Negotiating for a faculty position: An anecdote, and what to do


This post is about a revoked job offer at a teaching institution that was in the news, and is also about how to negotiate for a job. I’ve written about negotiation priorities before, but this missive is about how to discuss those priorities with your negotiating partner.

Part A: That rescinded offer in the news

Last week, a story of outrage made the rounds. The capsule version is this: A philosopher is offered a job at a small teaching school. She tries to negotiate for the job. She then gets immediately punished for negotiating, by having the offer rescinded.

This story first broke on a philosophy blog, then into Inside Higher Ed, and some more mainstream media, if that’s what Jezebel is. There are a variety of other posts on the topic including this, and another by Cedar Reiner.

Some have expressed massive shock and appall. However, after reading the correspondence that caused the Dean to rescind the job offer, I’m not surprised at all. After initial conversations, the candidate wrote to the Dean:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.

1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.

2) An official semester of maternity leave.

3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.

4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.

5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

Here is what the Dean thought, in her words:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.

Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

There has been a suggestion of a gendered aspect. That viewpoint is expressed well here, among other places. (There doesn’t seem to be a pay equity problem on this campus, by the way.) I wholly get the fact that aggressive negotiation has been seen as a positive trait for men and a negative trait for women. I think it is possible that gender played a role, but in my view, the explanation offered by the Dean is the most parsimonious one. (Now, my opinion will be dismissed by some because of my privilege as a tenured white dude. Oh well.) Given the information that we’ve been provided, and interpreted in light of my experiences at a variety of teaching campuses, I find the “fit” explanation credible, even if it’s not what I would have done.

A job offer is a job offer, and once an offer is made the employer should stand behind the offer. Then again, if some highly extraordinary events unfold before an agreement is reached, the institution can rescind the job offer. In this circumstance, is the candidate’s email highly extraordinary?

Did this start at “negotiation” communicate so many horrible things about the candidate that the institution should have pulled its offer? The Dean’s answer to that question was, obviously, “Yes.”

I would have answered “no.” Many others have done the yeoman’s blog work of explaining exactly how and and why that was the wrong answer to the question. I’m more interested in attempting to crawl inside the minds of the Dean and the Department that withdrew the offer. What were they thinking?

The blog that first broke this story called these items “fairly standard ‘deal-sweeteners.’” I disagree. If I try to place myself in the shoes of the Dean and the Department, then this is how I think I might have read that request:

I am not sure if I really want this position. If you are willing to stretch your budget more than you have for any other job candidate in the history of the college, then I might decide to take the job, because accepting it is not an easy decision.

1) I realize that your initial salary offer was about what Assistant Professors make at your institution, but I want to earn 20% more, as much as your Associate Professors, because that’s what new faculty starting at research universities get.

2) I’d know that 6 months of parental leave is unofficial policy and standard practice, but I want it in writing.

3) I’d like you to hire adjuncts for an extra sabbatical before I come up for tenure. By then I’m sure I’ll need a break from teaching, even though everybody else waits until after tenure to take a sabbatical.

4) Before I take this special extra sabbatical, I want an easier teaching schedule than everybody else in my department.

5) I want to stay in my postdoc for an extra year, because I’d rather do more research somewhere else than teach for you. I realize that you advertised the position to fill teaching needs, but you can hire an adjunct.

While some of these requests are the kind that I’d expect to be fulfilled by a research institution, I’m hoping that you are able to treat me like a professor from a research institution. Now that you’ve offered me this teaching job, I want my teaching obligations to be as minimal as possible. Let me know what you think.

And the Dean did exactly that: she let her know what she thought. I’m not really joking: that’s really how I think it could be seen, inside the context of a teaching- and student-centered institution.

Here is a more unvarnished version of what I imagine the Dean was thinking:

Holy moly! Who do you think we are? Don’t you realize that we want to hire you to teach? I didn’t pull the salary out of thin air, and it was aligned with what other new Assistant Professors earn here. And if you want to teach here, why the heck do you want to stay in your postdoc which presumably pays less money? If you wanted to stay in your for 18 months earning a postdoc salary, instead of coming to teach for us at a faculty-level salary, then why would you even want this job at all? Also, didn’t you realize that we advertised for the position to start this year because we need someone to teach classes in September? If you have such crazy expectations now, then I can only imagine what a pain in the butt you might be for us after you get tenure. I think it’s best if we dodge this bullet and you can try to not teach at a different university. We’re looking for someone who’s excited about teaching our students, and not as excited about finding ways to avoid interacting with them.

The fact remains that the candidate is actually seeking a teaching-centered position. However, she definitely was requesting things that an informed candidate would only ask from a research institution. I don’t think that she necessarily erred in making oversized requests, but her oversized requests were for the wrong things. They are focused on research, and not on teaching. While it might be possible that all of those requests were designed to improve the quality of instruction and the opportunities to mentor students, it clearly didn’t read that way to the Dean. We know it didn’t read that way, because the Dean clearly wrote that she thought the candidate was focused too heavily away from teaching and students. I’m not sure if that’s true, but based on the email, that perspective makes a heckvualotta sense to me.

I’d would be more inclined to chalk the unwise requests to some very poor advice about how to negotiate. I’d would have given the candidate a call and try to figure out her reasons, and if the answers were student-centered, then I’d continue the negotiation. But I can see how a reasonable Dean, Department, and Vice President of Academic Affairs could read that email and decide that the candidate was just too risky.

New tenure-track faculty hires often evolve into permanent commitments. You need to make the most of your pick. Hiring a dud is a huge loss, and it pays to be risk averse. If someone reveals that they might be a dud during the hiring process, the wise course of action is to pick someone who shows a lower probability of being a dud. However, once an offer is made, the interview is over.

But according to Nazareth College, this candidate showed her hand as a total dud, and a massive misfit for institutional priorities. Though I wouldn’t have done it, I have a hard time faulting them for pulling the offer. If they proceeded any further, they would have taken the chance that they’d wind up with an enthusiastic researcher who would have been avoiding students at every opportunity. Someone who might want to bail as soon as starting. Or maybe someone who got a better job while on the postdoc and not show up the next year. The department only has four tenure-track faculty, and would probably like to see as many courses taught by tenure-line faculty as possible.

Having worked in a few small ponds like Nazareth, I don’t see the outrageousness of these events. We really have no idea, though, because there is a lot of missing context. But we know that the Dean ran this set of pie-in-the-sky requests by the Department and her boss. They talked about it and made sure that they weren’t going to get into (legal) hot water and also made sure that they actually wanted to dump this candidate. It’s a good bet that the Department got this email and said, “Pull up, pull up! Abort!” They may have thought, “If we actually are lucky enough to fill another tenure-track line, we don’t want to waste it on someone who only wants to teach three preps before taking a pre-tenure sabbatical while we cover their courses.” I don’t know what they were thinking, of course, but this seems possible.

Karen Kelsky pointed out that offers are rescinded more often at “less prestigious institutions.” She’s definitely on to something. Less prestigious institutions have more weighty teaching loads and fewer resources for research (regardless of the cost of tuition). These are the kinds of institutions that are most likely to find faculty job candidates who are wholly unprepared for the realities of life on the job.

When an offer gets pulled, I imagine it’s because the institution sees that they’ve got a pezzonovante on their hands and they get out while they still can.

At teaching institutions, nobody wants a faculty member who shies away from the primary job responsibility: teaching.

In a research institution, how would the Dean and the Department feel if a job candidate asked the Dean for reduced research productivity expectations and a higher teaching load for the first few years? Wouldn’t that freak the Department out and show that they didn’t get a person passionate for research? Wouldn’t the Dean rethink that job offer? Why should it be any different for someone wanting to duck teaching at a teaching institution?

I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: “I don’t want to teach” and “I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.” Of course everybody benefits when new faculty members get reassigned time to stabilize. But these requests were not just over the top, they were in orbit.

If I were the Dean at a teaching campus, what kinds of things would I want to see from my humanities job candidates? How about a guarantee for the chance to teach a specialty course? Funds to attend special conferences and funds to hire students as research assistants. Someone wanting to start early so that they could start curriculum development. Someone wanting a summer stipend to do research outside the academic year?

Here’s the other big problem I have with the narrative that has dogpaddled around this story. It’s claimed that the job offer was rescinded because she wanted to negotiate. But that’s not the case. The job candidate was not even negotiating.

Part B: What exactly is negotiation and how do you do it with a teaching institution?

A negotiation is a discussion of give and take. You do this for me, I do this for you. You give me the whip, and I’ll throw you the idol.

In the pulled offer at Nazareth College, the job candidate was attempting to “negotiate” like Satipo (the dude with the whip), but from other side of the gap.

What the Dean received from the candidate wasn’t even a start to a negotiation. It was, “Here is everything I want from you, how much can you give to me?” That is not a negotiation. A negotiation says, “Here are some things I’m interested in from you. If you give me these things, this is what I have to offer.”

How should this candidate have started the negotiation? Well, actually, the email should have been a request to schedule a phone conversation. What should the content of that conversation have been? How could the candidate have broached the huge requests (pre-tenure sabbatical, starting in 18 months, very few preps, huge salary)? By acknowledging that by providing these huge requests, huge output would come back.

“Once I get a contract for my second book, could you give me a pre-tenure sabbatical to write this book?”

“I’m concerned I won’t be able balance my schedule if I have too many preps early on. If you can keep my preps down to three per year, I’ll be more confident in my teaching quality and I should be able to continue writing manuscripts at the same time.”

“Right now, I am working on this exciting project during my postdoc, which is funded for another year. If it’s possible for me to arrive on campus after I finish my postdoc, this work will really help me create an innovative curriculum for [a course I will be teaching]. During this postdoc, I’d be glad to host some students from the college for internships and help them build career connections.” Of course, it’s very rare a teaching institution wants to wait a whole extra year. They want someone to teach, after all! It couldn’t hurt much to ask, if you phrase it like this, verbally.

“After running the numbers, I see that a salary of $65,000 is standard on the market for new faculty at sister institutions. But from what I’ve seen from the salary survey, this is well above the median salary for incoming faculty. If you can find the funds to bring me in at this salary, I’m okay if you trim back moving expenses. Being paid at current market rate in my field is important to me, and if you let me know what level of performance is tied to that level of compensation, I’ll deliver.”

By no means am I a negotiation pro. What I do know comes mostly from the classic book, “Getting to Yes.” The main point of this book is that “positional negotiation” is less likely to be successful. This approach involves opposite sides taking extreme positions and then finding a middle ground. Just like asking for a huge salary, and lots of reassigned time and easy teaching.

Getting to Yes explains how to do “principled negotiation.” In this case, you have a true negotiating partner in which you understand and respect one another’s interests. So, instead of haggling over salary like buying a used piece of furniture at a swap meet, you discuss the basis for the salary and what each of you will get out of it.

If you are asking for a reduced teaching load, then you explain what you will deliver with this reduced teaching load (higher quality teaching and more scholarship), and what the consequences will be if you don’t get it (potential struggle while teaching and fear that you won’t have time to do scholarship). And so on. The quotes I suggested above are what you’d expect to see in a principled negotiation. The book is a bit long but there are some critical ideas in there, and I’m really glad I read it before I negotiated my current position. When it was done, both I and the Dean thought we won, and we reached a fair agreement.

If you are in the position of receiving an academic job offer, negotiating for the best starting position is critical. You don’t have to be afraid of having the offer withdrawn as long as you’re negotiating in good faith. That mean you communicate an understanding the constraints and interests of your negotiating partner. And being sure that when you are ask for something, your reason is designed to fulfill the interests of your partner as much as yourself. So, asking for a bunch of different ways to get out of teaching responsibilities is a non-starter when your main job responsibility is teaching.

It’s not only acceptable to negotiate when you are starting an academic job, it’s expected. The worst lesson to take from this incident is Nazareth is that there is peril in negotiation. I suggest that the lesson is that you must negotiate. And, keep in mind that negotiation is a conversation and a partnership towards a common goal. Even when it comes to money, there is a common goal: You want to be paid enough that you’ll be happy and stay, and they want you to be paid enough that you’ll stay.

You won’t have anybody pull a job offer from you if you’re genuinely negotiating. It’s okay to ask for things that your negotiating partner can’t, or may not want to, deliver. However, what you ask for should reflect what you really truly want, and at the moment you’re asking, provide a clear rationale, so that you appear reasonable. If you’re interviewing for jobs, then I recommend picking up a copy of Getting to Yes.

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture


This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.



Interviewing for a faculty position in Sweden

by Amy Parachnowitsch

Last week I interviewed for a faculty position in Sweden. Given that it is my second of such interviews and that the process has had me fairly distracted me, I thought I would write about how it works. This might be of interest to those applying for these kinds of jobs or as a comparison to other systems. I was certainly surprised by the process when I first applied because it was such a stark contrast to what I expected from North American hiring.

Applying: First, in my experience applying for a position in Sweden takes much longer to put together than a North American tenure track job. The application process is all on-line with various attachments, rules, and instructions. The general requirements are similar; you need to present your CV including teaching experience, publications (ten are attached), research plan and teaching philosophy. However, how these pieces fit into the various components can be different. The devil is in the details. For example, in my recent application there were no fewer than three places that I was to enter something about students I have supervised. It was challenging to know exactly how these should differ as well. Further, teaching was broken into experience/merits, supervision and a self-reflection on the role of a teacher (all separate sections). There was also a section where you were to describe your personality. This also came back in the interview process where all candidates were asked to describe themselves in one word. Quick, try to answer that one without dwelling on the positives and negatives of any given word too much (I answered optimistic). Another big difference in the application process is that letters of recommendation are not requested, only contact information (perhaps to avoid wasting people’s time?). Publications are of course in your CV and you attach 10 publications but you also need to describe your role in all publications you attach and your motivation for choosing those 10. After you send in your application, you wait, but we (the applicants) were given a timeline of when the decision about interviews would be conducted shortly (~one week) after the closing date. Thus you know precisely how long to wait (about three months). Unlike North American jobs where it is sometimes unclear what stage the search is in, all the applicants receive the information at the same time.

The interview/review committee: in an effort to control nepotism in Sweden because it is a pretty small country, departments do not actually decide who is going to be hired, even for permanent/tenured positions. The idea seems to be that they want the best person for the job and that an independent panel can assess that. It is also so that people can be judged fairly. At a certain point it seems difficult to do this and tough when some candidates are known in the department (with so few universities, it is not uncommon for people to have done their PhDs or post docs in a department they are applying to). So although I haven’t seen the interview process from the other side, my impression is that although fit seems to be considered, no one making the decision has a vested interest in who is hired. Depending on the university the committee can be from across sciences or a more narrow group (within biology, for example). Externals are brought in to review all the candidates first and determine the five (at least in both of my experiences) who are invited to interview. For my non-tenured position there was one external reviewer, two for the tenure-track position. The external reviewers do not have a final vote for the candidates but inform the decision. There are also student representatives on the board and others representing the union, for example. So far, one interview brought in the external reviewer for the day while the other did not.

The interview: The interview is short, over the course of a single day, with all five people interviewing on the same day. The interviews are back–to-back (with coffee breaks (fika) and lunch, of course! This is Sweden after all). You have a short presentation of your work. Seriously short—in which you should discuss your research program, short and long term goals and demonstrate your teaching abilities (“The candidates are requested to prepare a 20-minute presentation of their research program and plans for the future, emphasizing both short- and long-term goals. This is an opportunity for the candidates to demonstrate their teaching skills”). Yeah. My experience has been 15 mins for the non-tenured position, 20 for the tenured (but maybe a difference of the universities rather than the position type). In the interview for my current position, the talk was only for the committee and was immediately followed by a ~30 min interview. The one I just did had a 20 min talk followed by 5 min of questions; it was open to the public but in practice was mainly attended by the committee. The interview for the tenured position was in the afternoon for 45 mins. Fairness is taken very seriously here so they keep to the time. It seems that the same basic questions are asked to all candidates with some variation. Mostly these questions are not about your science but about everything ranging from teaching, conflict resolution, how do you see yourself in the department, etc.  Following all talks and interviews, the committee sits down and ranks the five candidates.

The day: unlike North America, you don’t end up meeting with people in the department in an official way. Both my visits included a tour of the department and meeting with the department head but the people who you meet will not influence the decision or even have an opportunity to do so. It also means that you often meet the other candidates. This last interview was even strange because I collaborate with two of my fellow interviewees. Like I said, Sweden is a small country. So all the candidates had a joint lunch together with a few people from the department.

The wait: Waiting for an answer is also short. Generally the committee decides on the day and they will let you know within the week (<24hrs for one and <48 for the other). Unlike in North America, the process is transparent. So you receive the comments by the external reviewers (this is for all the candidates that apply) and all candidates are informed of who is invited for the interview and then they also receive the final ranking of the interviewees. So you immediately know not only whether you got the position but also where you rank compared to other candidates. All the other candidates also know this about you. So that can be a little disconcerting. However, despite being transparent, you really have little idea about why you are ranked as you are. The external reviews reflect two opinions but don’t tell you how the committee considered them. As for the final assessment, there was no real indication of why they made the final choice. So similar to my impressions for NA position, you are left to wonder why you weren’t given the job and whether or not you should have done something differently.

I was the top choice in my current position (few people refuse offers here, maybe because there are so few) and I was down at the bottom for the latest (they ranked the top three). Tough to know why and now it is time to lick my wounds, reflect on what I have learned, and get back to work. I’m grateful for two more years of salary to do just that.

What it’s like to start a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor (guest post)

Carrie Woods in the field

Carrie Woods in the field

This is a guest post by Carrie Woods of Colgate University, a Canadian scientist who studies the ecophysiology and community ecology of tropical rainforest canopies. If you have any questions or remarks for Carrie, please be sure to leave them in the comments.

I just entered my new office as a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) in the Biology Department at Colgate University, a liberal arts college in upstate New York. My office is one of the nicest I have seen and has an incredible view of hills covered in lush temperate forest – perfect for pondering life, science, or wherever the mind cares to wander. Facing this pondering window, I received and accepted an invitation from Terry to post about my experience thus far in interviewing and becoming a faculty member at a liberal arts institution.

My interview was full of friendly faces offering help, advice, and typical interview questions for a teaching position in a liberal arts college. First and foremost, everyone wanted to know what course I was proposing to teach. Is it novel in the department? Will it broaden the scope of understanding of the students? Do I have the expertise to effectively teach the course? If you have done your research, you will know the answer to all of these questions and will instill confidence in every interviewer that yes, in fact, you have perused the course offerings and believe that the course you are proposing to teach is novel, interesting, great for broadening students’ perspectives, and couldn’t be taught without you. I know this may seem obvious but I was expecting an interview that looked at my entire academic career – not just my teaching experience. I even had prepared answers to questions pertaining to my research. But I guess because a VAP position is used to bring in a professor for a year to teach, and only teach, the lack of focus on my research makes sense.

I was surprised though how little emphasis was placed on my research interests or how many publications I had or in what journals. Having only had experience in Research I universities, this came as a shock. I knew that the primary focus of a professor in a liberal arts college is the education of undergraduate students but I didn’t realize how little importance was placed on your research when deciding if you were right for a teaching position. Not one single person asked me about my research. They did, however, peruse my CV for mentoring and teaching experiences (which I placed ahead of my research experience, as per the suggestion of every liberal arts college faculty I knew). I could be misunderstanding the entire process though. It could be that my research experiences were sufficient and, therefore, not in need of discussion. My seminar was clear and focused on undergraduates but I did not dumb down my research or complicated multivariate analyses. I took those challenges head on to show that I could effectively teach complicated concepts. So maybe, my research was important to show that I was a well-rounded scientist.

I decided to take a teaching position after completing my Ph.D. for several reasons. First, many of my colleagues that had new assistant professor positions, regardless of what type of institution, seemed to be drowning in course development. I had never developed or taught an entire course before so I heeded their calls of distress and decided to find a position where I could develop and teach a course before applying for a post-doc or tenure-track position. A VAP position is exactly that. Second, science is a discipline wrought with waiting. There is little immediate gratification in scientific research – except of course for those moments during data analysis when your hypothesis is accepted or when finally figuring out the story of your paper or when a paper is accepted for publication. But other than those brief moments, science is pretty thankless and requires resilience to pursue an idea from birth to publication. In between these brief gratifying moments in graduate school, I found teaching to be extremely rewarding. Watching someone learn a concept that you taught is a very gratifying experience. These rewarding teaching moments carried me through those times when motivation for my research was waning. I found a love and passion for teaching during graduate school and wanted to pursue those passions a little deeper (hence the VAP position).

Since arriving around 9 am this morning, four different people have come by to welcome me and offer any help they can. I feel grateful for their friendly faces and help in navigating the new avenues of a faculty position at a liberal arts college as I am just starting to get my toes wet. I am super excited about finally teaching my own course. So excited in fact that I have already outlined my lectures, ordered my textbook for the bookstore, written my syllabus, and have some ideas for exam questions and the first day of classes isn’t for two weeks. I would have started sooner if it wasn’t for my busy summer of field research in Costa Rica, two conferences, my dissertation defense, and graduation. Now that those tasks are complete, I can finally focus on what I have been excited to do since I first discovered a passion for teaching in graduate school. It’s a very cool moment.

As for the future, this next year will likely dictate where I end up ultimately in academia: liberal arts or research I. I honestly haven’t fully decided where I want to go yet. However, looking out my window at forest-covered hills and being in a department with such an amazing group of friendly and supportive people, thus far, liberal arts is winning the race.

On the ethics of juggling job offers


The academic job market is tilted towards the side of the supplier. As any postdoc can tell you, there is way more supply than demand for professors (who are not employed as adjunct serfs). So, universities don’t need to give much leeway to job candidates. There’s always somebody good waiting in the wings, right?

As a job candidate, it is useful to remember that departments and universities have problems when a faculty search fails. Only a few candidates are interviewed – I’ve never heard of more than five. There is pressure on the department and dean to make sure that among these interviewees, a desirable candidate takes the job, because reopening the search is usually a mess for a variety of reasons.

Universities also know that good candidates may get multiple interviews, and multiple offers. They can’t give good candidates the leeway to get away, so candidates are usually given a brief window of time to come to a decision, in the midst of a long job season.

This results in a set of dilemmas in the realm of game theory reasoning. The stakes of bet-hedging, and how one regards a bird in the hand, are incredibly high.

Once you get a good job offer or offers, at what stage do you pull yourself from the job market? This presents set of logistical and ethical questions.

Let’s say you get a job offer from your dream job, the one that you are sure you want over all others. That’s a no-brainer. Once you sign a contract you can pull yourself from the other searches.

Let’s be clear: you should keep looking for a job until you have a signed contract. At some institutions, this could take days. At others, it can take months. However, without a signed contract, no matter what anybody might say, you don’t have a job. When campuses are in times of tight funding, the faculty line might get pulled in the gap between the email conversations and the presentation of an actual contract. I know of a few circumstances in which someone has received a job offer verbally or by email, but the contract never arrived because the position was pulled higher up the administrative line. This stuff actually does happen.

The dream job is a convegence of geography, institution type, and the specifics of the institution. This is a rarity. Let’s say you are offered a job that you foresee enjoying, but you also other jobs pending that you see as more attractive. What do you do?

Here are some possibilities:

  1. Ask for more time from the place offering you’re the job (useless)
  2. Pull yourself from other job searches when you commit verbally or by email (a little unwise)
  3. Pull yourself from other job searches when you sign a written contract (makes sense)
  4. Keep actively searching for a job even after you’ve signed a contract (not necessarily evil)

Let’s size up each these options in more detail.

If you ask for more time, that might actually result in less time. Once you hint that you need more time for a decision, your negotiating partner will want you to sign quickly. If you need more time for your spouse to size up the location, then that might be received differently, but all of this will happen on a short clock regardless of the circumstances. Keep in mind that you need to be negotiating the position (salary, startup, moving expenses, resources, reassigned time, and so on) after you receive an initial offer. These negotiations usually take a couple days, maybe a couple weeks at most.

You’re not going to see a formal contract until you’ve already committed to the job verbally or by email. When you do commit your intentions, it should be entirely clear to both you and the university that you are intending to take the job. Also, it should be clear that, without a contract, that you are unable to wholly commit 100%. For a full commitment, you should have a contract. You can say that you’re excited for the position, but the only tangible commitment on both sides is a signed contract.

As soon as you agree to take the job verbally, the folks offering you the job will be happier if you drop out of all other searches, because you might find and take a better job. However, unless you’ve been presented with a signed and legally binding contract, the other university should have no reasonable expectation for you to withdraw from searching for other jobs.

How badly should you feel if you verbally/email commit to Job X, and get a better offer for Job Y before the contract for Job X shows up? You shouldn’t feel too bad. The institution offering Job X can’t reasonably expect you to commit without a genuine contract. They can’t sue you, surely.

Here is a principle for the academic job search process: Don’t hold yourself to any ethical guidelines that are also not being followed by the academic institutions involved in the search. To hold yourself to higher ethical standards than the ones your prospective employers is unfair to you, and leaves you at a structural disadvantage in the job search and negotiation process.

If chair or dean makes an offer, and then the position is later pulled by an administrator higher up the line, then they’d feel badly that you didn’t get the job but there’s nothing that they or you could do about it. Likewise, if the institution doesn’t get you a contract, and you find a better job before they get you a contract, there’s nothing that they can do about it, and of course you should take the better job.

So, what do you do if you’ve already signed on the dotted line on your official legally binding contract, and then you find out that you have interviews – or offers – from other more potentially attractive jobs? This is where I think people have strong and differing opinions. For what it’s worth, here are my opinions, though I don’t hold strongly to them.

I think it’s important to honor a contract that has been signed. I also recognize that universities typically do not look out for the welfare of their employees any more than any other employer; this is especially true for adjuncts. Universities in the US, as a class, aren’t well known for having transparent and fair labor practices. So, professors need to look out for their own interests. (That’s why we many of us have joined together in the process of collective bargaining.)

When a contract is signed, you need to have complete and specific plans for carrying out the contract. This, however, does not preclude being involved in other job interviews. Interviewing for a job doesn’t mean that you’re breaking a contract. All different kinds of things can occur on an interview. If another university calls you out to interview, you do owe it to yourself, and your family, to work to find the best job for you. Interviewing for a job even though you’re committed to someone else for the next year isn’t dishonest, unless you choose to be dishonest in the process.

Why would you go on an interview for a job at University Y if you’ve already committed to a different job at University X? Here are some things to consider. First, you only signed a contract for a single year of employment with University X. In some cases, University Y might wait a year for you if they really like you; you won’t know this unless you interview. Second, if you do get a job offer from University Y, you could indicate to them that you need to work out your relationship with University X. Then, if you approach you University X and told them that you plan to leave for University Y after one year, I am mighty confident that they would release you from your contract. Especially in the sciences, which involves startup expenses, why waste the funds on someone who is guaranteed to leave in a year? They would be downright bothered if not mad, but it’s an option available to you. I’ve been on the nasty end of the stick when it comes to university employment practices, and have seen all kinds of even worse stuff. So I’m relatively inured to the idea that someone might not choose to announce a brief term of employment before starting.

I don’t think I’d be happy telling one job that I want out of a contract once I’ve gotten a better offer, but I’ve also never been in the position in which I’ve chosen an acceptable job, and then got an offer for one that is much better for myself and my family. If I do ever move on to a different job than the one that I’m in, then I’m quite sure that when I sign a contract, that’s probably a job I’ll keep until retirement. But, my circumstances are different from a postdoc or young assistant professor with different needs.

When I’m on a search committee at University X, it’s my job to figure out if a job candidate really wants to work there for at least a decade. If the person doesn’t, then they probably aren’t a good choice.

It’s stuff like this that leads search committees from non-highly-ranked institutions to be wary of applications from awesome job candidates. Nobody wants to waste an interview slot on a person who is likely to get a better offer elsewhere. This is why “fit” matters so much in the application vetting process – because you want to pick someone who will build their career at a place, because a talented experienced professor on a particular campus is very valuable to the students and the institution as a whole.

So, this isn’t an advice post. It’s simply a reflection on the different ways that one can handle the prospect of getting multiple job offers. I’m not an ethicist by training, and morals are quite different from ethics. So, your mileage may vary.

Applying for faculty positions at teaching institutions: interpreting research culture and opportunities during an interview


This is a follow-up to an earlier post on how to look at a teaching institution to find out if serious research is possible on campus. One main point was that you can’t diagnose whether or not you will be able to run your research program at a teaching school until you have some direct experience with the campus, like you’d get during an interview. So, in this post, I discuss how to handle plans for serious research during the interview.

When interviewing, keep in mind five main points about research at teaching schools:

  • The culture of research on a campus isn’t predictive of how much research that you personally will be able to get done.
  • Before you interview, you need to be able to envision what your research program will look like and how it will operate, so you can know if you will have what you need to flourish.
  • At most teaching campuses, you’ll have few to no specialists in your field. So you should market your research program not with the potential for scientific discovery, but instead with the great opportunities that will be created for students.
  • The more specific you describe your plans, the more opportunity that others have to identify a perceived mismatch.
  • Ignore advice on how to succeed on a particular campus unless it comes from someone who is very successful at that institution.

(A sixth point might be that you can throw all of the preceding ideas out the window, if you happen to be the proprietor of a blog about doing research in a teaching institution. I haven’t interviewed yet since starting this site; if I am able to land any interviews this year, this could be interesting.)

The best way to figure out whether or not you could run your research out of a particular campus is to have a series of long, frank conversations with the faculty in your prospective department.

Those conversations aren’t going to happen; you can’t be that frank and I doubt your interviewers will be either. Your interlocutors may be wholly frank, but it’s not always possible to tell if this is the case. Be honest, but omit unnecessary details.

Let’s say you arrive for your interview with a very specific idea of what your research program will look like, and what it will take to succeed. Or, let’s say you don’t have a specific idea but you are open to a variety of approaches.  In either scenario, you’ve got a problem during the interview. You won’t be able to spend the 1.5 days on campus smoking out all of the details about how you would run your research program.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in an interview. You’ll be expected to talk a lot, answering questions that the department has about you. Many of these questions will be about teaching, some will be about your research, and more about how you engage students in research. You also will be expected to ask a lot of questions. However, the majority of questions that you ask should be about teaching, because the institution is, after all, focused on teaching.

Remember that your ideas about research are probably very different from the people who have worked on this campus for a while. Your definition of being an active scholar is probably different from theirs. You lack the campus frame of reference. You can’t accurately perceive that frame of reference through a mere conversations. It actually takes years to figure out a campus.

You can attempt to construct a makeshift understanding of the campus research culture by reconciling what you hear and see on an interview with external information. You should be aware of what everyone is teaching, research specialties, and levels of research productivity. You can’t look at everyone’s CVs, but you can look at their websites and do a literature search before you go on an interview.

Then, you can search for consistencies and incongruent conceptions.

In my experience, the people who spend the most time talking about research during an interview are the ones that do the least amount of research. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Most people are excited to learn about your own research and see the interview as a learning opportunity, and this is true regardless of one’s research activity. Some people who aren’t serious researchers think that they are, and want to have a heart-to-heart talk about what it takes to do research on campus and how to overcome obstacles.

For the most part, the others in the interview are trying to convince you to take the job, assuming that you get the offer. So, they are working to make sure that you have a realistic view of the situation while also understanding the available opportunities and resources. This sales job by the department is based on their incomplete understanding of what your research program requires. The more the department knows about what you need, the more they can inform you about the advantages and drawbacks of this particular position. However, the more the department knows, the more likely they will identify ways in which the job won’t work for you.

Keep in mind that what a person chooses to discuss doesn’t communicate personal priorities. Most people are trying to provide interviewees with as much information as possible, in a positive light, to be able to help everyone make the best decision. Some might be emphasizing a sales job to convince an applicant to come, and others might be trying to be evaluative of the job candidate to see if they have the right answers. Everybody is different.

I have always made a point to ask a couple questions of many different people in the department, and it’s been very informative to see how responses vary among individuals. It might be “How do you find students to work in your research lab?” or “What is it like working with the grants office?” or something about the level and predictability of small-scale internal research funding.

Moreover, I often asked, “What is expected before coming up for tenure?” This is a totally reasonable question that everyone would expect to be asked, and it’s expected that you’d ask it several times with different people. This is an open-ended question that can help you identify individual priorities and perceptions of internal challenges. (Also, highly inconsistent answers are a very bad sign of a fractured institution.)

Be sure to listen to questions you received. For example, when I interviewed for my last job, nearly everyone asked me at one point or another, “What do you think about the idea of having a graduate program in the department?” It didn’t take long to identify the majority and minority factions in the department. This was an indicator of a division within the department that I learned about during the interview. It was complicated and I didn’t have all of the facts, but I saw that the role of research in the department was a fractious issue, and I went in with that concern in mind.

You’ll never get to understand the individual priorities that each professor has during a search. Most faculty are just looking for a colleague who can teach well, get research done with students, be effective, is easy to get along with, and won’t leave for another job. Some faculty might be concerned that junior faculty will raise the bar on research expectations. Some faculty will want new people to relieve them of teaching or service assignments of which they’ve grown weary. Others might want a friend. Too often, people want to have their own pet statistical consultants. These little quirks vary and you can’t really predict or control for them.

Regardless, you should realize this much: very few faculty at teaching institutions are actively excited about hiring junior faculty who are planning to have extremely robust research agendas. Most people at teaching campuses see those big research ambitions as a poor fit, and think that those people belong at R1 universities.

So, there is little to be gained by explaining that you have big research plans, if you have them. Of course you need to communicate that you will be getting research done with students, publishing, and plan to land outside grants. But you don’t want to make an overly big deal about research.

Why not? Having a research-serious departmentmate doesn’t really help any other faculty in the department. Some people might see it as a net drain, if the new researcher is taking away the best research students, buying time out of teaching and forsaking service for research. Even faculty who are strong researchers don’t have much incentive for bringing in additional researchers. They’ll just compete for limited resources from the Dean’s office and steal the limelight. (Those don’t matter for me, as the resources are already so limited that another mouth to feed can’t hurt me, and the research limelight on my campus is dim for all.)

Am I overstating the lack of interest in research in job candidates at teaching campuses? I don’t think so.

I’m as gung-ho for research as anybody on my campus. But whenever we get to make a new hire, is it important to me that this new person builds a productive research lab? Not really. I would like it because it would help enhance the overall research climate in the campus, but we have many more pressing immediate and long-term needs, dealing with the curriculum, departmental service, advising, vetting out jerks and finding someone who is truly student-centered. If a productive research lab run by a new hire isn’t my own priority in a search, it’s probably not a top priority of other reasonable people who aren’t working to actively promote research on teaching campuses.

Here’s another quirk of teaching campuses: Because research is mostly a solitary endeavor (because each campus typically has only one person in each specialty), then the professors on campus who talk a lot about research are prone to be seen as narcissists or out of touch with others. If you talk too much about your research during an interview, then you risk sounding like one of those narcissists.

If you’re asked about your research ideas or plans, give a 30-second summary. Elaborate when asked, but you shouldn’t be giving a reply that takes more than a minute or two unless you get clear verbal or nonverbal cues to continue. That’s true for almost every question, but it’s particularly important to remember to be brief about your research.

After you’ve done your best to understand the research culture during an interview, then you need figure out how, or if, you research can fit in on the campus. Remember that the absence of a research culture doesn’t preclude the establishment of a productive research program. It just means that your productive research program wouldn’t matter much to anybody, or it might even be threatening to others.

While all kinds of support is wonderful, it’s perfectly fine if your research program is greeted with ambivalence.

How can you tell whether an agenda for serious research will be greeted with antagonism? It’s not easy, and I got it wrong when I was interviewing.

At a distance, if you were to look at my current and previous departments, it would be easy to make the mistake in thinking that research would have been more possible in my old job. People in that department published more often, and there was a lot more talk about research. The university was able to give every professor a few thousand bucks per year for research, paid for travel to conferences, and there was a university-funded student research program in the summer. What was less obvious to the casual observer is that there was clear antagonism to big-time productivity. There was one big-league researcher in my department, and he kept all of his research almost secret.

At my current job, you might think that research is impossible. We have scant startup funds, very low rates of faculty publication, and no internal support for research or travel (though this year is an exception). However, a productive research program is far more possible in this job compared to my old one. Anybody who can build a highly productive research lab is more than welcome. That welcome doesn’t translate into more space or resources, but everyone is happy and that kind of thing is strongly encouraged. I didn’t realize this would be the case until I was well established into the job, and I’m very glad it has turned out this way.

How can you figure out if a teaching campus passes the anti-research smell test?

You need to pay attention to subtle cues, see how people talk about one another and their priorities.  If you don’t mind not getting a job offer from a place hostile to a highly productive lab, you could ask straight out, “How would you feel if I ended up getting big grants, reduced my teaching load down to two courses per semester and spend lots of time training research students and writing manuscripts?”

Or you could ask, “When is too much research a problem?” When approaching this issue, remember that you don’t want to be seen as overly optimistic, or naïve, or not interested in teaching.

In sum, you need to be all about teaching, and that makes it a tricky dance to learn about true research opportunities. Because every faculty member needs to be dedicated to teaching above all else, you need to communicate this priority in the interview. I’m all about teaching and my students, but I’m also all about research. That idea is really hard to communicate in a short interview.  You communicate your priorities with your words and your actions, and people expect them to match.

To be successful in research, you need to forge your own path. This is particularly true at teaching institutions.

To be continued: specific things to do, and specific things to avoid, throughout the job application process.

Applying for positions at teaching institutions: identifying opportunities for serious research


Are you looking for a job at a teaching institution but and want to pursue an aggressive research agenda? Are you advising grad students or postdocs who might move into a job at a teaching school? Here are some opinions.

Let’s get two important points out of the way, that you should consider before applying for a job at a teaching school.

First, if you dislike teaching, don’t apply. This is in your own interest. As I’ve written before, if you’re going to move “up” from a job at a teaching university to a job at a research institution, you’ll have to be awesome, and to do that, you’ll have to be great at the job, including teaching. The people who leave teaching schools for research universities are the kind of people who get awards for their teaching. I have yet to see a person who doesn’t like teaching to be truly great at it, even though some have claimed it’s possible.

Second, if your primary goal is research fame, you’ll never become famous for your research while working out of a teaching institution, at least in the sciences. Even if you’re doing rockstar-level work, you won’t be a rockstar until you go elsewhere. And to move elsewhere, you need to be a great teacher. You can get excellent research done at a teaching school, but earning broad respect for your research is difficult, and fame is pretty much out of reach. A couple of my research heroes built their research careers teaching institutions. But are they broadly famous in their fields? Not as famous as they should be based on their achievements.

With those two caveats aside, let’s say that you’re focused on research and you are open to working at a teaching school. What do you need to know to figure out of a school can support your research agenda?

Before attacking that question, first let’s address a fundamental difference in culture and terminology between teaching schools and research institutions.

At most teaching-centered schools, “research” and “research active” means something different than you might expect. A typical “research-active” faculty member doesn’t necessarily publish often, and might not even be pursuing external funding. Someone with a reputation for being a strong researcher on campus might be unknown as a scholar off campus. At teaching schools, if you’re “research active,” that means that you’re doing scholarship and sharing it in some form, which in the sciences could mean training students in the lab, getting them into doctoral programs, and presenting research at local and undergraduate conferences.

What I just pointed out isn’t negative, or a dig against teaching campuses. I’m merely clarifying what “research” means at teaching campuses. If you don’t evaluate schools through this lens, you could be in for a rude surprise.

So why do teaching schools perceive research so differently than the broader research community? Isn’t research simply research? We all are used to the notion that standard measures of research success are publications, citations, and funding. Right?

At teaching institutions, it’s easy to lose focus from what happens in the scholarly community in your own field. People spend plenty of time teaching, and tenure decisions are based on what people on your campus think of you. It’s easy to focus your lens exclusively on campus culture. At any teaching campus, very few people have a well-established research presence in their international scholarly community. To do a great job, you just need to teach well, get a few pubs in minor journals, and sell yourself well on campus. It’s what most people do, and that’s perfectly fine. That’s the culture on many teaching campuses. Some of the top-notch scholars on a campus may produce little in the way of papers, but produce many new scholars. Sending many students off to good doctoral programs is, arguably, a bigger contribution to the field than publishing some papers on your own. (Is there an oversupply of scientists? Hell no.)

When you read job ads, draft your application, and interview on campus, remember the teaching school lens. If a job ad gives equal verbiage to the importance of teaching and research, and the need for excellence in both, then the be aware that teaching campuses use an entirely different measuring stick for research excellence than the academic community in general. You could be called “excellent” at research on a teaching campus but have very few publications. Most teaching schools, except some well-endowed privates, do not solicit external reviews of scholarship. (My campus actually forbids committees to contact off-campus experts for evaluating research in tenure packages!)

If you hear that that serious researchers are welcome, or that serious research is expected, what does that typically mean? That means you’re expected to have multiple publications when you come up for tenure and that you attempt to gain external funding. That’s serious research at a teaching campus. A scientist with one paper per year in a decent journal is considered to be mighty good at most teaching campuses. At very well-funded private teaching campuses, there may be higher expectations that go along with a lower teaching load. If the base teaching load is three courses per semester or higher, than it’s unlikely that “serious research” means anything more than a few pubs (though you’re usually expected to try to get a grant). If you think this is an unacceptably low level of productivity (in others), or if you think this is a sign of mediocrity, then you don’t belong on a teaching campus, because you’d get resentful of your colleagues right away.

You’ve got to be able to distinguish productivity from quality, and the fact that someone can be a great researcher while producing at a level that would be unacceptable at an R1.

What’s the best indicator of genuine campus research expectations? Look at the people who are recently tenured. What do their CVs look like? That’s what expected, or maybe just one little notch higher.

Regardless of what a campus regards as “research,” every 4-year teaching institution expects serious research at some level. All individuals are expected, at least pre-tenure, to sincerely pursue a scholarly agenda and publish. The research expectation for tenure might be just a single publication before coming up for tenure, as it was at my last job. The expectation might be 2-3 pubs before tenure (in my current position). That level of productivity might be laughable from the perspective of a research institution, but it’s serious business on a teaching campus. And when you’re teaching 3-4 full courses per semester, and your job counts on having these courses go very well, it ain’t easy.

Let’s say that you want to pursue a serious research agenda at a teaching institution, and by “serious research agenda” you mean that you want to maintain a level of research activity that will keep your CV looking like it could belong at an R1 institution. You want to publish a few papers per year and you want your research to be recognized, cited and make a difference in your discipline. Is this possible? Yes. It is common? No. Is it possible at the job to which you’re applying? Maybe. Let’s consider how you can tell if it’s possible.

If there are genuinely well-recognized researchers in the department to which you’re applying, then that’s great news for you. It’s possible! You could be one of them! That’s a wonderful sign. The flowchart ends with “sounds like a good place for research.”

What about the other branch of the flowchart? What if a department doesn’t have any productive researchers? Could a new hire run a productive research lab in a department that doesn’t have strong researchers? On some campuses this is a definite possibility; on others, it won’t be possible. How can you distinguish the former from the latter? That’s really tricky. It depends on what you think you need to run a successful research program, and if it can fit into the bounds of the institution.

A successful research lab on a teaching campus doesn’t look much like a successful lab at a research institution. Success in research at a teaching campus needs to take an entirely different route than the one that you saw in grad school. (This is a whole other long post, but here’s a start on the concept.) The things that typically result in success at research institutions just can’t happen at teaching campuses. You probably won’t have other labs with which you can collaborate. You won’t have a serious research student for more than two years, tops. You aren’t going to have postdocs to do analyses and writing on your projects, and you won’t have any single person working consistently in the lab during normal working hours. Maintaining an atmosphere of an active R1 research lab would be a full-time job, if it were even possible. You’ve got to develop a research lab that works for you on your own terms, and you need to find a campus that provides you what you need, which is individualized to what makes your program work.

What do I need to keep my lab running? Once in a while I am contacted by a colleague who wants to “visit my lab” and spend time with my “research group.” I can’t help but chuckle to myself. My lab is more often empty than not, filled with a bunch of samples that need work. When it’s not empty, it’s full of undergraduates who are more focused on studying for their exams than they are on bringing their research towards publication. (Don’t get me wrong: my research lab is critically important space, and I need more of it; I just use this space differently than R1 labs.) My students are my highest priority, but the route that I take is to emphasize productivity of my research program over providing detailed and careful mentorship to my students year-round. This might be heresy in some teaching institutions, but I think it’s a strategy that serves the interests of my students the best.

With my lab looking like I just described, how do I get research done? During the school year, aside from a few small contributions by students apart from coursework, work gets done by me. (I can’t pay students to work in my lab, and all of my students need to earn money, so they typically have outside employment.) I got to spend a few weeks at the scope this spring, to finish up a very cool project, but I’d say that 98% of my work is me sitting at a computer.

During the academic year, I’m analyzing data, writing manuscripts, and feeding collaborations in a variety of ways. This work is sometimes done best when I’m not at work. I can do some things well from home, but I might work elsewhere away from campus or home too.

The source of my data arrives in the summertime. I go to the rainforest for a few weeks, and I have 1-4 students working there for the full summer. This work, along with other small projects here and there, generates more samples and data than I can handle throughout the academic year. My manuscript backlog is substantial, and if science is going to happen predictably, year after year after year, then nearly all of that work has to be done by me.

I sometimes feel like the early British explorers of the Antarctic who brought sledge dogs but didn’t know how to use them, so they ended up pulling the sleds themselves while the dogs were running alongside without any burden. This isn’t the way things really are, and my students do make great contributions, but most of them are not yet equipped to write manuscripts and if I equipped them, then far too few of them would ever come to press.

In sum, what is it that I need from my institution to get research done? I have the freedom and flexibility to be able to focus on writing. The campus culture doesn’t expect me to provide a sophisticated mentoring agenda for every student who comes into my lab, and I’m evaluated on the basis of the output (of students) rather than the methods. The bottom line is that I am sending students on to graduate programs, and that I am producing scholarship with student authors, and that I am bringing in grant money. That is valued, and I’ve never gotten any guff about how I go about making that happen. That’s how my campus allows me to get research done.

How can you apply my personal anecdote about my own campus to figuring out how other campuses can support your productive research program? You need to identify what route – or routes – exist for research success and whether those campuses enable those routes. You need to be able to envision exactly what you need to be successful, and then see if that is possible within the job. This takes an understanding of how you run your lab and how you get stuff done. This might be hard to figure out if you haven’t done it yet.

What is the worst indicator of whether a campus can support your research? Whatever they tell you. Having administrators that support research in concept is important. However, whatever they imagine you need, and whatever they want to provide, may not be what you truly need. You have to figure out what you really need, and I think this is highly individualized.

For example, if your program relies on the upkeep of some model organism, are there technical staff or work-study funds to pay someone to maintain your critters without you having to worry about it? If your work relies heavily on some fancy piece of equipment, is there one of those on campus with a service contract that you can use for your research? If you need to go two weeks at a time to a collaborating lab during the academic year, do you have the flexibility to schedule your classes to make that happen? If you need relatively untrained students to do repetitive work in the lab, are there funds or people that enable that to happen predictably or consistently? If you have a field site six hours away for your project, does the institution have a van that you can use to take students out and do you have a student population that can afford to go away for extended work?

A lot of professors who aren’t getting much research done at teaching institutions are frustrated because their institutions lack what they need to get done – not just in terms of equipment, but in terms of flexibility. There is often a structural mismatch between a professor’s research ambitions and what is possible on campus. You want to avoid that mismatch. You can do that by being flexible in what research questions you ask and how you go about answering them, or you could do that by finding the campus that can give you what you need. (I’ve done both; the latter was more by accident than design.)

Is the way the job is structured able to give you the time and resources that enable you to focus on research? You can’t tell that from a job ad. Unless you know exactly what your research program is going to look like, you can’t even learn that from an interview.

Last, can you be a serious and well-recognized researcher on a campus that doesn’t even seem to care about research at all? You definitely can. It doesn’t matter what people say or think on your campus. If your campus gives you the time, space and resources to make you successful – whatever it is that you need – it doesn’t matter what the campus culture is at all. Talking about research on a teaching campus won’t do your research program any good. You just need to, privately and in an individualized fashion, get it done.

The hardest part about being a researcher at a teaching campus is that this part of your job is very solitary. To be successful on a teaching campus typically means that you’re doing it on your own, and with collaborators who aren’t with you on your campus. This is radically different from what you experienced at research institutions in which you worked with a lab group. Even if your buddies worked on different projects, you still had one another.

How do you run a productive research program over your career in which you won’t have a peer, or highly trained mentee, working on directly related questions? Your specific answer to this question can tell you whether or not a job at a teaching institution can support your research agenda.

How can you tell this from the institution’s website and from the job ad? You can’t. Which is why you need to apply, and then find out if you land an interview. To be continued.

How to figure out if you want to work at a teaching university


Do you want to know what it’s like to be a professor at a teaching campus?  The single best thing you can do to figure this out is to visit.

All through grad school, I was pretty sure I wanted to work at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution), if only because I went to one and liked it so much.

At the time, I didn’t really know what the job was like. My time as an undergrad didn’t give me any idea about what it would be like to be a professor at one.  I knew what life as a PI at an R1 university was like from being in the lab, seeing what what faculty were doing all the time, particularly my own advisor.

A teaching campus is really, really, really different from where you went to grad school and did your postdoc. It’s hard to learn what it is like unless you spend some real time at one, and not as an undergrad. Interviews don’t count at all, either. That’s a magical time when money flows easily, everybody has time for you, anything you choose to ask for can be agreed to as a possibility, and they are trying to convince you to take the job. It’s different once you’re there.

The best way to do this is to take a job as a visiting Assistant Professor, on a sabbatical replacement spot. But that choice would lead you near-permanently off the road towards a tenure-track position at a research university. If you aren’t sure about your calling, this is an extreme step. Those jobs aren’t easy to get, anyway. Adjuncting at a teaching campus doesn’t count either. If you’re an adjunct, then your experience will be fundamentally different than the tenure-track experience.

The best thing to is to visit. Call some colleagues up — if you don’t know anybody, ask around — and ask if you can spend a day or two on campus. Ask if it’d be possible to give a talk. Visit a fancy expensive small liberal arts school, and a 4-year regional teaching campus (North Southern Western State), and whatever else that isn’t too much of a drive. If you went to one for college, go back and visit. Your old professors would get a kick out of seeing you, and they can give you an honest take on their job.

This is how I cure premeds. I ask them if they’ve volunteered in a hospital, or if they’ve shadowed a doctor. Most premeds don’t know what it’s like to be a doctor on a day in, day out kind of basis. If they’re spending time with a doctor, then they’ll see it’s a pretty boring job, and with a lot of monotony, and with little freedom. You shouldn’t be a premed unless you’ve spent lots of time in a hospital. This is prerequisite for an informed decision.

Likewise, you shouldn’t be applying to PUIs unless you know what it’s like to be a professor at one. I’m writing about the various challenges we have, and the wonderful things that happen too, but the understanding is primarily experiential. What is it like to teach that much, and how does it affect what else I do? How do you relate to students, what do they expect, what kinds of resources are available in labs, and how do your collaborations work?

These things all very greatly from campus to campus. But unless you know exactly what the experience might be like on a daily basis, you won’t know what to look for when you’re interviewing. Putting in the time up front will help. And, when you go to conferences, hanging out with the faculty from those kinds of schools will give you a good idea, too.

So, give some of us a call. We’d love to hang out with you for a day or two. It won’t be the most exciting thing, but you’ll see what we do, what we can do, what we can’t, and how we balance things. Better yet, you can look up someone with whom you want to collaborate, and it can be a working visit. (If you’ve got some serious community assembly mojo, you’re particuarly welcome at this moment. I’ve got something with 2% left that’s driving me nuts.)