The conversation I often have with PhD students


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.


8 thoughts on “The conversation I often have with PhD students

  1. This is a helpful read as I consider what whether a R1 or non-R1 would be better fit for me. All my training has been in R1 environments and I think I’ve certainly subscribed to the notion that non-R1s surely must have better work, non-work balance. Happy to have that myth busted early, and I’ll focus on finding a good departmental and institutional fit.

    You alluded to the possibility of not having the latitude to meet the lower research bar at non R1s. What has your experience been in that regard? And what’s your sense of how prevalent that issue is at non R1s?

    Thanks again for writing this.

    • When I said one might not have the latitude, I was vaguely thinking of circumstances where people or institutions put up obstacles that are more common in smaller places, like bad/missing IACUC or IRB, or an incompetent grants office, or substandard greenhouse space, or so much scrutiny on teaching that you can’t do basic things for research. My own experience hasn’t been so bad, but I’ve seen others struggle.

  2. A related question: Do you think there is similar amounts of stress or pressure around securing external, competitive grants?

    At an R1, securing major NSF grants is often needed for tenure, and a big source of stress for faculty that I know. And, they need it to support their larger labs! On the other hand, at a non-R1, tenure might not rely on such grants, but if you want to do any research it seems like you’d have to be pursuing that type of external funding. So, there might not be a ton of institutional direct pressure to get $$, but I can imagine it being an issue both from indirect research expectations and someone’s own, internal desire to keep their lab funded. Do you have a perspective on that?

    • I think you put it well. It’s less likely a big grant is needed for tenure but there still is stress about getting/staying funded. And without funding, teaching load may be higher (at some nonR1s), and there’s less funding for students/techs/reagents/etc, making it harder to do the research. Clearly there is not the stress of “no NSF/NIH grant, no tenure” and that is clearly a plus but in my personal experience, the constellation of stressors is usually more complicated in most circumstances.

  3. it appears to me that many R2 type institutions like San Diego State, Portland State are putting more pressure on junior faculty and are (becoming) “ no grant no tenure”…. so there are many universities in a gray zone which can be hard on junior faculty as the administration wants to elevate the research standing with increasing expectations on research but same standards in teaching. Some of these places might be more stressful than your average R1 as research expectations are not that different but teaching loads are.

  4. I disagree on the “no grant no tenure perspective”. It definitely depends on the institution. I’m at a public regional university in the south. We’re way way way down the list with respect to rankings, which I note only to put my comments into context, i.e. we’re not some high powered regional university. Yet nearly all faculty hired in the past 15 years have secured either a significant NSF or NIH research grant pre tenure, and have multiple other grants. We additionally have a 12 hr teaching load. I came through R1s so have some idea of what’s involved at that level. Frankly, in many respects I think careers at regional universities are more difficult. We’re expected to excel at both research and at teaching. Yet, as Terry noted, the research ‘infrastructure’ that promotes excellence is often not in place at such institutions.

    • I’m curious, have pre-tenure faculty been told that a major grant is required for tenure? Or has someone not gotten tenure because they didn’t get one?

  5. PUIs that are changing focus due to a new president or other new higher up administrators starting around the time you will be hired. For example, recently higher up administrators of my PUI are pushing for more research to be done. However, lots of tenured faculties, students and senate members are not interested in implementing research that leads to publications: you will be on your own without great support, with mixed messages from your peers not lining up with the committees and administrator involved in renewal-tenure and promotion processes. Your teaching and service loads will be the same as the tenured faculty, but you will have to perform in research more than your senior colleagues had to do to get their tenure. You will have to look for opportunity to increase the human and material resources to sustain your research without much understanding or interest from your tenured colleagues and most of the students. As you know, we are not in a political climate that favours grant agency funding, so not getting easier to fund research in PUIs.

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