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

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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.