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.

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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