Really, faculty jobs in teaching-focused institutions are not inherently less stressful or easier or more balanced

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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.

18 thoughts on “Really, faculty jobs in teaching-focused institutions are not inherently less stressful or easier or more balanced

  1. Oh, goodness! I can attest to that. At PUIs, you do a lot of unfunded mandates. We still have to write grants, do research, teach rookies how to do reasearch, and teach the equivalent of 4 courses per semester.

  2. Good thing you wear a hat, so we don’t see your ugly-ass bald spot. Also, you are a cynical piece of sh*t.

  3. I really agree with the major point of this article. Back when I was applying for jobs, I harbored the misconception that teaching-focused positions were easier (somehow) than research-focused positions. During an interview at a private SLAC, I remember asking faculty about their daily schedule, and I was surprised at how they seemed to work long hours, pretty much the same as academics at research institutions. Now a professor at a teaching-focused institution, I can confirm that the time investment is similar to that of my professors at my PhD and Master’s institutions (and friends and collaborators at R1/2). In fact, schedules at teaching schools are less flexible (because class time is class time) and thus hours may be on average a bit longer at teaching-focused schools!

  4. I don’t comment often, but after the comment above I feel the need to offer a bit of ‘anti-trolling.’ Smallpondscience has been extremely helpful to me as an early career scientist, and I’m grateful for all your efforts sharing knowledge. Thank you!

  5. Great post, and sorry you got trolled upthread.

    Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that a decent number of people like to believe that there own personal preferences or experience are universal, or at least representative of broader trends. That is, they’re not merely overgeneralizing from their own personal preferences or experiences (which I’m sure I do as much as the next person). They’re also bothered when they discover that their own preferences and experiences aren’t universally shared or representative of any broad trend. I’ve run into this attitude occasionally when posting about my ecology faculty job market data, which is why in those posts I often go out of my way to emphasize that data on broad trends don’t somehow devalue or falsify anyone’s individual experiences.

    Have you run into anything similar in your conversations about your post topic? People who, say, find their own faculty job at a teaching-focused institution unstressful, and who don’t like being told that’s not a generalizable statement about all faculty jobs at teaching-focused institutions?

    • I’ve been a bit surprised that nobody has chimed in (of which I’m aware, there’s conversation on platforms that I don’t see) to say “well actually, my position at this college is actually peaceful and mellow, unlike my R1 grad school and postdoc experiences.” I imagine there are some folks who are thinking this. But that would be expected by some folks, if by the luck of the draw they ended up in a bad place for grad school and ended up in a good place for a TT job. The chorus of folks on twitter has been in general accord with what I was saying here. I mean, I think it’s an obvious thing to point out, but I think it goes against the prevailing wisdom of a lot of people on the job market, and a lot of their PIs as well. So I don’t know if I can proclaim victory here by effectively educating folks, or if I have failed by creating and environment where people who think differently consider this isn’t a place for them to speak up? I hope it’s the former, but I’ll still think about evolving how I do things in case it’s the latter.

  6. Nice post Terry. I can’t comment on the hat, but your troll really needs to get a dictionary and look up the word “cynical”.

    Anyway, I think it’s worth considering the UK perspective on what we would describe as “research-intensive” versus “teaching-focused” institutions. Which is really code for answering the question: “where does most of the money come from?” [hey, troll – THAT’S cynical – make a note]. In teaching-focused institutions up to 90% of funding can come from student fees, whereas the reverse is true in the highest ranking Russell Group research-intensive universities (think Oxford, Cambridge).

    Now the research-intensive universities will tell you that they are also teaching-focused, and I don’t doubt that. But they have a lot more staff who can deliver the teaching, including ECRs, and they also tend to attract the most self-confident and motivated students. So in some respects the job of “teaching” is easier. But recently teaching at HE institutions has been shaken up a little by the government introducing the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework), an assessment which awards those institutions Bronze, Silver or Gold according to how they score against a range of metrics, including student employability, how they perform in surveys of their graduates, spend-per-student, etc.

    That’s really shaken the tree because some universities that are ranked highly for their research in our REF (Research Excellence Framework) are coming out with only Bronze awards for the TEF. And relatively low-ranked institutions in the REF (mine own included) have done well in the TEF (yay, we got a Gold!)

    Both REF and TEF relate to funding. REF scores in subject areas determine the amount of core research funding the government gives an institution. TEF can affect reputation and is increasingly being used by students to decide where to study. Not surprisingly, because rankings such as this can affect income, high-REF, low-TEF institutions are claiming that the TEF is fundamentally flawed, not something they’ve leveled at the REF that’s given them ever-larger pieces of the core research funding pie [troll – are you paying attention? That was another one you missed].

    What does this mean in relation to your post? It means that regardless of the type of institution you work in, your research and teaching are going to be assessed in much the same way, internally, and then scrutinised by government systems. And for the TEF that’s going to get more intense: the next iteration in a few years will take the focus down from institutions to subject areas. So anyone considering applying for a lecturing job in a teaching-focused university and thinking they’ll get an easy ride is sorely mistaken. Their teaching will be looked at, plus these institutions are ever-keen to improve their research rankings. Ditto someone applying to a research-intensive university and thinking that they can get away with a bit of crappy teaching while they share their wisdom with the world in their latest Nature or Science paper [troll! For fuck’s sake wake up. Get a hat, it might help your concentration].

    So in summary, yes, the US and the UK higher education landscapes are different in many ways, but in this respect they are similar: there are no free rides.

    • Thanks, Jeff, a lot of insights here. Meanwhile I hadn’t even heard about TEF scores, but I hear about REF all the time! 🙂

      • Yes, TEF is the new kid on the block. There are rumours that in the next few years we will also have a KEF – Knowledge Exchange Framework. Reflects a government obsession with measuring and reducing everything to single metrics….

  7. Yeah, a little bit? But frankly most of the stress in my faculty job at a teaching-focused institution is self-imposed. If I just did the minimum I needed to get tenure, I would have a pretty chill life. Even working a fair bit more than I need to, I still have a pretty good work-life balance at this point.

    We recognize that student evaluations can be problematic. There’s a bar, but it’s a fairly low one, and it’s not imposed quarter by quarter, and it’s only applied for tenure (not reappointment).

    Yes, the research resources don’t match the expectations, but that can be true at R1s as well (just much higher expectations).

    And perhaps the most important thing to me: no one’s job depends on me. I have no grad students to support. As someone who had to deal with variable and uncertain funding in grad school at a high-ranked R1, I’m really, really glad I don’t have to deal with the stress of being responsible for someone else’s life like that.

  8. I agree with you, but what about the tenured colleague who proudly tells students “I decided to work at a teaching-focused school because I wanted a more relaxed life”? What if that colleague practices what they preach, working a 9-3 schedule, getting teaching releases for dubious tasks, and leaving work unfinished?

    • As far as I can tell, those people who phone it in occur the same frequency at research-focused institutions. If you don’t care about doing your job well as a tenured professor, you can do your job badly regardless of institution type. The people with the laziest professional existences that I’m aware of are tenured faculty at research institutions who don’t publish, don’t mentor students, do little service, and have low teaching loads.

      • Sure, but R1 deadwood don’t usually go around bragging that their institution is so progressive because it allows them this nice work-life balance. If anything, they try to bask in the reflected glory of being at a place full of hard-charging researchers. PUI deadwood, however, praise their departments for allowing them to balance little work with a full life, while other people pick up the slack.

        So they are part of the image problem.

  9. Very nice article. As a faculty member at a teaching focused engineering school I can attest to the fact that the misconception of “teaching faculty have it easy” is widespread. Here and there I present at technical engineering conferences on the tiny thread of research I have going on along side my teaching load. At breaks between sessions I can sometimes feel the silent judging of faculty at Research schools, where I can almost hear their thoughts: “it must be nice to just have to teach…” or “what do you do with all your free time?”. They don’t understand that this research I am presenting is essentially on my own time, since I am booked up with teaching and administrative duties full time already. And you hit the nail on the head, that this typically is sensed when speaking with R1 faculty who clearly don’t care about their own teaching and do the bare minimum to prep their courses (and likely have TAs to grade for them), and when they extrapolate their meager time allotment for teaching to my several courses per term they don’t understand how I can possible fill my day with such little activity.

    I love being at a teaching focused university, and wouldn’t trade it — but it is not because it is any easier than being an R1 faculty member. It is still a job with its own stresses and competing demands on my time. When I decided to go this route I made a conscious decision because of the following: I feel I can make the most impact on my profession and the world at large by inspiring and preparing undergraduate students who are going out into the world.

    Thanks for the great article, I hope it helps more folks decide which type of faculty job is right for them!

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