When I was a postdoc and looking for faculty jobs, I harbored a common misconception about faculty jobs. Even though my mentor definitely schooled me well in advance, it took multiple years on the job for me to get a clue.
I was at a conference this week, and chatted with a lot of folks about career stuff. The misconception that I used to have kept coming up repeatedly from others, so I’d just like to douse it here in the open with a wet blanket.
A lot of junior scientists have reported that they’re interested in a job at a teaching-focused institution because they’ve seen the high-stress, hard-work, fast-paced, and competitive environment in research universities, and they want something else. And that something else might be a regional public university or a small liberal arts college.
I’d hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the pace of life at a teaching-focused institution is not necessarily any better than at research-focused universities. If you want to jump off the publish-or-perish merry-go-round at a research institution, I don’t think switching gears to a different kind of university is going to deliver a higher quality of life.
I’m not saying that universities like the one where I work aren’t different than R1s. There are a lot of differences. It’s different. But it’s not inherently easier. It took me a lot of exposure to a lot of universities, and many hours on the job, to come to this realization.
I posit that the quality of life as a faculty member isn’t a function of the kind of the university, but instead, the culture of the individual institution. Some research universities are high-pressure snake pits. Maybe you went to grad school at one of those. On the other hand, I’ve now seen enough of the world to realize that there are plenty of research universities that are supportive work environments, where faculty experience reasonable expectations and receive support from their peers instead of competition. Just because you are familiar with professors being really stressed out and desperately scrambling for grants, publications, and recognition, that doesn’t mean everywhere is like this! Does the job have high expectations, and faculty are expected to deliver? Why, yes, that is true. But this is no less true at a teaching-focused institution.
If you happened to have witnessed faculty experiencing some kind of bucolic ideal of a teaching-focused faculty job, that doesn’t necessarily give you an inside track on what it’s like to have that kind of job. Once you’re in the driver’s seat, this might not be the basket of roses you might have imagined. There might not be pressure to bring in a million dollars in grants and publish several high-profile papers each year. However, in the context of the resources and job requirements, it may not be so easy to meet the scholarly expectations set forth for you. Meanwhile, at a research university, if you have an off semester and your teaching evaluations end up lower than you had hoped for, this isn’t going to put your job at risk. But at many teaching-focused institutions, student perceptions of your teaching quality are often paramount, and the time you put into preparing courses, grading, and supporting students outside of class hours are substantial expectations that can generate just as much chronic stress as the need to publish a paper or submit another grant.
If you want a job where you research and teach, and other people care mostly about what’s going on with your research, then a research university is the place for you. If you want a job where you research and teach, and other people mostly care about teaching, then a teaching-focused university is for you. It’s not that one job is more stressful than the other, or has more balance or better community or anything like that. The difference between the two jobs is just trading one kind of stress for another. I’ve heard a lot of folks say that they’d prefer the stress of having to teach a great class every day over the stress of having to run a big externally-funded research lab every day. Maybe that’s true for them, but I think it’s better to pick a job for what it is rather than what it isn’t.
To be clear, I think my current position is an absolute peach at the moment, and the climate in my department and in the college supports faculty with well-balanced lives. But I think on a day-to-day basis, we experience stressors and challenges and difficult expectations on the par of those experienced by faculty at research-focused universities. We just happen to be at an institution with a healthy culture, which appears to be independent of institutional type.
When I’ve been asked for advice about finding a faculty job that lets you balance your personal and professional goals, and to live a normal life outside of work, here’s what I say: Interview for jobs that you think you want. Figure out if the other people there are happy, and if the culture of the institution supports the kind of career you want. Which, depending on your priorities, could be any kind of place. You might be surprised.