciences. Even if you’re doing rockstar-level work, you won’t be a rockstar until you go elsewhere. And to move elsewhere, you need to be a great teacher. You can get excellent research done at a teaching school, but earning broad respect for your research is difficult, and fame is pretty much out of reach. A couple of my research heroes built their research careers teaching institutions. But are they broadly famous in their fields? Not as famous as they should be based on their achievements.

With those two caveats aside, let’s say that you’re focused on research and you are open to working at a teaching school. What do you need to know to figure out of a school can support your research agenda?

Before attacking that question, first let’s address a fundamental difference in culture and terminology between teaching schools and research institutions.

At most teaching-centered schools, “research” and “research active” means something different than you might expect. A typical “research-active” faculty member doesn’t necessarily publish often, and might not even be pursuing external funding. Someone with a reputation for being a strong researcher on campus might be unknown as a scholar off campus. At teaching schools, if you’re “research active,” that means that you’re doing scholarship and sharing it in some form, which in the sciences could mean training students in the lab, getting them into doctoral programs, and presenting research at local and undergraduate conferences.

What I just pointed out isn’t negative, or a dig against teaching campuses. I’m merely clarifying what “research” means at teaching campuses. If you don’t evaluate schools through this lens, you could be in for a rude surprise.

So why do teaching schools perceive research so differently than the broader research community? Isn’t research simply research? We all are used to the notion that standard measures of research success are publications, citations, and funding. Right?

At teaching institutions, it’s easy to lose focus from what happens in the scholarly community in your own field. People spend plenty of time teaching, and tenure decisions are based on what people on your campus think of you. It’s easy to focus your lens exclusively on campus culture. At any teaching campus, very few people have a well-established research presence in their international scholarly community. To do a great job, you just need to teach well, get a few pubs in minor journals, and sell yourself well on campus. It’s what most people do, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s the culture on many teaching campuses. Some of the top-notch scholars on a campus may produce little in the way of papers, but produce many new scholars. Sending many students off to good doctoral programs is, arguably, a bigger contribution to the field than publishing some papers on your own. (Is there an oversupply of scientists? Hell no.)

When you read job ads, draft your application, and interview on campus, remember the teaching school lens. If a job ad gives equal verbiage to the importance of teaching and research, and the need for excellence in both, then the be aware that teaching campuses use an entirely different measuring stick for research excellence than the academic community in general. You could be called “excellent” at research on a teaching campus but have very few publications. Most teaching schools, except some well-endowed privates, do not solicit external reviews of scholarship. (My campus actually forbids committees to contact off-campus experts for evaluating research in tenure packages!)

If you hear that that serious researchers are welcome, or that serious research is expected, what does that typically mean? That means you’re expected to have multiple publications when you come up for tenure and that you attempt to gain external funding. That’s serious research at a teaching campus. A scientist with one paper per year in a decent journal is considered to be mighty good at most teaching campuses. At very well-funded private teaching campuses, there may be higher expectations that go along with a lower teaching load. If the base teaching load is three courses per semester or higher, than it’s unlikely that “serious research” means anything more than a few pubs (though you’re usually expected to try to get a grant). If you think this is an unacceptably low level of productivity (in others), or if you think this is a sign of mediocrity, then you don’t belong on a teaching campus, because you’d get resentful of your colleagues right away.

You’ve got to be able to distinguish productivity from quality, and the fact that someone can be a great researcher while producing at a level that would be unacceptable at an R1.

What’s the best indicator of genuine campus research expectations? Look at the people who are recently tenured. What do their CVs look like? That’s what expected, or maybe just one little notch higher.

Regardless of what a campus regards as “research,” every 4-year teaching institution expects serious research at some level. All individuals are expected, at least pre-tenure, to sincerely pursue a scholarly agenda and publish. The research expectation for tenure might be just a single publication before coming up for tenure, as it was at my last job. The expectation might be 2-3 pubs before tenure (in my current position). That level of productivity might be laughable from the perspective of a research institution, but it’s serious business on a teaching campus. And when you’re teaching 3-4 full courses per semester, and your job counts on having these courses go very well, it ain’t easy.

Let’s say that you want to pursue a serious research agenda at a teaching institution, and by “serious research agenda” you mean that you want to maintain a level of research activity that will keep your CV looking like it could belong at an R1 institution. You want to publish a few papers per year and you want your research to be recognized, cited and make a difference in your discipline. Is this possible? Yes. It is common? No. Is it possible at the job to which you’re applying? Maybe. Let’s consider how you can tell if it’s possible.

If there are genuinely well-recognized researchers in the department to which you’re applying, then that’s great news for you. It’s possible! You could be one of them! That’s a wonderful sign. The flowchart ends with “sounds like a good place for research.”

What about the other branch of the flowchart? What if a department doesn’t have any productive researchers? Could a new hire run a productive research lab in a department that doesn’t have strong researchers? On some campuses this is a definite possibility; on others, it won’t be possible. How can you distinguish the former from the latter? That’s really tricky. It depends on what you think you need to run a successful research program, and if it can fit into the bounds of the institution.

A successful research lab on a teaching campus doesn’t look much like a successful lab at a research institution. Success in research at a teaching campus needs to take an entirely different route than the one that you saw in grad school. (This is a whole other long post, but here’s a start on the concept.) The things that typically result in success at research institutions just can’t happen at teaching campuses. You probably won’t have other labs with which you can collaborate. You won’t have a serious research student for more than two years, tops. You aren’t going to have postdocs to do analyses and writing on your projects, and you won’t have any single person working consistently in the lab during normal working hours. Maintaining an atmosphere of an active R1 research lab would be a full-time job, if it were even possible. You’ve got to develop a research lab that works for you on your own terms, and you need to find a campus that provides you what you need, which is individualized to what makes your program work.

What do I need to keep my lab running? Once in a while I am contacted by a colleague who wants to “visit my lab” and spend time with my “research group.” I can’t help but chuckle to myself. My lab is more often empty than not, filled with a bunch of samples that need work. When it’s not empty, it’s full of undergraduates who are more focused on studying for their exams than they are on bringing their research towards publication. (Don’t get me wrong: my research lab is critically important space, and I need more of it; I just use this space differently than R1 labs.) My students are my highest priority, but the route that I take is to emphasize productivity of my research program over providing detailed and careful mentorship to my students year-round. This might be heresy in some teaching institutions, but I think it’s a strategy that serves the interests of my students the best.

With my lab looking like I just described, how do I get research done? During the school year, aside from a few small contributions by students apart from coursework, work gets done by me. (I can’t pay students to work in my lab, and all of my students need to earn money, so they typically have outside employment.) I got to spend a few weeks at the scope this spring, to finish up a very cool project, but I’d say that 98% of my work is me sitting at a computer.

During the academic year, I’m analyzing data, writing manuscripts, and feeding collaborations in a variety of ways. This work is sometimes done best when I’m not at work. I can do some things well from home, but I might work elsewhere away from campus or home too.

The source of my data arrives in the summertime. I go to the rainforest for a few weeks, and I have 1-4 students working there for the full summer. This work, along with other small projects here and there, generates more samples and data than I can handle throughout the academic year. My manuscript backlog is substantial, and if science is going to happen predictably, year after year after year, then nearly all of that work has to be done by me.

I sometimes feel like the early British explorers of the Antarctic who brought sledge dogs but didn’t know how to use them, so they ended up pulling the sleds themselves while the dogs were running alongside without any burden. This isn’t the way things really are, and my students do make great contributions, but most of them are not yet equipped to write manuscripts and if I equipped them, then far too few of them would ever come to press.

In sum, what is it that I need from my institution to get research done? I have the freedom and flexibility to be able to focus on writing. The campus culture doesn’t expect me to provide a sophisticated mentoring agenda for every student who comes into my lab, and I’m evaluated on the basis of the output (of students) rather than the methods. The bottom line is that I am sending students on to graduate programs, and that I am producing scholarship with student authors, and that I am bringing in grant money. That is valued, and I’ve never gotten any guff about how I go about making that happen. That’s how my campus allows me to get research done.

How can you apply my personal anecdote about my own campus to figuring out how other campuses can support your productive research program? You need to identify what route – or routes – exist for research success and whether those campuses enable those routes. You need to be able to envision exactly what you need to be successful, and then see if that is possible within the job. This takes an understanding of how you run your lab and how you get stuff done. This might be hard to figure out if you haven’t done it yet.

What is the worst indicator of whether a campus can support your research? Whatever they tell you. Having administrators that support research in concept is important. However, whatever they imagine you need, and whatever they want to provide, may not be what you truly need. You have to figure out what you really need, and I think this is highly individualized.

For example, if your program relies on the upkeep of some model organism, are there technical staff or work-study funds to pay someone to maintain your critters without you having to worry about it? If your work relies heavily on some fancy piece of equipment, is there one of those on campus with a service contract that you can use for your research? If you need to go two weeks at a time to a collaborating lab during the academic year, do you have the flexibility to schedule your classes to make that happen? If you need relatively untrained students to do repetitive work in the lab, are there funds or people that enable that to happen predictably or consistently? If you have a field site six hours away for your project, does the institution have a van that you can use to take students out and do you have a student population that can afford to go away for extended work?

A lot of professors who aren’t getting much research done at teaching institutions are frustrated because their institutions lack what they need to get done – not just in terms of equipment, but in terms of flexibility. There is often a structural mismatch between a professor’s research ambitions and what is possible on campus. You want to avoid that mismatch. You can do that by being flexible in what research questions you ask and how you go about answering them, or you could do that by finding the campus that can give you what you need. (I’ve done both; the latter was more by accident than design.)

Is the way the job is structured able to give you the time and resources that enable you to focus on research? You can’t tell that from a job ad. Unless you know exactly what your research program is going to look like, you can’t even learn that from an interview.

Last, can you be a serious and well-recognized researcher on a campus that doesn’t even seem to care about research at all? You definitely can. It doesn’t matter what people say or think on your campus. If your campus gives you the time, space and resources to make you successful – whatever it is that you need – it doesn’t matter what the campus culture is at all. Talking about research on a teaching campus won’t do your research program any good. You just need to, privately and in an individualized fashion, get it done.

The hardest part about being a researcher at a teaching campus is that this part of your job is very solitary. To be successful on a teaching campus typically means that you’re doing it on your own, and with collaborators who aren’t with you on your campus. This is radically different from what you experienced at research institutions in which you worked with a lab group. Even if your buddies worked on different projects, you still had one another.

How do you run a productive research program over your career in which you won’t have a peer, or highly trained mentee, working on directly related questions? Your specific answer to this question can tell you whether or not a job at a teaching institution can support your research agenda.

How can you tell this from the institution’s website and from the job ad? You can’t. Which is why you need to apply, and then find out if you land an interview. To be continued.

14 thoughts on “Applying for positions at teaching institutions: identifying opportunities for serious research

  1. I wanted to note, folks, that I’m away at a conference the whole week (Tropical Biology and Conservation). So I probably won’t post much more this week, if at all. I hope you think it’s a week’s worth of a post, though!

  2. Great points, I especially like “whatever they tell you.”

    One way to be less frustrated (and potentially more productive) is to try to collaborate with your local colleagues. This often means changing fields a bit (or a lot!). This depends highly your personal interests, but the nice thing about teaching colleges is the barrier for entry into a new field is extremely low. I’m not well known anywhere, so is anyone really going to care if I switch from human fungal pathogens to microbial ecology and/or endophytic symbionts? Nope. Also, the more broadly I am trained, the more student interests I can potentially serve.

    For point of reference, our recently adopted department specific standards for tenure and promotion call for 2 papers before going up for tenure. This seems high on the surface, but we allow for a poster presentation by yourself (or even better, one of your students) at a national meeting to count as 1/2 a paper. So, go to a meeting every year, present a poster, and you’ll be fine.

    You touch on the the prime driver of research success at a teaching college: self motivation. You have to *want* to do research to succeed at it, because there will be little external motivation to get it done. You can actually cause resentment among fellow faculty if you are too research driven. If your goal for writing a grant is to buy out of your teaching time… why did you take a job at a teaching college again?

  3. Terry, really interesting post. Where does editorial work fall into the mix for faculty at teaching institutions…is it considered part of your research program or do you have to fold it into another part of your portfolio? Can editors/journals do something to help faculty at teaching institutions get the recognition they deserve for editorial work, which in my opinion is an important part a strong research program?

  4. I think this is a relatively uncommon problem, but it’s a real one. My editorial service is pretty much overlooked. I don’t make a big deal of it, but it is known. When I came up for tenure, I don’t think I was yet on an editorial board, but if I was, I doubt that it would amount for much regardless of whether I put it in “research” or “service.”

    Being on an editorial board is looking far better on job applications than anything that happens inside my university.

    I think the prevailing thinking, at least on my campus, is that being on an editorial board is an indicator of someone’s role in the research community, but is not necessarily an achievement or a form of scholarship. It’s not a small amount of work, but I do think it’s of value and I wish it was to my university. A bigger problem is that my university can’t really distinguish between a paper in J.Trop.Ecol. or Biol.Lett. or Ecol.Lett. Perhaps the distinction can be made, but it doesn’t matter much.

    At my institution, there are no real tangible benefits, recognition or resources for scholarship (other than a small award that goes to one person annually) – no consideration in merit rates, no additional space, no time. So, the only reason I’m on an editorial board is for service to the profession and to maintain/grow my profile in the case I choose to move on. If I ended up doing massive editorial work for a top journal, it would just be on top of everything else and nobody at my university would blink. I don’t have any recommendations about how to change that. I do think there are many great potential editors at teaching institutions who do excellent work but might have a lower profile because they publish less frequently. Perhaps if they were more often tapped for editorial boards, then teaching schools would grow familiar with what it means to do editorial service.

  5. Grad students looking at teaching positions: note what Jeramia wrote:
    our recently adopted department specific standards for tenure and promotion call for 2 papers before going up for tenure. This seems high on the surface…
    This is pretty normal for all but the more elite (well-funded) teaching schools with lower teaching loads.

  6. Nice post. This reality is largely unknown and not understood by research faculty that haven’t passed through teaching institutions. This is why I laugh when research faculty look down their noses at teaching faculty who maintain modest research programs. In my experience, having been in both situations, the teaching faculty have it harder and face greater work loads and stress, if they choose to really pursue research, than their R1 colleagues. As you point out, this is also one of the major shortcomings of how so many life science PhD’s are trained. Most of them aren’t ready for the realities of trying to pursue research at a teaching institution.

  7. Great outline of the “work” aspects of maintaining a research program outside of an R1. All I can really add for the job-applicant is that you should ask yourself: will my research program run on in-house money and easier-to-get minigrants, or do I need an external funding stream? Because the latter is getting harder and harder to get, and you won’t get $300,000 in startup to build your bridge to get there in a teaching school. The largest startup I heard mentioned at teaching universities was $120,000- and that was an anomaly. If you are doing high-energy physics, this just might not work for you.

    I think that in situations like mine, the larger teaching institutions- your basic ‘ex-Teachers’ College with 5-12,000 students- and bigger departments may be better for this than smaller ones, though I have less experience with these. This is because there are funds and resources floating about simply due to the economics of numbers- we have a budget for 700 majors and 3 degree programs (biology and biotech BS, MS Bio). There are small pots of money ‘around’ to do things like pay students (we do this in a semesterly race-to-ask-the-Dean first) and get small equipment and disposables. You might even be able ask your Dept. Chair nicely at the end of the fiscal year- if everyone was well-behaved with money during the year, there may be some extra dollars looking for a home at the end. I can’t give away all my secrets here in a public forum, and they wouldn’t all work other places anyhow, but probe people to figure out how they keep the flow up necessary cash up. Tactically, in the course of your interviews, if somebody has a project on the scale of one of yours, it’s a good idea to ask, “That is a fantastic project! How did you cover the funding for that?”, Flattery and curiosity may get you the information, and eventually the stuff, you need.

  8. Data point: I had several co-authorships during the first two years of my SLAC TT job, some from work with a colleague at my SLAC. my pre-tenure review (in year three) stated that I needed ‘several’ more papers with work done at the SLAC for tenure. My chair interprets this as ‘at least three first-author papers’. Needless to say, it’s been a busy couple of years.

    (Conference presentations don’t count towards the total.)

  9. May I ask what your teaching load is? That number sounds, frankly, insane for a SLAC.

  10. I just relayed your comment to my other half who laughed the bitter laugh of a neglected spouse. My teaching load is a 3-2. Lab sections count as a course (so a lecture plus lab is a ‘2’).

    My feelings over ‘that number’ is best discussed over a cold one, but somehow I am on track to get it done by collaborating with people off campus.

  11. I still think its insane, but I should point out our requirement of 2, with conference presentations counting, is at a 4/4 load. Labs count 0.66 So 2 lectures and 3 labs = 4. Cold ones all around.

  12. In the interest of a conclusion here, I had the Provost stopping by with some excellent news (tenure and promotion as of Sep 1 2014). It wasn’t surprising because I ended up exceeding the publication benchmarks set by my department.

    I’m posting this here in part to share the joyous news, but also in part motivated by Terry’s recent ‘tenure denial’ thread. I did not have especially (to be kind) productive Ph.D. and postdoc training, but I was able to work it out. It’s been a hectic 5 1/2 years but I was very fortunate to have consistency of expectations in the Provost’s office and the committee that made the decision.

    If I had to summarize why I ultimately succeeded from a publishing perspective, I would say that it was chiefly because I maintained productive collaborations off campus. These collaborators provided data and critical editing of experimental designs and manuscripts, and were good, fun people to deal with. I also worked my fingers to the bone and, very importantly, was fortunate to have a spouse that walked with me the entire way.

  13. Congrats! Great news!

    I agree, without off-campus collaborations, I’d be getting almost no research completed and in print.

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