Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Ask My Readers: One-Year Gigs and Undergraduate Research

A returning correspondent writes:

I have been skimming the latest crop of advertisements for physics
faculty, and every so often I run across one that is for a one-year
appointment. The ads ask for candidates that will teach
undergraduates *and* involve them in research.

I ignore these ads, but lately they've started to nag at me... Who
wants to accept a one-year position and start sending out
applications in the first months of the new job? Are the ads not
really intended for non-local candidates? Who in the blazes can
teach and involve undergraduates in research in one year (start
research, maybe; finish a project, no way)? Does this mean the
department actually wants a candidate for longer than a year, but
prefers to keep their options open by giving themselves the option of
not renewing their appointment? Or is the reference to undergraduate
research just a throw-away phrase?

I've seen you answer similar questions on your blog, and generally it
comes down to, "Well, it all depends on the department and the search
committee; things could mean *this*, or things could mean that
somebody is behaving very strangely." I think this may be the case
here, but perhaps you can shed some light on what these limited
appointments can be intended for (and who might want to apply for them)?

I have to admit being a little out of my element here, so I'll throw it open to readers who know this field better than I do. (In the cases I know, undergraduate research occurs at the junior and senior level, beyond the reach of cc's.)

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I'm not sure, but my cc doesn't do one-year positions. One-semester positions occur when somebody falls ill at the last minute, and we basically annoint a native adjunct to finish out the term. But we don't make a habit of it, and we don't post for temporary gigs. In terms of full-time faculty, you're either on the bus or off the bus.

The context in which I could see a one-year position making sense is a sabbatical replacement. At institutions at which sabbaticals are a full year, I can see the logic. But the part about involving undergrads in research doesn't fit my sense of a one-year position.

It's possible that the folks posting the position are actually trolling for a full-timer and using this as a first screen. I've gone on record opposing that as unethical, since it winnows the applicant pool with irrelevant criteria, but that doesn't mean it never happens. Even with tenure-track faculty, non-renewal is an option prior to tenure, so I don't think the ability not to renew is the critical variable.

My guess, honestly, is that they took the desiderata for a tenure-track hire and simply duplicated it for the one-year hire. If they had taken the time to reflect on what they were doing, they'd realize pretty quickly that the job they've posted doesn't make sense. But critical reflection – like self-awareness – is distressingly rare, even among very intelligent people. They may simply have a sense of “this is what professors do,” and gone with that, not stopping to ask whether it made sense in a one-year gig. It isn't conspiratorial or sinister or even dishonest; it's just thoughtless, in the literal meaning of the word.

Wise and worldly readers – especially folks in the sciences – what do you make of this?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

My crystal ball says that some of these are SLACs with a capstone requirement and that every student needs to write a so-called thesis in his major and that everyone on the faculty should be prepared to advise one of these projects. I suspect that the research that they have in mind is of a somewhat lower caliber than the projects comepleted during a summer at an REU program.
One thing missing from the questioner is some sense of the size of the school posting the job.

In my experience, post docs have supervised undergrad research with little lead time or experience. If it is a leave replacement in a dept with some group NSF contracts, a person in the right field could step in and do the job. However, they would need to give more detail in the ad to attract those people.

More likely it is a situation like anonymous said.

Could also be a place that is somewhat ethically challenged, as DD suspects, although the market in physics is not nearly as bad as in the humanities if you cast your net widely enough. (If the questioner does not know the wider job market, I've written a series of articles on the data on my blog.)

Could be that they got a surprise retirement or death, and are economically challenged just enough that the Dean is cautious about promising the line right away. That alone could account for several openings every year.
I strongly suspect that "Dean Dad" is correct and they simply duplicated a job description without thought. I've been on search committees where we did that as the first step and almost didn't catch inappropriate expectations.

Off-Topic, but the first anonymous is underestimating the quality of research that is often, albeit, not always done at a SLAC as part of major requirements. Especially since my experience with REU programs is that the research done is usually of lower caliber than that of undergraduate thesis work.

If the undergraduate research expectation isn't a mistake, either the committee has unrealistic expectations, which means they problem don't involve many undergrads in research, or else they likely want someone who can help a tenured/tenure-track professor mentor undergrads. In both cases, mouthing platitudes will be necessary. In case its the latter, I'd look and see if there is someone who you could collaborate closely with. You might be able to get an already trained undergrad to work on one of your projects.
Call me naive, but at my institution's physics department (of which I am a member), "research" and "research with undergrads" means lots of different things. Although there are lots of projects that are too hard to tackle in a year, you can certainly analyze your own teaching with metrics like the FCI or Lawson test of scientific reasoning. (mentioning this intelligently at our school would impress at least half the committee).

You can also include small "researchy" projects in upper division classes you're leading, ie, having the students fourier transform the signal from a tv remote control (in computational physics), analyze the time-temperature profile of water coming out of a showerhead (in thermo), etc. The American Journal of Physics is full of these sorts of papers.

One additional note. Good ideas sound good, but actually doing researchy things with students will sound better to a committee.

At most of the institutions I'm familiar with, the goal is not to do research for research's sake (unlike the R1's), but rather to do some research with undergrads because it aids to their development as young physicists. At the medium (7k students) public university where I teach, teaching is the priority, and research serves that priority. At the small private college I attended as an undergrad, teaching was again the priority.

Thinking in the most optimistic way, my guess is that the ads you're seeing are poorly conceived versions of Lawrence's Fellows Program, http://www.lawrence.edu/dept/fellows/description.shtml
We frequently do the vacancy two-step, in which we first hire someone as a visitor for one year while we do a tenure-track search. So one thing the visitor is doing is auditioning. (And in a whole lot of cases, the visitor winds up with the t-t position.) Whether that's generally the case, I don't know.
That is exactly the kind of ad my department places (we straddle the natural/social sciences), and we don't do it without thinking.

Yes, largely they are for sabbatical replacements. And we are serious about the undergrad research aspect - serious in letting the candidate know it is possible, and serious in letting the candidate know it is desireable. Here, students from their first year can get involved in research as research assistants, and many students do their own independent projects, or lab projects, or honors projects. Faculty are expected to involve students in their research, and mentor them. Students also expect to have access to these opportunities.

Of course, not everyone's research can get started up, or even continued, in any kind of easy or real way in the scope of a year. We will often favor a candidate who has very portable research, and can easily incorporate students into it. Also, we figure if they are willing to consider a one year gig at our SLAC, they are probably interested in that kind of a job generally, and one of the things they'll want to put on their CV is being able to involve students in research.
Another possibility -- in addition to several plausible scenarios already reviewed, above -- is that it's a line that was approved too late for the full hiring cycle, or a retirement that came too late, or ... So, the department doesn't want to risk losing the line by letting it sit fallow, wants and needs the teaching to be done, and doesn't want to risk an inferior applicant pool for the f-t post by hiring too late in the season.

(They may or may not recognize how the applicant pool for the one-year is diminished.)

They keep their options open, run a full search. The one-year person has the chance to make an impression, and that might or might benefit the person. THis doesn't have to be an ethically charged situation.
Don't know about the physics research, but my institution (a private 4-year with limited grad programs) offers one-year appointments in most of its departments. These are typically "visiting" instructorships that can be renewed for up to 3-years. In most cases, its a way for the departments to prove to the university that it is indeed necessary to open up a new t-t line (See we have 3 visiting instructors which is the only thing keeping us from having over 50% adjunct coverage). In that case, the visiting instructors usually get the renewal, but have to compete in a national search for the new job if its a t-t line. If it's just a permanent instructorship, then my uni promotes from within.
I'm not in the sciences, but I am at a SLAC which loves faculty to do collaborative research with students, but I don't think that we would normally require a one-year replacement position to do any research with students, including tutorials and independent studies. And that goes for our fellows program too. If this is a wider practice elsewhere, I'd be interested in hearing about it.
I don't know about the undergrad research bit, but my husband is in physics and almost every position he has ever had has been offered as a six month or one year contract. Generally they then last from 3 to 5 years, with renewals. No one tells you about the renewals when the offer is made, since they depend on funding which is often short term and can't be relied on. But the funding usually does come through in the end.

This freaked us out a lot until we worked out what was going on. Who would move across the country (or across the world?) for a one year position? Well, us, since that was all there was available. And then when it does get renewed year after year, it makes the move worthwhile (although very scary when you are spending the latter half of each year looking for another job).

Admittedly, our experience has not been in the USA, but the same sort of thing has happened in Germany, Denmark and Australia. It may be more common in these countries, since many of their universities do not have such a thing as tenure, so the vast majority of positions are very short term.
Thanks much to Dean Dead, and to the commenters. If I can summarize, the more positive interpretations of these ads are:

- a sabbatical leave (or emergency replacement; the former suggests certain non-renewal)
- a capstone requirement/senior thesis or small projects (as opposed to a major research program)

The more negative interpretations are:

- poorly written ad
- promotion from within

The more positive possibilities are interesting. I hadn't considered that approach to undergraduate research, or what the phrase means. (Large-school blinders, I guess.) Thanks for the illumination! And thanks as well to styleygeek for the personal story; it's nice to hear that accepting a "temporary" position can still work out.

-- Returning Correspondent
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