The academic job search for the rest of us, Part I – Do you belong here?

This is the first I what I hope to be a series of posts on the academic job search for people in the physical sciences (and maybe other sciences and other fields) who aren’t research hot-shots and are looking at the majority of tenure-track jobs that are at non-research intensive institutions.

It’s fairly easy to find blog posts that talk about the things you should do during your tenure-track job search – if you are looking for jobs at research-intensive universities.  However, most of us don’t work in the ivory tower R1 la-la land (“R1” is an old term for research-intensive institutions, “ivory tower” and “la la land” are timeless terms for places where people are living in their own world surrounded by reality; sorry for the redundancy of terms).  People that do are usually pretty ignorant of the realities of the inferior world of non-research intensive institutions.  It’s not really their fault that they’ve lived such precious sheltered lives.  However, it is their fault that they sometimes assume they are general experts in the academic job search, especially since R1-types of jobs are far from being the only game in town, even excluding community colleges.  (Nothing against community colleges, but I’m not very knowledgeable about them, and at least I’m adult enough to not claim to know about things I don’t know about, and wise enough to know the difference.)  If you are truly committed to being a professor and aren’t a superstar, you are probably going to at least have to seriously consider an inferior job situation like mine.

My perspective is from the physical sciences, where something like two-thirds of the jobs are at non-research intensive institutions (again, not counting community colleges).  Most schools with Bachelor’s degree programs expect faculty to be able to guide some amount of undergraduate research.  That is another bias of mine that I want to be up front about.  I know a lot about places with undergradute-only physical science degree programs where you will also teach service courses for other programs, but not as much as places where you will be exclusively limited to the latter.

I’ve been a full-time instructor/lecturer/professor/whatever at three different institutions, and two of the positions were based on “real” job searches, including my current tenured position.  I have also served on departmental hiring committees that have hired several tenure-track positions and numerous temporary/visiting positions.  (And where I am, the departmental committee’s recommendation is followed more than 90% of the time; there is no other committee and as a practical matter only a Dean might shoot down a favored candidate.)  These hires include people who now have tenure here themselves.  So, I know a little something about this game.  However, my advice will naturally be biased towards what we have been doing and will keep doing at my current institution.

Most of us understand that even people who are looking for a job in an undergraduate program may not have much undergraduate teaching experience.  After all, unlike in many non-science fields, one often doesn’t do a lot of teaching in graduate school or as a post-doc.  I actually did quite a bit of teaching in grad school, including being the instructor of record (i.e., “adjunct”, although that word wasn’t used) for a few summer courses, but that’s very unusual in the physical sciences.  Frankly, this probably seriously damaged my career; there is a unfortunate tendency to look at a science graduate student who is good at teaching as a less capable researcher, and thus as a less capable grad student.  Given how many a-holes go on to successful academic careers at R1 institutions, and the fact that a-holes generally don’t make as good of teachers, this is probably a feature and not a bug.

The problem is that you really have to be a metamorph to exist within a Bachelor’s degree program where undergraduate research is expected.  However, it’s almost impossible to become a better researcher in your first few years on the tenure-track in an undergradute program (or ever, for that matter), particularly at a non-elite institution.  Thus, it is still very important to come into such a tenure-track position from a position of research strength.  If you have a genuine interest in undergraduate education, you will rapidly get better as a teacher even if you don’t happen to be a great teacher already.  Hiring committees should understand this, and within my department, we do.

That said, it is important to have something in your background that indicates your interest in undergraduate education.  Hopefully, you have at least been a graduate Teaching Assistant at some point, and ideally will have some experience mentoring undergraduate researchers.  Those two types of experiences are the “safest” things you can do as a grad student and post-doc.  A short (one or two year) full-time position that is mostly teaching can look good, but multiple positions like this tend to look worse and worse.  In fact, we have hired people who have not had full-time teaching experience.  And again, teaching “full-time” kills anywhere from 75-100% of your research mojo, something you probably won’t be able to get back once on the tenure track.  Thus, we look extremely closely at your publication record while you were in that sort of position.  If you stopped doing research while you were teaching full-time, that’s a bad omen, especially because temporary positions often don’t require one to spend ~20% of one’s time on institutional committees and service activities.  Even allowing for the fact that you may spend 20% of your “work” time on your job search, you should still be doing science.

Of course, it can be hard to know beforehand exactly how much research and how much teaching one will be responsible for.  We discuss this in the telephone interview stage, but not in the job ad.  Mainly because while a 4/4 load (i.e., four classes/sections per semester) is standard here, most of us end up at 3/3.  Doing good science with the former is rare, but can be somewhat manageable with the latter.  We have to state the former up front and then say that the reality is that a 4/4 or even 3/4 is rare.  I would say that in general that if you will have a degree program and a 3/3 load, you should assume that significant student-faculty research is expected, and likely some funded research pre-tenure.

But, also be ready for the likelihood that you will almost exclusively be evaluated for tenure based on your teaching.  It’s just the opposite as for an R1 institution.  There, research and grants are key and teaching is generally taken for granted (to a significant extent).  At places like mine, teaching is key, and research and grants are generally taken for granted (to a significant extent).  That’s really one of the big things you have to quickly get used to when you downgrade to an undergraduate program.  It’s also why teaching even one “real” class before you enter the tenure-track can be very useful.  However, be aware that directing student-faculty research within your department may be very important to the department itself even while not being as important to the higher-up tenure committees.  (This can vary a lot, but at the smaller institutions that make up a lot of the undergraduate-only physical science programs, there may not be an actual department committee for tenure, just a College of Arts & Sciences committee and a campus committee.  Here, a letter from the department chair goes into the tenure file.)

If this stuff sounds daunting, but reasonable, and you don’t come off as a flake, you probably do “belong here”.  Whether or not it will be a great place to work is a crapshoot.  More on that later…

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