Q & A about jobs in primarily undergraduate institutions


This morning, in the midst of all this election fear, I got to liberate my brain for a bit by participating in a Q&A workshop run by the Genetics Society of America on PUI careers. There were a lot of folks there, and it was brimming with questions, it felt like we could have gone on for many hours more.

So, I thought, for all y’all, I could set up this post where you could ask Q&A in the comments, and I will answer them! And, of course, the diverse readership here could also answer as well! Because obviously multiple perspectives based on different experiences are important.

So, here you go. Do you have questions about applying for faculty jobs at PUIs and about the job itself? Please ask!

14 thoughts on “Q & A about jobs in primarily undergraduate institutions

  1. How important is it to have teaching experience when applying for a tenure-track position?

    • I think it’s important. But it can come in a variety of forms. It’s more important to have a teaching statement that reflects a thoughtful and student-centered approach to pedagogy. If you can get a chance to teach a course of record on your own, that would be great. A lot of people make a big deal about doing a few guest lectures for large courses. That doesn’t really seem to matter much to search committees, more important is that you communicate that you understand have have experienced what it’s like to develop and manage your own course.

    • I am an assistant professor in a Biology Department at a California State University (CSU) where both teaching and research are important. I did not have much teaching experience when I applied for my position other than a few TAs and one assist on a course prep where I didn’t do much. But, I was doing quite well with my research, and it was identified early on that I could fill a teaching-need for a specific course, which is a common thread for many recent hires in my department.

      My department is also unique in that we only have candidates give one presentation during an interview – a research talk, where you teach as well. Of course, it is critical to make sure that teaching and communication come through whenever giving a talk, or even one-on-one individual meetings with faculty during an interview. We have hired people with much more teaching experience than me, and a few with less – but, the common thread was that we all demonstrated we could teach during the interview.

      So, what will help to land an interview? The first criterion for my institution for even getting a hire is a department need for a specific course that needs to be filled – usually, a majors course where we prefer a tenure-line faculty to lead the course. That is very specific, and you either have that background or you don’t. If you make it to the phone or in-person interview, it is judged you have that. It should be made clear in a job advertisement which course(s) need to be covered. Do you need to have taught one of those specific courses? Not necessarily – rather, you just need to have the ‘potential’ to cover the course. More importantly for my department, as written above, it was our research experience and how that would translate to mentoring and delivering cutting-edge content to our teaching which was crucial in our application package.

      If an institution that you are applying for has both a teaching and research focus, as do most CSUs, I imagine it will be similar to my experience. If applying to a PUI with less of a research focus, I imagine having teaching experience will be necessary to get an interview.

    • Chiming in as a prof at a SLAC: While candidates with some teaching experience are a plus, we’ve hired highly successful candidates who did not teach a full course of record. In some cases, the candidate taught in an intense summer program. In others, they had TA experience that included quite a bit of ownership in the running of the course. To reiterate what Terry and Anonymous said: it’s not just the exact type of experience you come in with, the way you talk about, think about, and frame your experience is also very important. And, it’s about how you’ve taken advantage of the opportunities available to you (because not every grad program is cool with having grad students teach full courses).

  2. Would you say it’s easier to have a healthy work-life balance at a PUI or teaching institution, rather than a public university / R1? I ask because I’m under that impression.

  3. Besides independent teaching experience and mentoring undergraduate research, what are some really “stand out” qualifications that search committees get excited about at PUGs?

    • I think this really varies among institutions. Honestly, one thing stands out is when an applicant’s teaching strengths/priorities happen to be aligned with what the the department needs (to a level of specificity that usually isn’t in the job ad). Another thing is when a person is basically already running their own research program and mentoring undergrads in research with having successful undergraduate authorship. If their research program would make avail of a specialized resource (a field station nearby, or a fancy piece of equipment that the campus happens to have, or K-12 teaching experience and the campus has a strong teacher ed program), but also in a way that’s not pandering. This is what people often mean by “fit” and it’s often amorphous.

      I think another thing that often stands out is when it’s clear that your research trajectory is independent, that you’ve already shown that you can run your own lab and get pubs and grants and mentor students, independent of the lab of your PI. So having your own line of research as a grad student and postdoc stands out.

  4. I have a question that might not fit very-well within this thread, but will appreciate your input. I have been working as an assistant prof. at a PUI for a few years and very close to submit my tenure file. My publication record has been phenomenal (comparable to/exceeds my colleagues at R1), I secured external grants, and my teaching reviews are excellent. My big problem is that I am the only productive person in my dept and feel disconnected from everyone and from the environment. I have been trying to switch to an R1, but no luck so far. Now, it seems to me that I need to accept the fact that I might never be able to leave to an R1, but find it hard to get over the frustration. Any tips how to get over the frustration and make peace with myself?

    • I’m not sure what you’re looking for. Are you looking for an R1 job because you want an R1 job, or are you simply looking for an R1 because you’re looking to work in a place where you feel connected to the people and the environment? Because it’s totally possible to have greater research productivity than your colleagues but still feel collegiality, mutual respect, and a shared mission. (For example, there are some folks in my department who have ramped down their research entirely, and some folks who are meeting criteria for tenure at R1s. And we get along great and really like each other, and support one another. It’s really possible.) If you’re looking to find a place where you feel valued, then perhaps you could be just as or more happy at another PUI. Because there’s not a uniform PUI culture or a uniform R1 culture. Whether or not people are happy usually is more about the culture of a particular place rather than the category of the institution. But if you’re looking for a place that has the infrastructure to support your research and you just don’t want to be at a PUI, then that’s something else.

      Some folks choose PUI jobs as ‘starter jobs,’ never even planning to stick around until they come up for tenure because they plan to move to what they perceive as better pastures. Some make the move and some don’t manage to make it happen. There are also plenty of folks who do the move who weren’t planning to do so when they started the job. I think it’s easier for them because they weren’t acting like short-timers when they showed up at the PUI, and they were more able to build strong professional connections with their colleagues.

      I did write a whole blog post about folks who want to switch from a PUI to an R1, including the dynamic in the paragraph above, so I think that covers the bases. In addition to what I wrote in this, check out the comments, including from some folks who made the switch: https://smallpondscience.com/2013/05/27/teaching-universities-as-the-farm-league/

  5. What are typical expectations for getting tenure at PUIs? How is your research and teaching evaluated, and what is expected in terms of # of publications and grants received?

    • It’s really variable. In general, the lower the teaching load, the higher the research expectations. And the higher the endowment, the more prestige the campus has, so they feel like they can demand more of their faculty. These are generalities, of course, and every place is different.

      Now that I’m regularly doing external tenure reviews of the scholarship for people at PUIs, I’m getting an idea of the bar they have for research. In general, I think places are expecting a few publications. That can be lower for the higher teaching load places, and higher for the more prestigious places. And the mentoring of students usually is important. Most places will want you to seek external funding, but almost nobody will boot you out the door if you fail to land a grant, as long as you’re still able to do your research.

      Some places will specify the journal selectivity or quality or impact factor, others will simply say it needs to be a genuine peer-reviewed paper in a legitimate journal.

      As for teaching, everybody requires you to be “excellent,” which is of course highly subjective. While some places actually do a good job of holistically evaluating teaching, realistically almost everybody just relies on the student evaluation forms, with a recognition that they’re full of biases and also measure perception rather than teaching effectiveness. There may or may not be a criterion that scores on the forms hit a certain benchmark, “like minimum of 80% of students agree or strongly agree that the instructor was an effective teacher in all courses” or something like that. But because these things vary with instructor identity (gender, ethnicity, apparent age, etc), and also the teaching assignment itself, folks try to be more flexible about this, but then again, not always.

      As for where I’ve been on the tenure track, when I was at the University of San Diego, the bar for tenure at the time was a single publication over the course of five years before coming up for tenure, and an expectation that students would be substantially involved in the research. (Also, I’ve known someone who got tenure without even having that single publication, because they taught very well and were well liked.) Teaching was supposed to be holistic, but pretty much my whole department skipped the observations that they were required to do, so it was pretty much just based on the forms. Realistically, folks can choose to interpret teaching evaluations however they choose to, and they can be painted as very good or as problematic, depending on a person’s priorities or agenda. This is universally true.

      Also keep in mind that the criteria are sometimes amorphous and subjective, giving universities the wiggle room to keep the people they want to keep and get rid of the people if they have an issue (valid, or not) with them. A lot of places will say that their tenure criteria are very clear, but then you see who gets tenure and who doesn’t, and you can see how folks bend it one way or another. An exception are places that are unionized usually have the criteria spelled out far more clearly and the process is usually far more transparent.

      • Thanks for your very helpful and thorough response, Terry! I appreciate hearing this information as I am trying to decide which type of faculty jobs to apply to in the next couple of years.

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