January 2012

Careers at the chalkboard, the bench and the conference table

How can you prepare for the teaching aspect of a student-centered professorship? The absolute best preparation is teaching your own college-level course as an adjunct professor or instructor. Some assistant professor jobs require this; others may not. But even if it is not required, it is likely that a couple dozen of the 100 or so other applicants to the position will have this experience. If you cannot become an adjunct professor, here are other options: teaching assistantships, guest lecturing in an undergraduate course (few PIs would turn down such an offer), teaching MCAT prep courses, or volunteering to teach a weekly journal club on a certain topic to a group of undergraduates. In addition, these other experiences will make you a more competitive applicant for adjunct jobs and professorships.

Poster presenters at Stevenson University.

At the bench: What is involved and how to prepare
Yes, that’s right: research. Most professors at primarily undergraduate institutions have not left the bench. We just don’t have both feet there all the time. Research or scholarship might make up between 15 and 35 percent of our responsibilities, and it is accomplished with a small number of undergraduates who work part-time during the semester. Some may only be able to work for one semester, and they may have differing levels of undergraduate education. We still have to publish and secure external funding, but, of course, we do not have the time or facilities of research-intensive institutions, so the number of publications and the amount of funding we have to secure is less.

How do you prepare for teaching-intensive research? Like teaching, our research is student centered. This means that the research proposal you submit in your application must fit into what I have described above. Your research must be able to be broken into many small questions that can be answered in one semester by a part-time worker with little or no prior training and without many of the facilities available to graduate students or postdocs. For example, many primarily undergraduate institutions do not have or cannot offer animal facilities. That being said, you can still address big questions, but doing so will require collaboration with other scientists. (For the PIs who have read this far, here is another reason “teaching” professors are still your peers: we can be collaborators!)

At the conference table: What is involved and how to prepare
Conference tables? Yes, for a variety of reasons, we periodically sit down together in various subsets at a big, oval table. Most of this falls under what I used to call service. I now call it “the big other,” because the term “service” is too limited to capture it all. This aspect of your work may make up 5 to 25 percent of your responsibilities and usually involves advising a few dozen students in the major; mentoring individual students; participating in department, school, committee and university wide meetings, events and ceremonies; faculty governance; moderating student organizations; participating in recruitment events or community service; helping with assessment; and other department-necessitated tasks. As a graduate student, I always had the sense that service was somehow evil. However, I actually find it an enjoyable chance to learn about disparate things and to interact with all kinds of people. If you like student-centered activities, you most likely will enjoy this conference-table work too. (But, like every other aspect of this job, it takes time, and you already have more than enough work to do!)

Do you even need to prepare for service? Service at primarily undergraduate institutions often boils down to the role faculty members play in running the entire university; it is an important part of the job. If a search committee thinks an applicant would not do well in service work, the applicant might be viewed as unorganized, not caring about the university as a whole or not functioning well in teams. These kinds of skills are critical for successfully conducting all the other aspects of student-centered professorships. To stand out in this arena, become a leader in some way (such as starting or leading a journal club), stay organized with materials and how you store and present information, and communicate respectfully and courteously with everyone. Again, these skills are the same ones that great teachers need as well.

Go forth
If you are looking into a student-centered faculty career, read! Research it! There are articles from websites such as the Chronicle for Higher Education and career-development sessions at most scientific conferences. Chase down leads on people holding such jobs and follow up with people you meet people at career advisory meetings. The bottom line is that you should look into the requirements now so you can get qualified. A second-rate research university applicant is usually not a first-rate teaching applicant.

If you are mentoring someone looking into these jobs, be supportive. This career path is one of many that are fulfilling and important. If you are not aware of the qualifications your students will need, encourage them to find out what those qualifications are. They might have to take steps to prepare for an independent position that are different from those taken by trainees seeking research-based positions. Remember that you are probably not losing a research colleague. These jobs are not second-rate for those of us who worked very hard to get here and love it!

  1. 1. FASEB 
  2. 2.Turner, C. S. (2000) Academe 86(5): 34 – 37
  3. 3. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

MAC_BlatchSydella Blatch (sblatch@stevenson.edu) is an assistant professor of biology at Stevenson University.


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