When I visit other universities and chat with grad students, I love fielding questions about career stuff. I realize that’s part of why I was invited. Since I often get the same questions, I suppose I should also answer those questions here, too. Because if I get asked a question every time I visit an R1 department, it must be a really common question.
One question is: What is it like to be a faculty member at a non-R1, in a teaching-focused university? What I say is something like, “As far as I can tell, my day-to-day activities aren’t all that different than faculty in R1s. I do research, I teach, I’m on committees, I manage people, I write grants, travel, and such. The ratio varies from institution, from person to person, from department to department, but as far as I can tell, it’s not all that different. Except I don’t work as much with grad students, and postdocs are uncommon.”
I say that the difference between tenure track jobs at research-intensive universities and teaching-focused universities isn’t so much about what you do, but rather, what gets supported and valued, and how you’re primarily evaluated. And how people outside your university will perceive you. The research bar is lower at a non-R1, but keep in mind that you’re going to be the one writing all of your papers and you’ll be responsible for getting everything across the finish line. The difference in productivity is the people. And keep in mind that while teaching loads at R1s may be lower, teaching classes with several hundred students, and supervising a small army of TAs, will take more work than teaching a much smaller class. A survey of faculty time use doesn’t show a big difference in the allocation of time towards research and teaching between R1 and non-R1 faculty. But at non-R1s, what appears on those teaching evaluations is a lot more consequential.
Question two is: Is there less stress or better hours or better working conditions or better life balance in my job outside an R1? And then I say, well, in a nutshell: NO. I say It’s not easier, just different. I say that this was part of my reason for picking this career path, and that I was greatly mistaken. I was told otherwise, but I didn’t believe what I was told for several years. You have a lower research bar for tenure, but you have fewer resources and people and perhaps latitude to clear that lower bar. You also are having your teaching looked at way more carefully, and you’re expected to continuously work to improve your teaching, even if you’re already doing a great job. You also might be in an environment that expects other substantial time commitments for service, face time with students, advising, and so on. I feel like I have a great balance between work and non-work, but that’s not a function of the university I work in, it’s because of my particular department and institution.
So, if you’re looking at what life is like for PIs in your department in grad school, and you want a non-R1 faculty job to avoid the stresses that you’re having, I think you won’t have any better luck. There are some non-R1s where some faculty lead normal balanced lives. And there are non-R1s where some faculty are expected to overwork and dedicated their whole lives to the job. The same exact thing is true for R1s. I’ve visited plenty of extremely productive research-intensive environments were the faculty lead perfectly normal and well balanced lives. It’s a thing that exists. The more I get to know different universities and departments, the more I become convinced that quality of life as a professor isn’t about the type of university, but instead about the culture of the individual institution.
Maybe I’ll change my tune in a few years. After all, I look at some old posts on here and realize that I’ve updated my opinions. But as for the one I linked to from 2013 about life balance and types of faculty jobs, that one I still agree with.