What it’s like to start a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor (guest post)

Carrie Woods in the field

Carrie Woods in the field

This is a guest post by Carrie Woods of Colgate University, a Canadian scientist who studies the ecophysiology and community ecology of tropical rainforest canopies. If you have any questions or remarks for Carrie, please be sure to leave them in the comments.

I just entered my new office as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) in the Biology Department at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York. My office is one of the nicest I have seen and has an incredible view of hills covered in lush temperate forest – perfect for pondering life, science, or wherever the mind cares to wander. Facing this pondering window, I received and accepted an invitation from Terry to post about my experience thus far in interviewing and becoming a faculty member at a liberal arts institution.

My interview was full of friendly faces offering help, advice, and typical interview questions for a teaching position in a liberal arts college. First and foremost, everyone wanted to know what course I was proposing to teach. Is it novel in the department? Will it broaden the scope of understanding of the students? Do I have the expertise to effectively teach the course? If you have done your research, you will know the answer to all of these questions and will instill confidence in every interviewer that yes, in fact, you have perused the course offerings and believe that the course you are proposing to teach is novel, interesting, great for broadening students’ perspectives, and couldn’t be taught without you. I know this may seem obvious but I was expecting an interview that looked at my entire academic career – not just my teaching experience. I even had prepared answers to questions pertaining to my research. But I guess because a VAP position is used to bring in a professor for a year to teach, and only teach, the lack of focus on my research makes sense.

I was surprised though how little emphasis was placed on my research interests or how many publications I had or in what journals. Having only had experience in Research I universities, this came as a shock. I knew that the primary focus of a professor in a liberal arts college is the education of undergraduate students but I didn’t realize how little importance was placed on your research when deciding if you were right for a teaching position. Not one single person asked me about my research. They did, however, peruse my CV for mentoring and teaching experiences (which I placed ahead of my research experience, as per the suggestion of every liberal arts college faculty I knew). I could be misunderstanding the entire process though. It could be that my research experiences were sufficient and, therefore, not in need of discussion. My seminar was clear and focused on undergraduates but I did not dumb down my research or complicated multivariate analyses. I took those challenges head on to show that I could effectively teach complicated concepts. So maybe, my research was important to show that I was a well-rounded scientist.

I decided to take a teaching position after completing my Ph.D. for several reasons. First, many of my colleagues that had new assistant professor positions, regardless of what type of institution, seemed to be drowning in course development. I had never developed or taught an entire course before so I heeded their calls of distress and decided to find a position where I could develop and teach a course before applying for a post-doc or tenure-track position. A VAP position is exactly that. Second, science is a discipline wrought with waiting. There is little immediate gratification in scientific research – except of course for those moments during data analysis when your hypothesis is accepted or when finally figuring out the story of your paper or when a paper is accepted for publication. But other than those brief moments, science is pretty thankless and requires resilience to pursue an idea from birth to publication. In between these brief gratifying moments in graduate school, I found teaching to be extremely rewarding. Watching someone learn a concept that you taught is a very gratifying experience. These rewarding teaching moments carried me through those times when motivation for my research was waning. I found a love and passion for teaching during graduate school and wanted to pursue those passions a little deeper (hence the VAP position).

Since arriving around 9 am this morning, four different people have come by to welcome me and offer any help they can. I feel grateful for their friendly faces and help in navigating the new avenues of a faculty position at a liberal arts college as I am just starting to get my toes wet. I am super excited about finally teaching my own course. So excited in fact that I have already outlined my lectures, ordered my textbook for the bookstore, written my syllabus, and have some ideas for exam questions and the first day of classes isn’t for two weeks. I would have started sooner if it wasn’t for my busy summer of field research in Costa Rica, two conferences, my dissertation defense, and graduation. Now that those tasks are complete, I can finally focus on what I have been excited to do since I first discovered a passion for teaching in graduate school. It’s a very cool moment.

As for the future, this next year will likely dictate where I end up ultimately in academia: liberal arts or research I. I honestly haven’t fully decided where I want to go yet. However, looking out my window at forest-covered hills and being in a department with such an amazing group of friendly and supportive people, thus far, liberal arts is winning the race.

2 thoughts on “What it’s like to start a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor (guest post)

  1. First of all, Dr. Woods, welcome to liberal arts teaching, I hope you have a great year and that you and your students get a lot out of it. Your observation that people aren’t too concerned about your research interests is probably on-point. In a one-year position, it’s unlikely that your colleagues will strike up a collaboration with you, at least on anything other than the shortest-term projects. If I were your Colgate-colleague, I would assume that in your position, your research goals would be to finish and publish projects based on your PhD research- hopefully you’ve got a hard-drive or two full of data or manuscripts in various stages waiting to be birthed. But if you can mentor a student through a short-term research or even lit-review project, that is quality experience too.

    The opposite number to this is, you are probably genuinely appreciated for filling in ‘the slot’ in the department teaching-wise- it’s no fun filling advanced pieces of currculum (like ecology courses) with adjuncts- it’s both difficult to do, and not great for the students. Don’t be shy about asking for help, people with a little institutional knowledge are often happy to share. As VAP, you shouldn’t be a threat to anybody’s personal fiefdom, as you’ll be moving on shortly, so it should in some ways be easier than if you were a first year T-T person. If you don’t ask, though, your colleagues may assume all is well, return to their plenty-busy routines, and you may start to feel like you’re on an island. That’s why I suggest you reach out and grab a local colleague or two, maybe even set up a regular coffee meeting with them somewhere on campus- informal and but a chance to get questions answered about how things work on campus and in the dept.

    Enjoy and make the most of it. Upstate NY is lovely this time of year.

  2. Carrie Woods…… Scroll back almost 12 years, to 2002, Winter semester, Insect Behaviour class. There is this very enthusiastic but kind of ditsy student in my class who attends every class and seems to really enjoying learning, but I cannot quite figure her out. She is always singing a song– always– and is uninhibited to ask any question! And then, of all things, she wants to go to Ecuador on our Field Entomology class. That worries me a bit– she seems so casual, so fun-loving and un-serious, that I am not sure what effect she will have on the rest of the students….
    Roll forward 3 months. We are at Jatun Sacha, at the western edge of the Amazon basin. Carrie is studying an odd species of termite, and has designed the most simple yet intriguing tests– 5 of them– to try to better understand their behaviour. She is still singing songs incessantly, but has the most innovative project of all the students in the course. In the evenings she is enthusiastic about being in the laboratory identifying bugs, then equally enthusiastic about heading to “El Laboratorio”, the local bar with 8 year old girl serving 1 quart beers that cost a buck. She is totally loving everything about being in Ecuador (well, all but the creepy peeping guy at the cloud forest site)–even the huge whip scorpions that inhabit the girls’ bathroom (outhouse).
    Roll forward again to May of 2007. Several years and a mundane job taking phone reservations, 8 months serving as a field assistant in northern Ontario, and a couple of winters of climbing rain forest trees in Costa Rica have passed. . Carrie is now doing her MSc thesis on the ecology of the boreal forest, but serving as a TA for our field course at a remote lodge on the border of Peru and Bolivia. She is now “bromeliad girl”– loving everything about bromeliads and other epiphytes that grow in the canopy of the forest. Move over Sean Connery of “Medicine Man”– you have met your match! (Does he even know how he inspired your career, Carrie?)
    And now, fall of 2013– Dr. Carrie Woods is ‘crashing” Colgate College. She has found two new loves– teaching and her students. She loves her husband (recently married). And she still loves bromeliads. (If you don’t believe that, just ask her any random question about bromeliads you can think of, then stand back and smile!) I hope there is a place in your heart for the insects that started you on that path in 2002, Carrie.
    Gard Otis, Professor, University of Guelph.

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