12 April 2013

A Career in Undergraduate Education

Agnes Kim Pennsylvania State University


Six years after I earned my PhD, I found myself once again on the job market, along with a number of classmates from my graduation year or thereabout. I consider myself fortunate compared to classmates, however, as the reason I found myself on the job market once again was not because my second post-doc was running out, but because I decided to find a better faculty position. The worse thing that could happen to me in this job search cycle was to continue on as tenured faculty at my institution.

Not willing to live the post-doc life, nomadic and uncertain, I accepted a position as tenure-track faculty at Georgia College & State University, a liberal arts college, pretty much right out of graduate school, in 2008. I abandoned the research track. At the time, there was some reluctance to give up a research career and some feelings of taking the cheap way out, of having failed in some way.

I realize today that I did not take the cheap way out, and I certainly do not consider my career a failure. Getting a position at an undergraduate institution requires special skills and the right personality. But if you have them, it can be extremely rewarding, as is any career that you pursue that is meant for who you are. If you enjoy research, love teaching, and like working with students more than you like working with computers, a career in undergraduate education may be for you.

The World of Undergraduate Education

The world of undergraduate education is a mystery in graduate school for a lot of us because we are students at research universities. In my case, my entire student career had been at a research university. I was only faintly aware that there were universities that did not have graduate programs, and knew about community colleges. I thought they were one and the same.

That was very much a wrong impression. Not all positions at community colleges require a PhD, while most if not all tenure track positions at undergraduate institutions do. There is also an expectation to keep up a research program. Many “undergraduate institutions” offer masters programs (a more accurate term is “non-PhD-granting institutions”).

While the resources, startup packages, and salaries are not quite the same as they are at large research I universities, they are non-negligible. As a faculty member at GCSU, I received $40,000 for startup, had money for one or two domestic conferences a year, and received the services of a very decent Office of Sponsored Projects.

Teaching loads and expectations for research vary by institution. Teaching loads can go from 2 to 4 courses a semester and research expectations from one conference proceeding before tenure (i.e., in 5 years) to 2-3 papers a year (conference proceedings and co-authors count). Some universities stress applying for grants, some do not. Finding out exactly what is expected at any given institution is part of the interview process and must remain an ongoing conversation while working on getting tenured.

Because the requirements vary so much, it can seem difficult to prepare for a career at a non-PhD-granting institution, but they all have one common denominator: you have to love teaching and be very good at it. I never prepared for the career I have now. I naturally sought teaching jobs during graduate school because I enjoyed them. My teaching experience prior to accept the faculty position at GCSU was an eclectic mix of recitations as a TA, stints at summer science programs, and adjunct teaching. That experience proved to be invaluable when looking for my first faculty position.

The variation also means that you can find a place with just the right balance and emphasis on what you enjoy doing and are good at. When you interview, the dean of the relevant college will typically lay down what is required for tenure. Also ask each professor you meet during the interview about the balance between teaching and research and their view of the requirements for tenure. A consistent picture should emerge.

Finding the Jobs

Very few positions at non-PhD-granting institutions are advertised in the AAS Job Register, so don't limit your search to that. Other good places to look are the Chronicle of Higher Education, Academic Keys, and Higher Ed Jobs. Also give Physics Today a try.

The reason you won’t find many of these ads in the AAS Job Register is that very few universities will be looking for astronomers. Instead, look for ads for physicists. While some of them are field specific (as in “experimentalist” versus “theorist”, not “extrasolar planets” versus “particle astrophysics”), many are not. Typically, places looking for experimentalists want someone to maintain their undergraduate labs and involve students in hands-on research. Places looking for theorists want someone who can function with half an office for space and a standard desktop for resources. Keep that in mind when picking where to apply.

Focus on addressing people’s needs and concerns in your application. Don’t be afraid to apply to a position for an experimental physicist if you are an astronomer. If you play with telescopes, you can involve undergraduate students in hands-on research. You already know about ordering equipment and getting things to work. You can learn to run physics labs. Most places will be thrilled to bring an astronomer onboard, as they work wonders for recruiting and public outreach. What we do is just plain cool.

The Application

Writing good job applications for faculty positions at non-PhD-granting institutions is very different from writing an application for a fellowship or a postdoc. The prospective employers want you to do three things: teach undergraduate students, teach undergraduate students, and do research with undergraduates. Your application must be completely focused on how you can work with undergraduate students. The people who read your application will almost certainly be outside of your field, and most likely outside of astronomy. Mostly physicists but geologists, chemists, engineers, and biologists are not out of the question. They want to know: 1) Are you an astronomer (i.e., observer), theorist (includes computational), or experimentalist? 2) Are you going to require a huge amount of space or $100,000+ worth of equipment to do your research (they can’t provide that)? 3) Do you have specific ideas for involving undergraduate students in research?

Spend a very minimal amount of space explaining your research and do so in plain English (I am talking general audience level). Only provide as much background as required to answer the three questions above. Focus instead on any experience you have mentoring undergraduate students in research and on specific, practical, and achievable ideas for involving undergraduate students in research projects. These projects can be part of your research, or related, or just things that you are interested in. The more hands-on, the better. Think time scales of a semester to a year, and under $10,000 for the cost. In your application and during your interview, try to figure out how you can use the existing facilities and available resources. If you are bringing in your own grant, flaunt that. But also be humble and have a plan for lean years. Your research plan must be sustainable.

Negotiating Salary and Startup

So you got an offer. In this job market, you might feel like the institution is doing you a huge favor and you feel like you should grovel at their feet. That is not the case. They extended the offer because you are very good at what you do and you fit their needs perfectly. They will be deeply disappointed if you do not take the offer. Long before you get the phone call, you should know exactly what you are worth and what you are willing to accept. Even if you are told during the interview (usually by the dean) that the offer is not going to be negotiable, negotiate. Aim a little high, though not ridiculously so. You should do your very best to get an idea of what professors at that institution are making. They will be unwilling to pay a newbie more than their full professors, but they do not want you to be unhappy either. Faculty searches are costly and time consuming.

Most of the time, the faculty choses a candidate and the dean drafts the offer. Often, the faculty members you talk to during the interview process will offer tips and assistance on how to negotiate the offer. They know their dean and they have your best interest in mind, since they want the candidate they chose to come to the institution. The faculty is on your side when it comes to negotiations and they want to help any way they can. Give them that opportunity by asking questions about the process when you interview. During the interview, also try and see how you can use any startup funds in synergy with the existing resources. While the startup funds are yours, you will earn points at the interview and have greater negotiating power if you make demands within the framework of the team you are joining. Identify their needs and see if your startup funds can help with their needs as well as your own. If you are interviewing for your first faculty position and are struggling with what you might need as startup, the seasoned professors at the institution will be happy to offer you advice.

The Early/Mid-Career at an Undergraduate Institution

Surviving as a faculty member at a non-PhD-granting institution is sort of like being the parent of young children. One has to be able to function in the midst of semipermanent chaos, while making the absolute best of quiet moments. Often, the chair of the department will try to schedule your classes so that you have at least one day a week free of classes. Make it your “free of student contact” day and use it to work on research. Evenings and summers are other opportunities to get some research done. Save projects that require more focus or continuity to summers and do the busy work of the research during the long semester. If you are lucky, you may be able to use undergraduates to do some of the busy work, but that is hit or miss.

This brings us to undergraduate research. Most undergraduate institutions will require or strongly encourage the involvement of undergraduate students in the research. Mentoring undergraduate research is another aspect of teaching. Unlike trained graduate students, undergraduate students require a lot of guidance. The research project comes on top of a full schedule of classes that have exams and assignments due at very regular intervals and often slides to the bottom of the priority list. An undergraduate student might spend 3 or 4 hours a week at most on a research project, and some weeks none.

There is no regularity, nor is there continuity, as many students come and go on the time scale of a semester. Having a student work with you every semester for 2 years is a rare luxury. That means that the projects must be very much modular in nature, and have a quick ramp up. It is OK to have an undergraduate student re-discover the wheel (or re-measure the circumference of the Earth). They learn a lot in the process. The goal of undergraduate research is to give the students an opportunity to develop their technical skills and also to learn to work independently. That’s what makes them valuable to potential employers, and evidently better prepared for graduate school.

Keep an active research program, build and groom collaborations, and make sure to publish, even if that is not required for tenure. Keeping a steady flow of publications will keep career opportunities open. Not all publications have to be first author. If you are at a place where you are teaching 4 classes a semester, search committees will be impressed with one first author paper once every other year in a major journal, accompanied by 2 or 3 conference proceedings and co-author papers a year.

As for me, I am off to Penn State Worthington Scranton. After 23 job applications, 12 phone interviews, and 5 onsite interviews I found the perfect fit.