Teaching at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution

by Dr. Graham Peaslee

Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with “doing science.” I went on to graduate school while my friends sought jobs and professional school opportunities. Although the pay was low, I had academic freedom, my thesis adviser liked my work, and I told everybody: “I can wear jeans every day for the rest of my life if I like!” Then suddenly I had a Ph.D. and somebody was paying me to do what I actually love to do—research! The two postdoctoral positions after graduate school gave me some really rewarding years that were lots of fun. I couldn’t believe somebody paid me a salary to do these things that were so intellectually rewarding! Since I liked the work, I worked hard, and generally good things happen when you work hard; results get published, you give talks and people start to listen. You get to call yourself a scientist and people start to believe it.

Consider Varied Career Options

Of course, about this time in life other pressures (financial, familial) start to mount as well. Almost everybody in a postdoctoral position regularly wonders about long-term career options. The harsh reality is that while the majority of postdoctoral fellows will work at research-intensive institutions like an “R1” university or a national laboratory, permanent staff positions at these places are typically available for fewer than 10% of current postdoctoral candidates. Many people end up considering careers at other academic institutions, or outside of academia.

This happened to me. In my second postdoc I became half of a dual-career couple and I was told it was another “lean year” for academic positions at research-intensive institutions in my field. I decided to look for an a different type of academic position and ended up at a liberal arts college, where my wife and I have worked for the past 18 years. This type of option was never clearly explained to me at the time I made it, but in retrospect I am very happy with my choice. I am able to do research every day and I still do get to wear jeans (less often as a department chair, I admit). I also teach more than my research-intensive colleagues. It turns out that I like to teach, and while I had no great proficiency at teaching when I began, it is possible to learn. Institutions that require a lot of teaching usually provide significant training in how to do so. Thus, I realize that I have the academic career I always dreamed about…I do research, I teach, and I still have a family life.

How Do Research-Intensive Universities and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) Differ?

Is a faculty position at a liberal arts college any different from one at a research-intensive university? Certainly. It differs from a comprehensive university and a community college as well. My friends at research-intensive universities feel immense pressure to conduct cutting-edge research and to obtain the support to conduct it with small armies of people who depend upon them for their livelihoods. My friends at community colleges feel immense pressure to teach long hours with lots of students, and like their research-intensive peers, the really successful ones work lots of long hours. As a liberal arts college professor, I have to teach quite a bit, and to do publishable research with undergraduates. To be successful in gaining tenure and promotion, it takes a lot of time and effort to do both well.

Choose Your Best Academic Career Path

What advice could I provide for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows considering academic careers? In choosing my career path, I had to decide what balance of teaching and research is reasonable for me, and I have worked hard at what I love to do since I finally got the opportunity. It turns out that I really do like teaching, so the balance of teaching and research at a liberal arts college was a perfectly satisfactory option—and indeed preferable to a national laboratory or industrial setting for me. The type of research I do must be tempered with the reality of the institutional resources available— my school has a strong science program and collaborations are great things in most science disciplines these days, making it more possible than ever to do big science at smaller institutions. I have made a living doing some riskier cross-disciplinary research that may not always pay off in terms of research publications—but often does—and it always pays off in terms of student training and preparation.

Academic Job Application Prep

If you think a PUI might be a career option for you, check out the opportunities in advance—go visit somebody you know at a target institution, or offer to give them a seminar for free. You have spent years in a research-intensive university; before you leave one, make sure you know how other institutions operate. Of course, as a postdoc you are expected to do research successfully, so in preparation for a career in a teaching or comprehensive university, make sure you do well at your current position first. Letters of recommendation from your current institution are critical, and if you are splitting your activities between teaching and research already, you are probably not strengthening your resume for any type of institution.

Exploring Your Career Development Resources

In summary, as you consider what roles teaching and research might play in your career, take a look at the broad range of options available out there. I highly recommend the ACS-sponsored Postdoc to Faculty workshop that allows postdocs to explore the range of institutions and faculty expectations at each type of institution. There is a lot of great advice out there from people who have made this transition to a permanent academic career; be sure to ask them for it.

In passing this information along to those of you entering the job market, I hope that this knowledge will lead to long-term happiness in your career as well.

Dr. Graham Peaslee is a professor of chemistry and environmental science and chair of the Chemistry Department at Hope College in Holland, MI. He received his Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from SUNY Stony Brook in 1987 and performed postdoctoral research at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab. Dr. Peaslee’s research focuses on multiple aspects of nuclear, forensic, and environmental chemistry.