Teaching at a Research-Intensive University

by Dr. Cynthia Larive, University of California, Riverside

I love my job! How many people can say that after 19 years? I have found being a chemistry professor at a research-intensive university to be challenging, interesting, and rewarding. Are you thinking about seeking a faculty position at a Ph.D.-granting institution? In writing this article, I would like to convey my experiences about what you might expect as you start a faculty position, and how the job can change as your career develops.

Starting Your New Lab

Once you have landed a faculty position, you need to be prepared to hit the ground running. A faculty position at a research-intensive university requires a large commitment of time and energy, but the rewards are great. Establishing a lab is in many ways like starting a small business, and you will need many of the skills of an entrepreneur. You will probably have negotiated a start-up package that provides substantial financial support to set up your laboratory, making it your first task to equip your lab and start producing results.

Chances are you were a graduate student and postdoc in an established lab, in which the “boss” seldom found time for lab work. As a new faculty member, your goal should be to start generating preliminary results as soon as possible. That means getting into the lab yourself; training the new postdoc, graduate, and undergraduate students; and setting the tone for your lab through your own example. It is exciting and very rewarding to see your lab quickly grow from an empty room to a modern, functioning laboratory where students are working to carry out your ideas. It can also seem at times to be a painfully slow process, so it is important to maintain the right balance of patience and urgency in your interactions with your lab personnel.

Securing Research Funding and Recognition

A major task for you, as a beginning faculty member, is securing research funding. Chances are, you have good research ideas or you would not have gotten a faculty position; however, translating those ideas into funding requires more than just submitting proposals. Preliminary results will demonstrate to reviewers that you can implement your research plan. The only investigators who do not receive rejections are those who do not submit proposals. Try to take criticism constructively. Ask a mentor to review your proposals before you submit them to the granting agencies, and then to help you interpret your reviews. Having one or two small starter grants funded and getting papers published quickly will put you on a trajectory that makes it more likely that you will be able to score a major grant.

Those papers also start building the body of research that will shape your career. Getting tenure at most research universities involves generating a body of scholarly work that can be uniquely identified with you. That means that you need to develop a coherent research program that differs from those of your graduate and postdoctoral mentors.

In your evaluation for tenure, you will be expected to have built a national reputation in your field. One way this is assessed is through invitations for lectures at other universities and conferences. Your networking with faculty from other institutions can be the key to securing these seminar invitations. Talking with other scientists in your field is also a great way to get feedback on your current work and to develop further ideas that may lead to new research directions.

Teaching and Serving Effectively

In addition to launching a successful research program, new faculty are thrust into the classroom, often for the first time. Even at research-intensive universities, effective teaching is important. Although outstanding teaching alone will probably not get you tenure, at many schools poor teaching evaluations can hinder your progress toward promotion and tenure. You may want to seek a teaching mentor who can support and advise you about effective teaching strategies.

Furthermore, faculty are expected to contribute to the department, university, and scientific community through service. As a beginning faculty member, you may be protected from heavy service responsibilities within your department or be asked to serve in roles that benefit you, such as the graduate admissions committee. Reviewing papers for journals and proposals for funding agencies is a service to the chemistry community and helps to establish your independent reputation with editors and program officers.

Balancing Career and Family

For many young faculty members, the process of building their research program coincides with establishing a family. Most universities have family leave programs that support new mothers and fathers, and many campuses have excellent childcare facilities. An advantage of faculty life is built-in flexibility in the way you spend your time outside of teaching classes. You can easily work from home when a child is sick or slip away during the day to join in a school field trip or attend a class performance. National ACS meetings make it easy to bring your child with you by providing day-care services. Growing up, our daughters spent most afternoons after school in my office doing homework, coloring, or playing on the computer until we went home together at the end of the day. As adults they now fondly look back on those experiences.

Charting your Course Post-Tenure

Assuming you have successfully navigated the tenure process and received promotion to Associate Professor with tenure, you have a level of job security that has disappeared from most other careers. What happens now? You will need to evolve your research program to keep research funding and increase the size of your research group. As an established instructor, you can turn your attention to developing innovative curricula or incorporating new teaching approaches. You will be expected make greater contributions in service to your department, to your university, and to the scientific community, perhaps by serving your ACS technical division or other groups within the Society. Later in your career, you may choose to follow the many chemistry faculty who move into administrative roles or the others who spin off companies from their research and become entrepreneurs.

One thing is certain. A career as a faculty member at a research-intensive university will offer many challenges and rewards.

Dr. Cynthia Larive is Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside. She is chair of the ACS Committee on Professional Training (2009–2011), a member of the ACS Graduate Education Advisory Board, and Chair-elect of the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Larive’s research in bioanalytical chemistry focuses on the structural characterization of carbohydrates and plant-based metabolomics.