Universities that want research but don’t want researchers


I’ve done most of my fieldwork at a biological field station. Many people come and go, but there are a lot of common interests and some longstanding friendships.

I’ve had the chance to befriend people over the course of several cohorts of doctoral students working on station. A subset of these folks — myself included — have found positions in academia and continued to do research down here. And of course there are lots of active scientists who I see at conferences. The ebb and flow of academic and personal interactions over the decades has its grandeur.

So I’ve gotten to know a number of other people who have hopped in a similar academic boat as myself. We teach at least a medium amount but also are down here for research regularly.

I am pretty sure that most of the PhD students I know from this field station haven’t been planning to work in research universities. And I’d also bet that these same people are also looking forward to a career of research, mentorship and making scientific discoveries.

Because we’re not based out of research universities, of course we are naturally experiencing some structural setbacks that constrain our research programs. But I’ve been getting more frustrated and/or infuriated at hearing about a variety of setbacks that are not necessary or short-sighted.

There are some folks doing quite well in the pursuit of an ambitious research agenda, while working as professors in teaching-focused universities. Using standard indicators, some are a big deal or rockstars. (And nice cool friendly all-round great people.)

But because of dumb roadblocks imposed by institutions, for some people this awesomeness can’t be sustainable.

Of course, there are some things that a teaching-focused university can’t do to accommodate faculty research. If you don’t have a prestigious institution with wealthy donors and a big endowment, then it’s hard to provide a huge startup package, not one big enough to (say) hire a postdoc or a full-time technician. A teaching university probably can’t host a large core facility, and probably can’t provide space that can accommodate a large number of people.

But there are things that a teaching-focused university can do to support research-active faculty. Different people might need different things. Approval to travel for research once or twice in the semester for a week at a time. The ability to use grant money to reassign some teaching load to research. The ability to hire work-study students to do research, and to get teaching credit for student mentorship.

When it comes to amazing researchers, teaching institutions often fail to recognize what they’ve got on their hands. I’ve worked alongside some people who are doing spectacular things, who are internationally recognized as top scholars. But this performance as amazing researcher doesn’t mean much to their administrations. They might get some friendly words, but not the tangible support that is needed to keep the research active.

I’ve heard from others — and I also hear it at my own university — that the university says it really need strong researchers on campus. There’s always lot of talk about building up research activity. The campus really wants grants, and the campus really wants faculty to publish, and the campus really wants increased research training for students.

But the campuses don’t make tangible moves to support the researchers who are supposed to be doing research.

If a university wants to have research, it needs to support researchers. You can’t just support the research activity, you have support the individuals who are carrying out that activity.

I understand this much: The primary mission of teaching universities is to teach. Faculty who don’t want to focus on teaching don’t belong at teaching universities.

I also understand this too: Many teaching universities really want research to happen. They talk about the importance of research a lot, and have nontrivial expectations for research productivity and student research mentorship. Teaching universities want to have teacher-scholars who are active researchers, are engaged with other scholars in their field, and are recognized as experts in the broader academic community.

I understand this three: Teaching universities rarely match the rhetoric involving research support with the actual support of researchers.

I might grouse about conditions where I am on occasion, but compared to things I’ve heard of late from some colleagues, I realize that things for me are okay at the moment. Sure, some parts of my administration don’t really understand what research is, and there’s an overemphasis on quantity rather than quality. But there have been some tangible gestures to support research-active faculty. There’s a growing understanding that you don’t have to support all faculty researchers equally.

This post isn’t about me and my frustrations. At least, I’m writing about the setbacks that I’ve seen in others’ situations, which sometimes reflect ones that I’ve experienced. It’s frustrating to see new generations of strong researchers enter faculty positions at teaching institutions, with a clear promise for the opportunity to both teach and do research, and then experience unnecessary roadblocks at their university because the support for researchers doesn’t match the rhetoric tied to research.

At the very least, institutions need to be honest with themselves, and with job candidates, about the campus support for research. You can’t hire someone on the basis of their research promise, tell them to do research, but not provide the opportunity to do so. Actually, you can do this. It’s not uncommon. But this practice should stop.

6 thoughts on “Universities that want research but don’t want researchers

  1. What’s your advice for job candidates regarding these types of institutions? Are there specific questions that you could ask that would help you identify a place that is not directly supportive of research / has unreasonable research expectations? Somehow, I don’t think relying on institutions to be honest with job candidates is a good plan, even though I agree that they ought to be.

  2. As a senior faculty in a biology department at a small college, I would say to job candidates to get honest answers about what is expected for tenure. And you will be most successful as a researcher if your area is a “unique niche” so you are not competing with laboratories with larger stables.
    My department at a 3000 student undergraduate college has higher expectations for tenure than the institution since we really understand what good science is and how much fire you have to have for research to maintain it at our college. The members of our status committee often don’t understand science. Since we have a heavy teaching load relative to a university, we have to hire people who will fight to keep their research going…or are so passionate about their research that they will be productive while teaching and having little financial support beyond their start-up to support their research until they get a grant.
    Often our most successful researchers have a unique “niche” in their field so they make progress and make contributions but are not competing with large well funded research labs doing the same work at lightening speed with lots of “staff”. Or they have collaborators at larger institutions that value their work and support them on their grants.
    The saddest thing is to spend all year planning a summer research push but to find another lab (perhaps a collaborator) put a grad student on the project and it is done. Such a thing in more likely in lab based research…not field work.

  3. Job candidates really need to do their homework and when they interview, ask frank questions of junior and senior faculty. I think most faculty will be quite honest about what conditions are like in an institution during one-on-one conversations. Candidates need also to take any kind of promise or expectation of support not that seriously until it comes in writing, especially if it’s something that isn’t uniformly available to all faculty. If they can’t put it in writing, there’s a reason they can’t put it in writing. And that might be because they can’t promise it.

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