If you love teaching, a research university might be perfect for you

Standard

“I like teaching, and I didn’t want the same stress-packed life as the professors in my PhD program, so a faculty position at a teaching-focused university is a good fit for me.”

I’ve heard something like this more times than I can possibly count from grad students, postdocs, and professors. It’s something that I used to say myself. But now I think this statement is built on two big fallacies.

Fallacy #1: Faculty positions at research institutions involve more work or more stress than faculty jobs at teaching-focused institutions.

Really, I swear, jobs at teaching institutions are not inherently low-key, or less stressful, or less work. The culture of every department is quite different. There are plenty of research-intensive departments, that produce large quantities of amazing science, where the culture helps the PIs to lead well-adjusted and happy lives, with time for families and their hobbies. I promise. I’ve spent time with a lot of these people. Likewise, there are teaching-focused institutions that, despite extraordinarily low expectations for grant funding or published research, have overworked or stressed out faculty, who experience work-related stresses on par with the need to bring in major federal grants or regularly publish high-profile papers. I think I’ve seen enough to decide that work-related stress is more a product of institutional culture than institution type, and your odds of getting a job that gives you a comfortable life away from work won’t change by focusing on any particular university type. A job at a teaching institution isn’t easier, it’s just different. When my mentor from an undergrad institution told me this, I didn’t really believe her until I figured this out, many years later. I’ve made this argument before with more detail, so if you need more convincing, check it out.

Fallacy #2: Faculty positions at research institutions involve less teaching than faculty jobs at teaching-focused institutions.

If you really enjoy teaching, then an R1 job might be a great fit for you (though I realize these jobs are harder to get). This might sound counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Standard tenure-track faculty positions at research-intensive universities involve plenty of teaching. Your performance will have a negligible impact on your professional advancement. If you care about teaching, then you are doing your students a huge favor by actually giving a damn. Because if you’re at a standard research university, teaching will not be an obstacle to tenure, as long as you are a less-than-hideous teacher. Nonetheless, quality teaching by professors at research universities can be extremely impactful. In my experience, professors at R1s have far, far more students than professors at teaching-focused institutions.

Just this week, I had the chance to visit with a brand-new faculty member at an R1. She’s teaching 800 students this semester, in two sections of an introductory biology course. Meanwhile, at CSU Dominguez Hills, I’m not even sure if I’ve cumulatively taught 800 different students over the past ten years! When she walks into the classroom and offers an engaging and effective lesson, think about that impact! Especially if the alternative is a professor who doesn’t even care much about teaching. Outside the classroom, the impact is huge as well. Last week alone, she’s seen more students in office hours, in one-on-one meetings, that I will ever see over a whole semester.

Some Small Pond Science readers are well familiar with Dynamic Ecology. There, Meg Duffy (who runs a productive research lab at University of Michigan) writes about a lot about teaching. Clearly, Dr. Duffy’s experience shows that running a successful R1 lab is compatible with being a dedicated and reflective teacher, and in this respect, she’s no outlier. There are a lot of people who have jobs like Dr. Duffy who put time and energy into teaching well, even though this is not a required step on the path to tenure and academic fame. (Why am I mentioning her in particular? Because she’s public about her teaching, and I know her well enough to see how she walks the walk.) She might have fewer contact hours in the classroom compared to faculty at small liberal arts colleges or regional comprehensive universities, but that doesn’t mean she spends less time on teaching. Teaching a humongous lecture course with many hundreds of students is an entirely different beast than a class with 40 students. Teaching a huge class requires more preparation, and every class is a performance. If you don’t have an army of TAs, then you’ll have a lot of student issues to deal with. If you do have an army of TAs, then you’re the general of an army and that takes plenty of work, too. Also, teaching is exhausting, and at least in my experience, this exhaustion scales with class size. After teaching a class of 400 students, you can’t just step back into your office and get back to grant writing, amirite?

So, which takes up more time, which is more work, more impactful, more rewarding, a better fit for those who love teaching and want good teaching to matter? The job at: A) a smaller institution where you have more courses smaller in size, or B) the bigger place where you teach fewer courses, but sometimes those courses are huger than huge? I think there’s a good argument for either A or B. Or both.

Over the past few years, whenever I’ve visited colleges and universities, I’ve made a point to ask folks about how much time they spend teaching compared to how much time they spend on research. And here’s my qualitative take-home message: teaching takes plenty of time for R1 faculty and small liberal arts college faculty and regional state university faculty. And I think it’s quite possible that R1 faculty actually spend the smallest amount of time on research. How might they produce the most papers even though they might spend the least amount of time on research? Well, that one I can explain pretty easily.

Don’t just take my word for it, check out the Higher Education Research Institute Faculty Survey. When you compare research universities to teaching-focused 4-year colleges, there is scant difference in the number of hours spent on teaching per week — just a few hours. (See page 26 for these data, and the lists of categorized institutions start on page 221.) Another thing to note is the huge variability in hours spent teaching by faculty, within each of institution types. Just because you end up at a particular kind of institution, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be teaching a lot or a little. (I recognize that this survey covers all fields, and that there’s presumably an interaction effect between STEM/non-STEM and institution type as a predictor of teaching load, but I don’t have those numbers.)

I realize that a lot of what I’ve said here goes against the conventional wisdom. But then again, conventional wisdom often does us a disservice.

 

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