If you are reading this blog, you are probably already inside the academic system in some way. As this blog is meant as advice to help you navigate the academic world, and ultimately succeed at being an academic scientist, if you so choose, I thought it would be good to make sure we are all oriented about that environment. Even if you have been in academia for many years, as a professor, you might be surprised at the variety of different types of schools that exist. The reasons why you should know and understand this landscape are:
- As a mentor of students who aspire to be professors, you should know the different types of schools, and what those types mean so that you can inform and properly guide your mentees into schools that are appropriate for their strengths and success.
- As a person who might be seeking to stay in academia, you should know the landscape for when you apply to schools at which you might want to teach and do research in the future.
I am currently at a conference for teacher-scholars from both Doctoral Research universities with high activity (often termed, “R1” universities) and Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) that have high research activity. Schools are periodically evaluated based on the amount of research they do and number of graduate students they have by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which was just updated in 2015. They do not use the terms R1 and PUI, but most academics use these terms as a sort of shorthand. I encourage you to take a little time to browse the types of schools, and the definitions – especially if you are considering going on the job market this year.
In this article, I want to give an overview of the different types of primarily undergraduate serving institutions of higher learning where you can still have an active science research program with undergraduate students. Any differences of opinion are welcome. Please comment and I will try to amend the article to include these views. Also, the landscape is ever shifting – even the terms change rapidly and schools get reclassified regularly, so it is important, if you are a job seeker and mentor, to keep talking to people broadly about the functioning of academia.
The types of schools that are represented here include:
- Private PUIs in the “small liberal arts” category. These types of schools are highly ranked and have a national “brand” that characterizes them and their student body. These schools require research for tenure, and most faculty will continue some type of research, although you will definitely have research-inactive faculty members, too.
- Large, public PUIs with some master’s degree students, but not Ph.D. programs. Many times the departments offering master’s degrees or other professional degrees are not in STEM (business schools or law schools), so these schools are still primarily undergraduate in STEM and with regards to NSF funding. These schools have a variable number of research active faculty. Some require extensive research prior to tenure, and some do not.
When you are considering applying to a PUI, especially one that does research with undergraduates, you should understand what that means and what you will be capable of doing. There are a number of private PUIs that are super active in research and expect all their faculty to be engaged in research with undergraduates and publish papers with undergraduates. It is a requirement for tenure, and a rate of 1 paper per year puts you in a the top performers bracket. The national average is a paper every two years. Some of my colleagues are doing research at schools where they are the only one doing research.
In talking to my colleagues here, they say the following:
- When reading candidate applications, the first thing they do is flip to the research statement. If they read something that sounds like you have no idea what it would mean to do research with undergraduates, they don’t even consider you further. You need to impress that you understand what undergraduates can handle, you understand the time commitment most undergraduates can afford, you understand the time commitment you can afford both during the semester and during the summer, and you understand what facilities you need and can get access to on campus, and perhaps off campus through collaborations.
- They do look at pedigree. They want you to have a postdoc experience with good, solid publications. This is important training in research, particularly framing and executing a problem. The hard part might be making sure it is of a scope that can be achieved with you and undergraduate researchers who cannot work full time during the semester.
Hopefully someone who is actually at one of these places can write a blog post about applying to these jobs and reviewing candidates for these types of jobs in the coming months. I will ask around. Hope you found this discussion helpful, especially as the fall application season draws nearer. Push the +Follow button to get an email every time I post. Comments that critique or amend this discussion are encouraged!
Comments on: "All the Kinds of PUIs" (1)
See this Physics Today article, “Hunting for jobs at liberal arts colleges,” by Suzanne Amador Kane and Kenneth Laws,
Another great resource is the book, “A PhD is NOT Enough” by Peter Feibelman. Look for the 2011 edition.
My advice: Strong public speaking skills are the most important asset for anyone seeking an academic position. If you feel nervous speaking in front of a group–and most everyone does at the beginning–find opportunities to develop your skills and self-confidence. Teaching is a great way to practice, but it’s not the only way. Any activity where you have to stand and deliver in front of a group will help: theater, music, or dance performance, spectator sports, story telling, political advocacy, science demos.
Our dear friend the Woman of Science excels at stand-up comedy. Stand-up comedians command instant attention, get a crowd on their side, and keep them riveted with an entertaining story. If you hope to hold the attention of undergrads with ADD, you need these skills. Watch TED talks. Take an acting class.
If you don’t find your science fascinating, why should anyone else care about it? Don’t speak with a blank robot face devoid of feeling. Learn to show a little emotion, a little personality. Own the story, love the story, and tell it well. What is the big mystery or question and why did it intrigue you enough to spend months or years investigating? What did you do, and did you invent any new tools or techniques along the way? Were there any major surprises? What are your findings to date? Does this result represent a final solution to the mystery, or just a clue along the pathway to a more complete answer? What lessons are learned and what questions are raised?
Lots of faculty candidates have a resume stacked with publications and strong recommendations. You’ve done some good science and you have a story to tell. If you can tell that story well, you will go far in life.