January 2012

Careers at the chalkboard, the bench and the conference table

Viewpoints on professorships at teaching-intensive schools

The author, Sydella Blatch, right, mentoring one of her summer research students, Pipan Lee.
Have you ever envied a professor with a “teaching” job? It sure sounds relaxing to have only to teach some classes. How nice it must be not to worry about grants, publications or troubleshooting difficult experiments.

I will not try to discourage you from envying “teaching” professors – not for the above reason, but because it is not true. Most of us know very little about what faculty at non-research intensive institutions do. This ignorance is understandable, given that our Ph.D. and posdoctoral training takes place at large institutions and is conducted by people whose main role is leading research. But we can all benefit from a clearer sense of what teaching-intensive professors do.

Why should I care? I am a research-intensive professor
If you are a principal investigator and have graduate students or postdocs who are interested in focusing on teaching, how can you guide or support them toward this unfamiliar and sometimes maligned career path? Although you may be an expert in finding research-intensive jobs, only 15 percent of people with doctoral degrees in the life sciences have tenure-track jobs five to six years after earning their advanced degrees (1). These jobs include a variety of tenure-track positions, so your trainee is unlikely to end up with the same type of job as yours. In addition, teaching-intensive faculty positions can be more attractive to women and minorities for a variety of reasons. One reason is the amount civic engagement that these careers offer. As compared to white faculty, faculty of color are 30 percent more likely to value emotional development of students outside of the classroom and 63 percent more likely to pursue academic positions to bring about change in society (2). And this kind of civic engagement often is a larger part of teaching-intensive positions compared to research-intensive professorships. But beyond learning about these jobs to better guide your trainees, I encourage you to approach this subject – just finish reading this article – because teaching professors are still your peers. The vast majority of us do research in addition to teaching and service, so we are still your scholarly peers!

Why should I care? I am still a trainee
If you are interested in this career path, what will your job be like, and how do you prepare to be a competitive applicant? I f you are a trainee who isn’t interested in this path right now, I would still argue that it is still beneficial to learn about this alternative. After all, only 7 percent of U.S. institutions of higher education (about 350 schools) are classified as research intensive. This compares to over 2,300 institutions where faculty spend half or more of their time teaching (3). Many trainees think they want only a research-intensive career path, but somewhere along the road, they realize it might not be their dream after all. They may then seek a teaching-intensive job and easily fail to realize that they are not prepared for it. And still other trainees mistakenly think that if their publication record makes them under-qualified for a research-intensive professorship, then they more than sufficiently qualified for a teaching-intensive professorship. This is another myth.

Now that we know why we should learn about teaching-intensive professorships, let’s get to the fun part. What do teaching-intensive professors do? I like to call my job a student-centered professorship. We do more than teach classes, but almost everything we do is centered on the students. We perform a wide variety of tasks – it can be exhausting too – but it is a stimulating, engaging, fascinating and rewarding career that would require a book to describe in full. I am hopeful that this primer will broaden understanding of this wonderful career.

At the chalkboard: What is involved and how to prepare
I will start with teaching, because this is the largest aspect of the job, typically covering 60 to 80 percent of responsibilities. This includes basic, class-related duties: creating and delivering lectures; teaching labs; writing exams and assignments; grading; offering office hours and tutoring; and communicating with students, parents and other school faculty and staff in person, by phone and by email. Most teaching-intensive faculty jobs are at primarily undergraduate institutions, so there are few graduate students to teach labs or grade papers for you.

The art and science of teaching is as complex as any other field, so there is another layer of work to be done in this arena: researching and trying innovative teaching techniques, creating new courses or modifying existing ones, managing courses taught by multiple people, and listening to or mentoring students. Often, students want to form connections with you. Sometimes they just come to your office to say “hi” and tell you how things are going. Or maybe they have a problem and want to get your advice. It can be a great feeling to know you may be helping this young person shape his or her own path. In a sense, it is a little like being an athlete or a celebrity: like it or not, you are an automatic role model. If you are a woman or a minority, you may be an even larger role model, because these are still atypical images of scientists or professors.


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