The number of articles and blog posts discussing the difficulties of finding a job are disheartening. The jobs are out there, but the competition is steep. Research-focused academic jobs are one of many career paths for a Ph.D. Fortunate graduate students and post doctorates will have mentors or programs to help guide them during their job search. But having served on several search committees in biology and chemistry departments, it is clear that many are unfamiliar with what it takes to apply for a post doc at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). Those who are familiar are usually pretty competitive. I have had many long talks with graduate students and post docs concerned with how to look for these kinds of jobs. My advice is to consider several career options, including a research-intensive institution.
A well-written application
There are several influential articles and publications on how to get a job at a PUI, including Malcolm Campbell’s article, “How to Get a Teaching Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution.” In addition to Campbell’s work, Michelle Bushey and others wrote a very good article for the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) in 2012. I wish I had read some of these before I interviewed for my first position. As I completed a post doc at a major research institution in a HHMI lab, my professional focus was justifiably on research. However, I was fortunate to run across an HHMI magazine article featuring a frantically busy but fulfilled undergraduate faculty. I latched onto her comments on teaching using different “pedagogies” and “engagement activities” in the classroom. I wasn’t clear on what exactly those were, but I did a little research and peppered my application with these terms. This seemed to be what caught the attention of the search committee and brought my application for further scrutiny. I was lucky. The odds are that my research statement was over the top, too technical and ambitious. I don’t think my application would fair nearly as well in today’s applicant pool. To be highly competitive, one has to prepare well before writing the application.
Types of Teaching and research Positions
Ask someone in a PUI or other teaching position what their greatest achievement is and you will likely get two sorts of answers. PUI faculty will be just as likely to tell you about a student they helped, or a great class they developed as they will tell you about interesting experiments, mentoring students in a research lab, publishing papers, or funding grants. These positions provide a diverse set of challenges and accomplishments. Here is a short list of ways to mix teaching and research:
- PUI: PUI institutions come in different flavors, public and private, large and small. Some will require faculty to teach 4 or 5 courses (classes or teaching laboratories) a semester, others 2 or 3. Depending on the institution, these classes and labs may have staff support or not. In that case, it is up to you and whatever undergrad you can wrangle if you find some work-study funds to help. Typically those schools with higher teaching loads will not have an excessive research requirement or may not have any research expectations. Schools with lower teaching loads will have a significant research expectation. This involves running an active research group, involvement of undergraduates in research, one or more publications, and either a funded grant or actively working to get funding. For each type of PUI, both teaching and research are important. A fantastic research program with a weak teaching history is not enough for tenure at most PUIs.
- Community College: With skyrocketing tuitions, there is a growing demand for community colleges to help students transition to a four-year institution to reduce education costs. Some community colleges now want to include the experience of research to teach critical thinking skills.
- Instructor/lecturer: Medical, graduate and even undergraduate schools still maintain instructor positions which can be full-time employment with benefits. These positions may include advising duties, coordinating teaching assistants, and preparing and instructing labs or entry-level classes. Different universities take very different approaches to these positions. In a few cases, these positions can be on equal footing with tenure track faculty within a department. Many have had meaningful and important careers in these positions. These career options should not be a second choice, but instead are an opportunity for someone who wants to teach science without the headaches that come with research and tenure track.
- Adjunct, fixed term or visiting professor: These positions are becoming a significant part of the university workplace. For those who are not looking for a permanent position but want to stay professionally active without all the expectations of tenure track positions, these jobs are for you. Visiting and fixed term positions are full-time teaching specific jobs for one or two years. However, if your goal is to get into a PUI, these are risky career moves and are not the best inside track to a tenured position.
How to Prepare?
Those who are interested in a teaching career can help themselves by preparing early. Graduate students may wait a year or two before starting to get their research program moving. Post doctorates should work on a few of the following suggestions as soon as possible. If your PI is not enthused about your career plans, you may need to find someone who is supportive of your long-term goals. If he or she isn’t the kind to encourage this career direction, do not deceive your advisor. On many levels that is a bad idea. Talk to someone who understands and will listen to your ideas.
For those in graduate school, consider the coursework you’re taking. Undergraduate professors need to be able to teach courses well out of their comfort zone. Besides teaching a course in your discipline, you will be asked to teach courses outside of your specialty. Look at a range of class offerings from the institutions you are interested in working at. Research what courses are regularly offered and take similar graduate courses. Biology departments have different teaching needs than chemistry departments. Few search committees or departments will be overly enthused to have a candidate with too narrow a focus.
Applicants who can teach a range of traditional courses AND provide interesting advanced courses are welcomed with open arms into a department. If your current major isn’t listed as a class in a typical department, consider taking graduate classes in chemistry or biology that you can use as experience to be a competitive applicant. Biochemistry, molecular biology, physiology, general chemistry, cell biology, microbiology, immunology, organic chemistry, introductory biology and non-science major courses are in high demand. Consider teaching a non-science major class that is interesting or a pre-health survey course. Take a class to help you gain that experience and show that you have the expertise. The best hire can help meet these ever changing demands.
Teaching experience is critical. After reading hundreds of applications, being a teaching assistant isn’t a line that will make a candidate stand out. Take a course on teaching effectiveness, pedagogy and even assessment from your education department. Nearly every applicant has been a TA at one time or another. What makes an applicant stand out is an authentic teaching experience. Strong candidates will have experience creating a class and syllabus, managing a course, learning how to work with and helping students. Get experience by teaching a part of your advisor’s course. Run a study section for new grad students or medical students.
In addition to teaching experience and taking appropriate courses, it is important to learn about pedagogy, assessment and course development. Read the literature. Search for articles on teaching in the classroom, teaching laboratory, and papers on how to assess learning. You can find publications on integrating research into the classroom and laboratory, how to determine and create learning outcomes, and Bloom’s taxonomy. Don’t wait until you begin writing your job application. Something like this should be done while in graduate school or during your post doctoral training. Journals to start your search include: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education Journal (BAMBED), the ACS Journal of Chemical Education, Cell Biology Life Sciences Education (I highly recommend articles in this journal written by Erin Dolan), and the Journal of College Science Teaching. Also, most universities have some sort of teaching and learning center. If your current institution has such an office, stop in and gain some information on teaching.
Start networking and learning. Every year at the Annual Meeting, ASBMB partners with other disciplines to have poster sessions on teaching and learning. Take a moment to stop and visit. These are pretty friendly and enthusiastic people willing and interested in helping you learn. The Annual meeting also hosts several education and teaching related oral sessions. Every other year, ASBMB has special symposia focused on student-centered learning. Graduate students and post docs and encouraged to attend. Faculty from large and small universities participate in sessions focusing on class and lab teaching. Other organizations that are fantastic resources are Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL.org) and CUR (CUR.org).
Learning how to mentor and manage an undergraduate research lab is much more than coming up with a great project, getting funded, and being published. You must involve undergraduates. Knowing how to integrate this into your teaching and research plans will help you stand out. If you have the opportunity, mentor an undergraduate in a research project. Give them a meaningful project and help them think and design a project that could be part of your publication. Being published with an undergraduate that you mentored indicates that the applicant is experienced and has demonstrated the ability to guide young students through the scientific process.
To prepare for a research position you have to train for years as a graduate student and continue your education as a post doctorate. Research and time as a post doctorate is also crucial to be competitive. I’ve described a lot of possible ways to prepare for the teaching side of a new career. One does not need to do everything listed above, but a careful examination of your environment and interest should guide you to become a more prepared and outstanding candidate. Many departments hire new faculty with the idea to change or grow some part of their program. If you have legitimate experience and knowledge in teaching and research, you will jump to the top of the interview list.
In part II, I will address the application and how to make your file stand out.