Which classes should tenure-track faculty deprioritize?

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Academia has an adjunct problem. Most of the verbiage on this topic (that I see, at least) focuses on the plight of adjunct faculty.  I agree that this matters, a lot. But, this isn’t the bottom line for the people who are the designated focus of the teaching institutions: the students.

At the top of my list of worries about adjunctification are educational quality and making sure that we do the best for our students.

I am not suggesting that the quality of classroom instruction by adjuncts is better or worse than their tenure-track colleagues. The problem for students isn’t connected to quality in the classroom. It’s about what happens — or doesn’t happen — outside the classroom.

Take, for example:

There lots of explicit or implicit job expectations of tenure-track faculty, which are not expected of contingent faculty, including

  • Academic advising

  • Research with students

  • Mentorship

  • Career advising

  • Sponsorship of student organizations

  • Development of new curricula

Meanwhile, in some universities, adjuncts don’t even have a shared office space.

Nobody expects adjuncts to do the same kind of service, research and student mentorship activities that are part of the role of full-time tenure-track faculty. Tenure-track faculty are expected to interact with the same population of students throughout their undergraduate careers, especially in smaller institutions, which often sell themselves based on the close professional relationships betweens students and faculty.

In my own department, we have been dealing with one dilemma tied to the fact that we don’t have enough tenure-line faculty to teach our courses. Next semester we will, collectively, have more reassigned time for service and student mentorship that we have had in recent memory. This is great for a number of reasons, but it also means that for some courses that we normally teach ourselves, we’ll have to use non-tenure-track instructors.

Which kinds of courses are we supposed to give up ourselves and assign to adjuncts?

Here are the options:

  • Our introductory for-majors courses. We have a 3-semester intro sequence, and each of these is taught by a single tenure-track faculty member. This has been great because the all students get to know these faculty in the department by going through their course (aside from some transfer students). Though I don’t own any of these courses, I chat a lot with my colleagues who do teach these courses to identify students who could join my lab. These courses are foundational for the rest of the major, and we need to be sure that there is consistency in its instruction so that students are well prepared for the upper division. Having a rotating set of instructors in this course wouldn’t be good.

  • Upper-division speciality courses. We happen to have plenty of adjunct instructors who are qualified to teach most of these classes well. Would it be better to have the tenure-track faculty stay in the majors intro courses and leave some specialty courses to adjuncts?

  • Graduate courses. Our courses for the graduate program should, in theory, be taught by research-active faculty. However, there are so few of us that we are also needed for other parts of the curriculum. Teaching the graduate courses in a seminar format, with smaller class sizes, is lighter on the schedule than an introductory majors course, and keeping this course in the schedule can free up even more time for other activities. However, this would keep faculty from getting to know as many undergraduates.

  • Our non-majors courses lecture and labs. Like many other departments, we have pretty much already abandoned the hope of teaching these. I have taught a few sections of these courses in recent years. My rationale was that these courses which have a large proportion of Liberal Studies majors (those preparing become K-8 teachers), and teacher preparation is a priority of mine.

We aren’t punishing any of our students by having them work with our adjuncts, but when students are taught by our adjuncts that means we are less able to provide them with opportunities and interactions outside the classroom. These interactions are often what makes college valuable. So, which courses do we, as tenure-track faculty, give up?

This is a hard call. We have managed to make sure that all the lectures, if not the labs, of our introductory majors courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. This helps us build a community in our department, in which the faculty who run the department are personally familiar with the students going through the major. It would be a step backward if we divested ourselves from our majors at this early stage. On the other hand, it would be great if research-active faculty continue the speciality courses in the upper division and to graduate students. Moreover, this could be an important part of continuing to support students conducting research in our labs.

For example, I’ve been the instructor of the graduate biostatistics course for several years now. This means that, for better or worse (mostly worse), I’m the statistics guy who the students contact (and sometimes ignore) when they are designing experiments and analyzing their results. If our biostatistics course was taught by an adjunct, these students wouldn’t have that adjunct available around the department to discuss experimental design and analysis. While I don’t think I need to serve as a statistical consultant too often, I think being available for these kinds of conversation is a part of my job that I shouldn’t be giving up. If I didn’t teach this class, the students wouldn’t even be aware that I am available in this capacity.

There isn’t a good answer to this problem, but it’s one that we’re facing. I’m really curious about how other departments of different types of decided which classes are kept by tenure-track faculty, and which ones end up being taught by adjuncts on a long-term basis. When these decisions are made, what is the currency behind the decision? Faculty scheduling, available faculty expertise, student familiarity with faculty?

 

 

 

 

Keeping seven people out of your head

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I recently declined to seek an opportunity to become a 50% time administrator. Why did I turn it down? I want to keep seven people out my brain. My dean is wonderful, and the interim provost is a nice guy, and the chairs of other departments are very congenial. But I don’t want them in my head. Let me explain.

dear_mr_wattersonSeveral weeks ago, my family and I went to see Dear Mr. Watterson in the theater. This movie is a Kickstarter-funded fan-film homage to perhaps the greatest comic strip of the latter half of the past century, Calvin and Hobbes. (If you haven’t yet read some Calvin and Hobbes, get thee over to a used bookstore pronto, where you should be able to pick up a tattered collection on the cheap. Trust me, it’ll bring you joy.)

The creator of Calvin and Hobbes famously refused to license the production of paraphernalia. Every sticker of Calvin peeing on something is bootlegged. You can’t buy a stuffed Hobbes, and Calvin isn’t shilling insurance like Snoopy. Hobbes isn’t selling candy bars like Bart Simpson does. Because of this decision, Bill Watterson walked away from tens of millions of dollars, and perhaps a lot more.

Depending on the audience, Watterson’s decision provoked admiration, consternation or puzzlement. The fascinating parts of Dear Mr. Watterson are interviews with syndicated comic artists who are big fans of Calvin and Hobbes.

The most enlightening interviewee was Stephan Pastis, the creator of Pearls Before Swine, one of my favorite strips in current syndication. Pastis was discussing his own experiences with syndication, and his experience authorizing the production of Pearls Before Swine merchandise. He remarked on what Bill Watterson got by saying no to merchandising.

Pastis explained that merchandising brings profit, but also takes your attention. When new products get developed, a bunch of them are going to stink, or otherwise misrepresent the strip. Even if they don’t suck, they need your input. The syndicate will have questions, the graphic artists will have sketches, and the manufacturers will have samples and suggestions.

As Pastis explains, once you agree to sell merchandise, then you’ve just invited seven new people into your life.

Even if you’re not on the phone or meeting with them that often, these seven people are on your brain. You think about what these people want and how to respond to them. They generate a whole set of questions and issues for you to consider and take care of. You become a business person, managing a money-making operation.

Pastis explained what Watterson got from not merchandising: control. He got the freedom of his time – and his brain – to create Calvin and Hobbes. This comic strip is a sublime creation and its gorgeousness and excellence was enabled by Bill Watterson’s unfettered ability to focus on art. Perhaps Watterson wanted to keep his art untainted by the machinations of salesmen, but in addition he also kept his own mind free of the clutter of a supply chain.

If I ended up taking on a half-time administrative job at my university, there’s no way the job would end up being a half-time gig. Even if I somehow only spent twenty hours per week working at it (and fat chance at that), far more hours would be sucked away by the seven administrative sausage-makers taking up space in my head. I’d be worrying about preventing one person from trying to gain access to another person’s budget. I’d try to sort out who I could cajole to join a committee. My calendar would have deadlines for reports popping up. Even when not in meetings with people who wear suits, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the conversations with suits from my consciousness.

I want to think about manuscript revisions, my next lesson, the next grant and keeping tabs on the projects students are doing over the year. This last semester had more admin work than I’m used to, and regardless of the time I spent on it, the administrative stuff handicapped everything else. I could be a part-time administrator by the clock, but not by the brain.

I’m sure people with lots of admin experience know how offload admin duties from the brain when not on the clock. But I’m inclined to agree with Stephan Pastis, that if you can keep those seven people out of your head, you’re a lot more able to focus your mind on things that are of true interest to you. I’m not ready to put ecology, ants and rainforests – and my research students – on the back burner. Maybe someday, though at this moment hard to imagine such a day.

On being a tenure-track parasite of adjunct faculty [updated]

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My job, as a tenured associate professor of biology, wouldn’t be possible without a sizable crew of adjunct instructors in my department.

Here is some context about the role of adjuncts in my particular department: At the moment, the ratio of undergraduate majors to tenure-line faculty is about 100:1. This isn’t unprecedented, but is on the higher end of laboratory science departments in public universities. Because we have so few tenure-line faculty, and so many lectures and labs to teach, we hire a slew of adjuncts every semester.

It’s not like the adjuncts are there to make life easier for tenure-line faculty. They’re here to keep the department from falling apart and to teach classes that otherwise we would be unable to teach. One thing that keeps us tenure-line faculty busy is advising. All of our majors required to be advised every semester in half-hour appointments, one-on-one with tenure-line faculty, in order to be able to register for the subsequent semester. In addition to our base teaching assignment of four lecture courses per semester and the standard research and service expectations, we’re worked mighty heavily.

Lest I complain, I am thankful on a daily basis that I am paid a living wage, if below market rate, and I am in a union that has mostly held on to benefits like our parents fathers used to expect from their employers. That’s more than our many adjuncts can say. If it were not for a stroke of tremendous fortune in a very difficult time, I would not be able to be in this position.

While I do have some additional responsibilities that are not expected of our adjuncts, this disparity between job expectations is tiny compared to the massive disparity between our relative pay, benefits and job security. While I would hope to think that the things I offer on top of my teaching (research opportunities and individualized mentorship for a small number of students, external grants to bring money and reputation to the institution, and a meaty role in institutional governance) bring value, I cannot reasonably rationalize that those services justify the massive gap between the my compensation and that of my adjunct colleagues.

I also am conscious that many tenure-line faculty in my university do little to nothing more than some of the adjuncts, skipping out on faculty governance, making themselves unavailable to students outside class, and not providing research opportunities. These faculty are more like adjuncts with a full professor’s paycheck and pension. What’s worse is that I could choose to devolve into such a role with no consequences for my pay, benefits or security of employment.

I have particularly benefited from the contributions of adjunct labor. In my current university, I actually have never taught the full base teaching load, as I’ve always had some fraction of my time reassigned to additional research, administration, outreach or professional development activities. (And, to be clear, I spend more time on the jobs to which I am reassigned than is expected of me while teaching.) The only way that I have been able to carve out time to keep my research lab ticking, write grants and run some programs is because others have stepped in to get the work done. These people are as qualified as I am to teach these courses, have plenty of teaching experience, and are getting paid less than I would if I were to teach those courses.

Hiring an adjunct instructor as a one-off to cover a course that needs to be covered isn’t necessarily exploitation. But if this temporary labor pool is not truly temporary, and if these are not one-off arrangements but instead a machine that requires the dedicated effort of many contingent workers on a long term basis, this is overtly exploitative of the contingent labor pool.

It is wrong that my department has several people who teach lots of courses for us, year after year, and aren’t able to receive an appointment as a professional ‘lecturer’ that acknowledges their professionalism and compensates them as one would expect from an employer after providing years of service. It’s not criminal, but in some countries, it might be.

When I graduated from a mighty-fine private liberal arts college twenty years ago, the catalog had the name of a tenure-track professor next to every course. I had taken two courses with adjuncts the whole time I was there (one of which was taught by a senior and established person in the field who did for it fun and for the students). Now, students on this campus take many courses with adjunct instructors, the campus catalog no longer has the professor’s names tied to courses, and there is a large and growing pool of adjuncts clamoring for equitable treatment. This isn’t a sign of the decline of this institution, but instead an indicator of the adjunctification of higher education.

Like the house elves in the Harry Potter series, an army of highly-qualified and hard-toiling adjuncts make the magic happen in a university, without recognition or reward. Faculty members on the tenure-line are not ignorant of this massive injustice that empowers their existence, but mostly feel powerless to rectify the systemic situation. Universities have created a caste system, and how is it that individual members of one caste can create an equitable labor arrangement? Short of a quixotic revolution, what is there to do?

We can agitate for change. We can decry the situation. We can write blog posts, articles and books about the exploitation of adjuncts as working-class academics. That’s part of moving towards change, I guess.

However, I feel that this isn’t enough considering that I am a member of the caste that benefits from the labor of the adjunct caste. I’m not saying that I don’t deserve the compensation that I receive, but it is abundantly clear that long-term adjuncts don’t deserve the lack of compensation that they receive. I just don’t see any particular course of action that I can do within the context of my own job. I can, and do, treat adjuncts as full colleagues, and I can join the others in our union to advocate for adjunct rights.

I do not have the power to make right any systemic wrongs, and neither does my Chair, nor my Dean. I suppose the power is within the Provost’s office to make these changes but the budget isn’t there. The entire university system has been calibrated to cut costs on the backs of adjuncts.

If tenure-line faculty members are failing to press hard for the reasonable and fair employment of the adjunct labor pool, then it’s probably not because they aren’t aware or because they don’t care. It’s the same reason that they don’t take specific action in their lives to reduce their own carbon emissions, and it’s the same reason they don’t buy all of their clothes that are certified sweatshop-free, and the same reason why they don’t buy books from independent booksellers. The problem is so big and so systemic, that it’s overwhelming.

Individuals have trouble remembering that individual actions, at the right place and the right time, make change happen. The university is not making things easier for tenure-line faculty either, who need to take up a greater share of the non-teaching work as tenure-line positions fizzle away. I want to rage for adjunct rights, and it makes me upset, and I want to do something. So I wrote a blog post, but I can’t imagine that this will change anything.

So, what else should tenure-line faculty do?

Update 27 Sep 2013: The non-rhetorical answer to the rhetorical question above was provided by Jenny in the comments, who shared this story about specific and concrete efforts at Portland State University written by Jennifer Ruth. That is, apparently, what we should do.

What faculty really need: Time

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What faculty need doesn’t always translate into what administrators think faculty need.

Administrators overseeing faculty, who do their jobs well, find ways to help faculty do their job better. With respect to research, I imagine that administrators want to increase the quantity and quality of student research, increase the number and quality of publications, and increase the funds coming into campus. At many places, of course, the latter reigns supreme.

What should faculty get to make these things happen? What we need, more than anything else, is time.

Sure, organize a grantsmanship workshop for us. Okay, pay for me to go to a conference. It is useful to have an allowance for supplies. I get to hire a student work with me? That’s very nice. I get a little stipend if I submit a grant? That’s okay, I guess.

All of those things are for naught unless I have the time to make things happen.

The basal necessity for all faculty to get research done is having the time to do it. Without that foundation, don’t even bother doing anything else.

Though some consultants make their living telling people how to write grants, a workshop won’t make you write a great grant. That skill is acquired by writing grants, serving on panels, and collaborating with people who are great grant getters. Those things take a lot more time and focus than a workshop. A workshop is a start, maybe, but unless it’s backed up with time, it won’t result in a great grant.

Working with students takes plenty of time. Writing grants, collecting data, and writing manuscripts takes plenty of time. If you were to ask most of us what we need, we’d probably put time at the top of the list. That’s probably true for everybody in academia, regardless of field or how much money we have. Either we have lots of money and need the time to do the work we planned, or we need the time to write the manuscripts and grants that are necessary to bring in money. Either way, time is always at a shortage.

I understand why administrators might be reluctant to give reassigned time to faculty to do research and mentor students. It seems against the mission of the institution to pull the out the batters from the top of the lineup so that they can leave the classroom to work with fewer students. Also, there’s a pull to be egalitarian in the distribution of resources even though some faculty will waste the time given, and others will be productive. So, time can’t be given out willy nilly. But if you really want faculty to deliver, find the ones who will do solid research and give them the opportunity to do so. (Tip: the ones who will deliver in the future are the ones who have already shown the ability to deliver.) Some people will never deliver, no matter what they get. Some already deliver, and will deliver better with more time.

Time is money. And faculty time, compared to other things, isn’t cheap (though it’s cheaper than it should be considering how poorly paid adjuncts are). If you have quality faculty doing excellent research and teaching, then giving them the opportunity to allocate some of that teaching time to research/mentorship is what will deliver.

Service obligations attack!

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Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I’ve rarely overtly turned down service opportunities, but I’ve been able to finesse my way out a number of times.

That good run just came to a screeching halt.

Now, you may call me Senator McGlynn. I think they give us rings that our subjects may kiss.

There are different ways of taking shared governance seriously. On my campus, that is manifested with meetings every other week, for about two hours.

I’ve sat in on a couple of these meetings in the past. They have been about 42% self-aggrandizing blather by a small number of people, and 50% chiming in to affirm the importance of the blathering, accentuated with 3% of stuff that actually matters. I’ll have to go there often enough to catch that 3%. (The remaining five percent is the discussion of Sternly Worded Letters in the form of Senate Resolutions.)

Why did I agree to this momentous time suck? My department has lost so many people, and had no hires in so long, that we’re almost down to negative tenure-line faculty members. The other people in my department also have plenty of unsavory service duties and if I turned this down, then it’d be unfair to my colleagues, and I wouldn’t be pulling my share. If I said no, I’d be kind-of a jerk, if not a kind of jerk. Not a kind jerk, surely.

There is also an upside to taking this on. In the last few months, the stars have aligned and my Dean, Provost and President are all openly supportive of research and the mentorship of student researchers. I mean, they are so supportive that they’re actually putting money in that direction. There are probably some recalcitrant faculty that won’t want resources (especially reassigned time) going to research, and they might mount a last stand in the Senate. It would be handy to be there when it happens, even if the guy who runs the Senate is the biggest advocate (and example) for faculty research on campus.

I’ve been spoiled for years now, by not having to go to these kinds of meetings like I used to have to go to on a monthly basis at my old job. This time, I’ll have the wisdom to not ever attempt to reason with the unreasonable. The bottom line is that I’m very pleased that there are faculty who are heartily fighting the good fight to have control over our own university and our own curriculum. They are the ones protecting our students from administrative forces that want to push our students out of our classrooms and into online courses, and they are the ones that are fighting to keep the the campus from devolving into a career tech institute. What happens in Senate is important. I just wish I didn’t have this little part-time job in the sausage factory. But I’ve been eating the sausage for years, so it’s time I did my share.

If this is all I have to complain about this week, then life ain’t so bad.

“Release time” vs. “Reassigned time”

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Words matter, because words dictate how we think. Our brains think using words to organize ideas. Language and reasoning are coupled together. (Yes, I know some linguists that disagree.)

Here’s a example from our own realm that matters to me.

Faculty members can have their responsibilities partially shifted away from teaching to other obligations. For example, one might be the chair of the academic senate, or serve as departmental chair, run a campus center, or conduct externally-funded research. These responsibilities result in a reduction of the teaching load, to make time available to fulfill other service or research obligations.

I usually hear this shift of effort called “release time.”

That terminology bugs me. This phraseology implies that faculty are being released from a responsibility. That is not the case. The responsibility is being shifted partly away from teaching and partly towards service or research.

Nobody’s getting “released” from anything. Nobody’s getting away with anything.

In fact, in nearly all so-called “release time” assignments that I’m familiar with, the amount of time and effort required for the new task well exceed the teaching assignment from which the faculty member was “released.”

This is why I use the term “reassigned time,” because it more accurately reflects the arrangement at hand. If we give in to the term “release time,” then this gives a false impression to those who have the power to grant or deny this reassignment of your time. While we all rationally know that “release time” is still just as much — and typically more — work, the terminology works in insidious and subconscious ways.

So, when you’re negotiating for time to do an externally funded project, don’t call it release. Call it reassignment. It’s not only more accurate, but it might even increase the chance of a favorable decision.

Negotiating for reassigned time when writing a grant

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Here’s a guiding principle: Don’t write a grant to do a project, if you don’t have the time to do the project that you proposed.

There are a substantial number of corollaries to this principle, especially at a teaching institution. The corollary I’m focusing on now is:

Be sure to get time assigned to the project by your administrators before you submit a grant.

Funding agencies spend most of their money at research institutions. Even if they claim to understand the role of research at teaching institutions, they do not back this understanding up with dollars. It’s tacitly understood that, if you land a grant, that you’ll have the time to work on the project. Even if the program provides for some salary for the PI, that salary isn’t enough to fully fund your effort on the project.

If your teaching load is two courses per semester, then you’re probably already expected to spend some serious time on research. However, if your load is much more than this, then most of your time is spent teaching, and the teaching would be substantially harmed if you’re trying to do a major project on a timeline at the same time.

If you are currently spending most of your time teaching, then you need to make sure that when you land a grant that you’ll be able to get the project done. The time to do this is before you submit a grant. After that, you won’t have much leverage in asking for time.

A number of my colleagues ultimately got fed up with, and left, their jobs because their administration wouldn’t give them the time to work on their externally funded projects. There has been some good discussion about this in the comments in an earlier post. These situations emerged because these scientists found themselves in a position in which they weren’t given the opportunity to do research that was expected of them by a federal agency. You don’t want to be in that position.

To avoid that situation, you need do talk to your chair, dean and provost up front about preparing and submitting a grant. Explain that you want to write a grant for X dollars to be submitted to Y agency that would accomplish Z. This project would bring in aX dollars of overhead and hire M students, and send some of them to grad school. However, you can only include bX dollars of salary for yourself, and to do the project would require more time if you’re going to do it right. Ask them what kind of support they could provide to make this project happen.

Negotiation is based on finding mutual interests. They administration wants a positive student experience, productive faculty, and external recognition of excellence. Grants can provide this for them, and they should be putting some money behind this. If they don’t want to reassign any of your time away from your teaching to work on the grant, then, frankly, you don’t want to waste your time writing that grant. You would be between a federal agency and a hard place if the grant came in and you couldn’t free yourself to get the project done right.

If your university can’t fund your time once your grants are funded, then your time spent writing grants might be better spent writing job applications. If your ambition is to do research, and your institution can’t support it, then you might well have some irreconcilable differences.

Teaching institutions have lower overhead cost recovery rates. Your provost and dean might not get enough overhead back to fully cover your reassigned time. If they do, then the decision for them should be a no-brainer. If they don’t, then they’ll have to find the money in other parts of their budgets to subsidize your research. If they value the research, and the opportunities it affords students, they’ll find the money. Remind them that you’re only asking for their support if the grant comes in, and that most grants are not funded.

On your end, you need to deliver product for the investment. If I’m ever asked to explain what I’ll deliver, I will promise to deliver a peer-reviewed paper in a well-recognized journal for every reassigned course (though not necessarily a first-authored paper). I’ve never been asked about this, though. My institution hasn’t ever funded reassigned time for more than 25% of my teaching load, so this hasn’t been a difficult benchmark to meet.

Most teaching campuses have their grant funding incentives bassakwards. There are plenty of grant incentive programs that help faculty get the time to write grants. I get that it’s cheaper to pay for time to write grants than it is to pay for faculty to work on funded grants.

Far less common is systemic support for faculty who are externally funded. This is what would really get grants rolling.

The last thing you want to do is pay an unfunded faculty member to write a grant. They’ll take the money, and might submit a grant, but if they do, is there any reason you should expect it to be competitive?

If faculty members are getting paid for their time to write a grant, but they won’t get any additional time when the grant comes in, then why would they want the grant to be funded?

When a faculty member really wants to do research, then a single reassigned course to write a grant isn’t goint to make a project happen. Those that want to do the research without reassigned time probably are already doing it.

For example, about a score of us on our campus just got funded a single reassigned course , plus some extra funds, to submit a grant within the next two years. I’m grateful for this time, and the additional funds to hire students to collect preliminary data, which’ll help me get a proposal out next January.

I was probably going to submit the grant in January regardless of whether the university gave me the time for it. I think most researchers who are earnestly wanting to get a grant funded would write the proposal without the time. Don’t get me wrong, the time helps, but it’s not making me write a proposal that I wouldn’t have otherwise written.

I am glad that I don’t have to squeeze it in so tightly, and it probably will be a better proposal because I’ll be less stressed in getting it together. I greatly appreciate the institutional investment. I really want the grant that I’m submitting to get funded. However, is that true for all of the other faculty who received these funds? It would not be rational for these faculty members to want to get the grant, because that just means more work without any time to make it happen. We’re already maxed out just teaching, so how are we going to add in more research?

Our university is paying for our time up front to submit a grant. And, once the grant comes in, do we have any time to do the project? The majority of the people who got funded are working in fields that won’t allow you to use much, or any, of your grant funds to buy your time to work on the project. (NIH is liberal about this, but there’s not much help for those in non-NIH fields. If you did buy enough time with the NIH grant, though, nothing would be left for the project.)

One thing to keep in mind is that writing a grant by no means indicates that you’ll get funded. Even R1 researchers are used to writing a ton of grants in order keep funding rolling, as most submissions aren’t funded. Check out the comments in Dr. Becca’s post showing how many grants folks submit to stay funded.

I don’t want to be put into the position of telling a federal agency that I will deliver on a project if I can’t create the opportunity to get the project done. If I got a standard NSF grant to do a research project, there’s no way I could get a project done to the level of NSF expectations without having the time in my schedule assigned to the project. I expect to get several publications out of a single external grant. That’s pretty standard for an NSF award, I think. How would I get the work done, much less write it all up, unless my institution gave me the time? NSF would let me buy out a course or two per year, or some summer salary, using the grant, but that might not be enough to meet NSF expectations.

So, now I’m in an awkward position. My institution is giving me time to write a grant, but as things stand, there’s no current policy in place about what will happen if it gets funded. So, before then, I’ll need to sit down with my new dean (my fourth in six years), and my provost (my fourth in six years), and have to ask, “I know you are helping me write this grant, but could I have some more?” Their answer will definitely reflect how I excited I am about the proposal that I’m writing over the next six months.

I’ll probably have to max out my salary in the budget of the grant, to the extent that I can’t fund students, and then it’ll get trashed in review for being topheavy. On the other hand, if I ask for only modest salary along with a time commitment from my institution, along the lines that you find from proposals originating from R1 campuses, then my proposal will look far more competitive. So, whether the administration realizes it or not, there are mechanisms that will prevent me from doing a project if I don’t have the time for it.

Startup needs for researchers in teaching schools

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When I started my current job, most of those who dropped by my office to say “Greetings,” first stopped short with a question: How did you get that monitor? (I have a big monitor. They no longer make them that big. I think it’s really helped me work more efficiently.)

I answered, “I asked for it.” It really was that easy. I gave up my printer for a big monitor. No biggie, I just brought my own printer.

When you start a new faculty position, you have to use the opportunity wisely. You’re over the moon that you actually landed the job, but don’t act too hastily. When you get the phone call, say that you look forward to discussing the offer very soon, don’t say yes. Once you sign on the line (it’s probably not dotted), you’ve lost all of your leverage for anything you want in the future.

Some schools leave things more open to negotiation than others. They’ll tell you straight out if something is fixed and can’t be changed. Often, things are flexible. You need to enter the conversation with the fact of negotiation. See what you’re getting as a starting point for discussion.

Salary is really, really important, because all of your future raises will be based on your starting salary. If you’re at a public institution, then salaries are probably public record. If you can’t find it online, then talk to a librarian at the university. These data matter.

You need to know what kind of ballpark startup you can expect. You should get this from the search committee rather than the Dean. You should find out what recent hires have got, and you should get at least that (depending on your specialty, maybe a lot more). Some schools will have a low five-digit offer and on the higher end some will have low six digit offer – and very wealthy campuses could shave something more. (This range sounds insanely low to faculty at R1 universities. Yup, I agree. Some places actually have startup that comes in four digits.) Sometimes people don’t like to talk with specific numbers. This isn’t the time to be shy. You don’t want to lowball your startup, and you also don’t want to get laughed out of the room for asking for an order of magnitude too high. Hopefully during your interview process you’ve built up enough rapport with your search committee, and your potential new chair should ideally be some help (if not your partner) on this as you go through the Dean.

What are the other things that you should or shouldn’t negotiate for? Here’s a quick review of the biggies, other than salary. Keep in mind that there is no grand wisdom in here, just a set of observations that plenty of others have made.

-Reassigned time from teaching. If it’s a teaching school, they hired you to teach. However, it will take a while for you to get on your feet and start up your lab. The longer you can prolong the reassigned time for you to focus on getting started and submitting grants, the better off you are. You don’t want to be a prima donna and ask for much much more than what others have gotten in the past, of course. You’ll note that I’m using “reassigned time” instead of release time. This is an important distinction in my book. “Release time” sounds like you’re getting out of a responsibility. “Reassigned” correctly indicates that you’re working just as hard on a different kind of assignment. Another thing that you should establish up front is under what circumstances, if any, funds are used for reassigned time in the future. If you bring in grants, can you negotiate for reassigned time even if it isn’t in the budget? Or, if you have to buy it with a grant, what is the rate? Especially at private institutions, the rate at which individual PIs are charged for reassigned time can be bartered. I’ve seen some people get outrageously great deals, only because they asked for them.

-Equipment and supplies. If your research requires a special piece of equipment that’s lacking, like a certain kind of mass spec, microscope, or whatnot, then this is your chance for the school to buy it for you. Keep in mind, though, that having equipment could be a curse rather than a boon. I have to admit that I can’t think of a fancy machine that would let me to things that I’m not already doing. You don’t want to admit this too readily, though, if that’s the main form of your startup. Often, once you get startup, you can spend it how you want. You can ask for cash for a big piece of equipment, but if you get it on the cheap or your needs change, you might be able to spend it in another way.

-Moving expenses. Sure, this is nice. But if you can convince them to shave money off of moving expenses to increase your salary, or reassigned time or something else, that is probably of more use to you.

-Space. If you want a better office or lab, now is the only time it’s going to happen, until someone retires or leaves. Nobody will get kicked out for you (usually), but if there is a variety of possible space then you should make your needs known.

-Staff. Will they guarantee that you have funds to hire a research assistant or tech? Small schools might be able to get you a paid part-time undergrad to work in your lab.

-Travel. To you, money for staff, travel, equipment and supplies all looks the same. But to the resource managers at the university who have to cobble together the funds for you, they aren’t. They need to get your startup from different pools of money with different rules. If you want to get money to travel to conferences, that might need to be specified up front. It also might not be possible, or might allow you to get a larger total amount.

-Duration of startup. Have you seen the Richard Pryor movie Brewster’s Millions? (This shows I am not young.) Pryor’s character has to spend a ton of money – all of it – in a short period of time. Most people who get startup are given a deadline to spend all of their money, and it typically arrives too soon. You’re so busy getting settled into your classes your first year, you can’t set up your lab on time. It’s likely that they’ll be pleased if you want your startup to be distributed over multiple years. That’s flexibility that you’ll appreciate. (I didn’t get the bulk of my startup until after I was tenured, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

There are a lot more details, and nuances about what kind of resources are better than others, but most of this depends on the specific circumstances of your particular needs and those of your institution.

Before your start your negotiation, there is a classic book about negotiation that I strongly recommend reading: Getting to Yes. This book will help you take away the adversarial approach to arguing over resources and instead help you find common ground. It should never be an argument, it should be a collaboration. Read this book before you get an offer.