The academic job search for the rest of us, Part II – What am I getting myself into?

This is the second post in a series about the academic job search in the physical sciences for people who either need to or want to consider non-research intensive institutions, including ones that aren’t any any way “elite”. Probably a good idea to read Part I first.  Some of this information may be useful for those in other fields.

One of the big advantages of working at a research-intensive institution is that you presumably spend most of your time on research-related activities.  That’s what you trained for as a graduate student and as a post-doc.  The increasingly desperate struggle for external funding aside, this type of job will provide the smoothest transition from your training to a “real” career.  I’m sure it’s still not at all easy, but at least it’s very familiar.

However, at an undergraduate institution, especially a smaller and/or less prestigious one, that is not your lot in life.  Unless you are looking at community colleges (about which I’m unqualified to comment), you will still have to maintain some sort of research program while teaching enough to almost count as a full-time job itself.  That might be a big shock on its own, especially if you turn out not to be as into teaching as you might have hoped when applying for the job.  But, let’s assume that doesn’t happen.  There are still some significant issues that you should be concerned about.

First, this is your freaking full-time (and then some) job, you should expect to be there a lot.  The 2 or 3 day per week on campus bullshit that can happen in some non-laboratory fields on an R1 campus won’t cut it.  If you have a sympathetic Chair and/or Dean, and you have demonstrated that you are doing some real research, and you can finagle a MWF or TTh class schedule, then you might be able to stay home once during the workweek sometimes.  Note that small schools are less likely to get “creative” about course scheduling, so the MWF or TTh is your best bet.  However, if you have to teach 4 courses, you probably have to teach every day.  Your required office hours for students may be more than at an R1 campus, and an unofficial “open-door” policy may be in effect.  If you often miss office hours, otherwise aren’t very available to your students, and you aren’t visible around campus, you will be risking your job.

If you are strategic and administrators aren’t onerous, you can probably get away with 30 hours per week on campus, including class time.  This is plenty of flexibility for most parenting situations and for things like errands and medical appointments, which are less likely to be scheduled outside the 8-5 day if your small school happens to be in a small city.  However, you’d better be putting in a strong 15-20 hours per week outside of campus if you are on campus just 30 hours.  If you work inefficiently or are trying to manage a stronger research agenda than is required, add another 5-10 hours on top of that.

Don’t assume that will be given a decent computer of the type (Mac/PC/Linux) that you want.  This matters less in some fields, but if you are in a field where you have to do calculations and/or data visualization, you may have to scramble a bit to get what you need.  That may include buying a good laptop yourself and getting them to provide a second monitor so you have some screen real estate.

At a non-research intensive school, your startup funds might very well just be that mediocre computer.  That’s true even in the sciences.  There might be some equipment lying around from the person who left to open up your job, or you might be able to share with an extant faculty member.  That’s one reason why many job ads say that they give preference to people who have research interests that are compatible with those of current faculty.  You might need to get creative with colleagues at other institutions to borrow an important piece of equipment.  Or, you may be expected to literally perform miracles.  This is a case where the high-end R1 folks are literally analogous to the financial one percenters.  There are some elite undergraduate institutions that do provide nice five-figure startup packages, but those are few and far between.

Don’t assume that you will have access to the journals you need.  You may get lucky with your favorite journal being in a “bundle” to which your library subscribes – or not.  If you are at a public institution, there should be some articulation agreement with the big-campus libraries, but at a private institution, you may be SOL.

Institutional support for attending scientific conferences may be quite limited, and missing more than a couple class days for that may be frowned upon.  Of course, at research-intensive institutions it is usually the grants that pay for conference travel, but remember that it will be hard to get grants when you have to spend most of your time on teaching.  Also, some types of small grants for which you might have preference at an undergraduate institution do not necessarily cover things like travel.

Many of these support issues are appropriate to bring up when negotiating the job offer that you hope to eventually get, and even to bring up with the department chair and/or search committee chair towards the end of your interview.  (I’ll talk more about the campus interview in a later post.)

Especially at a small school, you will have to get to know thy superiors.  There might only be 2-4 people between you and the Chancellor/President, and maybe a total of 10 staff/administrators who truly have any power over you until you have to deal with tenure committees.  (E.g., your department Chair, a few academic Deans, maybe an Associate Dean in your college/division, an administrative assistant or two, a Provost, and the Chancellor and/or President.)  When there are only around 100 full-time faculty, you don’t have the massive proliferation of Deans of all sorts of things, Associate Deans for all those Deans, Assistant Provosts, Vice-Presidents, etc.  I am on a first name basis with everybody in the chain all the up and that’s with even being a naturally asocial person who doesn’t try to kiss up to people.  No matter whether you want to or not, you can’t hide.

It is not that unusual for the Dean of Arts & Sciences at my institution to directly come to my office and ask me about something or directly ask me to do something.  It’s not unheard of for the head of my institution to do the same, although he usually just periodically does the rounds of the faculty hallways to say hi.  That may or may not be common.

Apropos that, because you will likely be in a fairly small department (10 or fewer full-time faculty), you will be expected to more or less get along with everybody.  With small departments, there is generally a lot more communication between department members than just maybe a big monthly meeting with dozens of people.  It’s almost unthinkable that I would go through a day without discussing some sort of student/department/campus issue with one or more of my department colleagues.  In a small department, even one malcontent can poison the well.

Back to the teaching for one last point: it may take a year or two to really start to get the hang of all of the aspects of quality teaching.  If you aren’t a bonehead, you’ll probably get there eventually.  But, coming into a job like this, you had better allow for the fact that you may get overwhelmed enough by teaching issues to feel like you have to shut down your research for significant periods at a time.  From my personal experience, this is the hardest part about having a research grant.  Sure, you are only getting paid for summer work, but you can’t just shut off research for 4 months at a time twice a year during the main semesters (or the equivalent if you are on a quarter/trimester schedule).  It’s tough to balance a heavy teaching and service load with regular research activities.  Suggestions for how to do that will have to wait for later posts, but you should make an honest assessment of how well you perform when being pulled in a seemingly endless number of directions by each of your classes, heavy departmental duties in a small department, other service activities, etc.

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