Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Escape from the Lab

A new correspondent writes:

I have a PhD and am in my late forties. I have been working
in a research lab for almost 20 years, have published a
number of highly-cited papers in peer-reviewed journals, and
am fast approaching a total burnout due to the expectation
that I should still work 90-hour weeks on a regular basis.
I don't really want to change fields, though, so I'm
thinking about taking early retirement from the lab to
teach. While I have supervised postdocs, I don't have any
teaching experience at all, since I was lucky enough to have
been in a staff support position instead of in the T.A. pool
in grad school. I look at the CHE occasionally, so I know
that there are academic openings in my field, but I'm
reluctant to wriggle out of the golden handcuffs at my
current job without having some assurance of job security.
I'm definitely not interested in an R1 school. Do small
liberal arts schools and CCs hire people like me with
tenure, or is that a pipe dream? I should add that I am not
totally clueless about what this work would be like, as
several members of my family are in academe, but I am also
unlikely to get a useful answer from them because hiring in
the humanities tends to work differently from the sciences.

My field isn't the lab sciences, so I'll ask readers who know that world better than I do to fill in the blanks.

From my perspective, without any teaching experience and with the story you tell here, you'd be a terrible risk. It sounds like you're interested in teaching not because you love teaching – you haven't tried it, so you don't know – but because you want something easier and more secure. From my side of the desk, that's not a very compelling argument to hire somebody. (“I want a job where I don't have to work very hard and I can't be fired.” Next!)

(At my cc, we don't hire to tenure anyway. Some places do, but we don't. You'd have to go through the same probationary period as any new professor, during which time too much downshifting, or weak performance in the classroom, would actually be held against you.)

Private colleges generally have more leeway in their hiring policies than public ones do. (Public and unionized ones have especially strict guidelines.) Whether they'd take a flier on you, I don't know, but they'd at least have the option.

Advising someone complaining of burnout to take on more work may be silly, but honestly, I think you'd do well to put a toe in the water of teaching before jumping all the way in. Pick up a class as an adjunct somewhere. See how much work is actually involved (hint: it's a lot), and whether you actually enjoy it. It may be your true calling; if so, you might find the risk of jumping-without-a-net to be worth it, and even exhilarating. Or you might find that it doesn't float your boat, either. There's no shame in that. The shame would be in making a major life change without a real sense of what it involves, only to find yourself unhappier than when you started.

Depending on the branch of science you're in, industry may also be an option. If you love the science itself, want to make some money, and don't know about the whole 'teaching' thing, that might be worth exploring. I know that in some of the sciences, there's nothing unusual about somebody moving back-and-forth from academe to industry or vice versa.

But either way, I wouldn't jump whole hog into teaching without trying it first. One of the few upsides of the adjunct trend is that it's easier to experiment with teaching than it once was. Pick up a course somewhere and see how it feels. Yes, it's more work in the short term, but at least you'll have some basis for a decision.

In terms of the academic market for scientists at teaching colleges, I'll just have to ask my readers in the sciences. My impression is that it's a soft market all around, but again, this really isn't my area.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what say you?

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

I just want to second what DD says about the amount of work that teaching - good teaching - requires - particularly at non-R1 places. You'd be teaching 3-5 classes in a semester, most of those being introductory classes. You would not have TAs (as no grad students to serve in that capacity). Now, it's true that you probably wouldn't be working 90 hrs/week, but in the 50-60 hrs a week that you'd be dealing with work-related stuff (and that's a pretty fair estimate for a new professor, which is what you'd be), you'd have to deal with a lot of crap that you're probably not used to dealing with. There would be a significant learning curve, in spite of the experience that you would bring to the table.

I'm also concerned about the way you characterize your lack of teaching experience as having gotten "lucky" in graduate school. If that's your attitude, why do you think teaching is for you? Why do you think people who are really committed to teaching - people who would serve on a search committee that would hire you - would be attracted to a candidate who thinks he/she's entitled to being hired with tenure with no teaching experience and who seems to think that "teaching" is a job that doesn't really require work? I'm not saying that you really believe that, but that's the impression that your query to DD gives.

I should acknowledge that I'm not in the sciences, so perhaps those in the sciences will have a different perspective.
As a PhD in the hard sciences (though not a prof), I agree that the comment about "getting lucky" raised my eyebrows and the same red flags that DD and Dr. Crazy raised.

But in fairness to Escapee, one's attitudes towards teaching can change over the course of a decade or two - so I'm not judging! And in the hard sciences, frankly, you *are* lucky if you get a research appointment instead of a TA. Your life, physical/mental health, and CV all improve when you have the extra time to do research. (For the non-scientists: depending on your field, you may have to be in the lab non-stop for several hours, or at the exact same time for several days in succession. A two-hour TA commitment, three times a week, could leave you with only two days to work on thesis research. You can't graduate -- or live -- with that kind of nightmare work schedule.)

I think the academic job market is pretty depressing in the hard sciences, too, but it's going to be field specific. But in any field, you could probably expect 100 or more applicants for an academic opening, many of whom will be relative hot-shot-y new-minted PhDs from top schools. I think only someone in the field could say whether Escapee's CV would float to the top.

Some random thoughts:

- perhaps conferences would be a good place to network with others about breaking into the academic job market

- is it possible to position Escapee into a place where s/he would be "poachable"? In other words, rather than send in CVs cold, could there be a local university that wants someone of Escapee's caliber? Perhaps a little adjuncting there would convince them to try to hire Escapee away.

- network, network, network (obviously)

- applications to liberal arts schools will require a teaching portfolio and a demonstrated commitment to research with undergraduates. Escapee should spend some time thinking about both these parts.
Hi, Escapee. I'm another one of DD's science-oriented people (I'm a biologist). Like you, I've been a non-tt researcher for a long time, although only about half as long as you have. I'm a soft-money PI; do you have a position like that, or are you some sort of permanent research faculty?

Straight answer to your question: you may have a very difficult time finding a teaching institution that will be interested in you, even without tenure. I just interviewed at a comprehensive school for a tt line, and they were equally interested in my teaching and my research backgrounds. If I had no teaching experience, I doubt I would have made it past triage.

If you've been in field for 25 years (grad work plus postdoctoral) and have no teaching experience at all, then it will be obvious that you haven't sought out opportunities to teach. If you were a 30-year-old hotshot with a couple of Nature papers, that wouldn't be a big deal, since an R1 would pick you up and give you some TA's to do your teaching for you. You aren't. (Neither am I, so no insult intended.)

If you are serious about trying this, DD's suggestion of adjuncting is an excellent one. Teaching takes time and skill, and it isn't for everyone.

One question, though. If you are working 90-hour weeks, that's 13 hours a day, seven days a week....very few labs, except those in insanely competitive fields, work at that pace. (I work 50+ except when I'm in the field or writing a grant application.) Whoever it is that expects you to pull those hours is either a God among men, or is a martinet. If the former, can your supervisor help you find a posting?
I'm a CC chemistry instructor. My experience and advice is parallel to everything that's been said so far.

When I was on the market a couple years ago, search committees were only interested in my teaching experience. The six years of graduate research was just a side note. I doubt you will even get to the interview stage at a CC if you don't have teaching experience. My three friends who went onto tt jobs at 4-yr liberal arts schools also where asked extensively about their teaching experience, required a teaching portfolio with a teaching philosophy.

Between the lecture preps, lab preps, office hours, grading, and the time in front of the classroom, I put in between 50-60 hours a week my first year. I'm down to 45 this year.

My advice - adjunct first, don't believe that teaching is an 'easy' job, and forget about hiring into a tenured position. Frankly, other than an R1 (who value research much more), I can't see any reason for a CC or 4-yr to offer that with your background.

Good luck with whatever you choose to do.
Do the "golden handcuffs" mean that you have (relative) job security now? Are you sure that they would fire you if you worked more normal hours?
If I were you, I'd look for a training position in industry. The academy may feel comfortable and familiar but the workload is heavy whether you're in the lab or at the bench and the pay for teaching positions sucks. All the advice here would work for prepping for a training position in inductry in the sense that an adjunct position might be the thing that would make you look like a viable candidate. But for the money you want and a reduced workload, I would not look at colleges. If you can travel, a field applications specialist position might be the way to go. You have great technical experience and if you can convince one of the vendors you work with that you would be a great trainer for their product there might be a good job in it for you. There are a lot of positions open in this area right now.
I have a PhD in physics and made the jump to a CC teaching position from a similar situation at a similar age, so it can be done. However, I was "lucky" to have been in a grad school program where two of us had to split an RA, hence split a TA. The teaching award I won as a graduate student, and the odd class taught while in my research position (and letters to that effect) certainly did not hurt (understatement) and I had also done some adjunct work at that CC. That helped make it clear that I was not doing research because I did not love teaching. I was also very lucky.

Ditto on everything else about the work load. The first year (putting together your courses for the first time) is the biggest task. Best to do that one at a time as an adjunct teaching a night section at the local CC than in your first year.

Finally, a few days ago I posted a link to some job-related articles I wrote last summer. Click on "jobs" in the side bar of the blog. The only one that I did not have time to write is the one about looking for a teaching job, which requires a *very* different approach at a CC.
I'm just throwing this out there, but what about teaching high school science? My state--Indiana--is DESPERATE for science teachers (Math, Spanish, and special ed too) and has an alternative certification process where you earn a Masters of Education at night. I seriously thought about it (I'm a social scientist, but I have more than enough math to qualify) but was too nervous about teaching high school as opposed to college.

This may be an issue for you as well, or it may not; you may love teaching science so much that you don't care where you do it, and in fact high school can provide wonderful experiences (truth be told, I wouldn't have studied math in college if not for my hs calc teacher). Other posters have recommended adjuncting, which is great advice. Teaching will be in your blood or it won't, and you'll know pretty quickly.

As for the money, it may be worthwhile to search public faculty members salaries at schools in your area. At least where I live, the pay is probably much less than you are used to making as a researcher (40-50k; probably closer to 50 since you're in the physical sciences).

A final option is to find another job more suited to you in industry and then teach (adjunct) at night. This can be a good compromise in terms of idealism and realism.
I'm not in the sciences, so let me get that out of the way up front. Perhaps Escapee could look for a science/lab related position in a small college or CC where it is not teaching the subject per se, but lab techniques, special topics, research methods (yes, I'm aware there would still be prep time and other issues involved).

However, it would be more of a staff than a lecturer/prof kind of position. The downside may be that there would not be the kind of salary you'd want/need at this stage of your career. But it might be worth looking into.
I've been teaching high school science for the last 16 years, and I still work 50-60 hours a week. I love the two months off in the summer, but I work as many hours a year as I did as an engineer (and more than I did when lecturing at a community college).

It's a lot more draining than you think, if you haven't done it — especially in a school setting where you are responsible for so much more than the content of your subject.

I'll second everyone else who says try it out first. If you don't like teaching, you'll be a horrible teacher—you owe it to potential students to find out if you have the passion you'll need to do a good job.
I made the switch from industry to academia (engineering) after a much shorter time, so I was willing to take the tenure risk. The precedents that I've heard for tenure-on-the-way-in are typically at R1 schools, since there one's tenure is largely based on research accomplishments.

I agree with the other recommendations about trying out an adjunct position in your field. Squeeze the time out of your normal 90 hr/wk schedule and conduct the college teaching experiment. I found that the time required, effort, and experience almost precisely matched what I needed to do in my first course as a faculty member. It helped to convince me that I would enjoy the teaching aspect of being an academic.

Here's a useful rule of thumb I was told. Expect that you'll spend approx 3 hr outside of class preparing for each 1 hr in class. I've found that that was true (or was an underestimate) during my first prep; now it takes me much less time since I can make revisions, rather than plan from scratch.

Since you are presumably at a prestigous industrial (or national) lab, ask about sabbatical or leave programs at your current lab. Perhaps you can spend the 2008-2009 academic year (or just one semester?) on leave from your current position and can work as a sabbatical replacement (perhaps with the title of visiting professor). That can add a lot of perspective about what you want to do.

Another option may be a non-tenure track faculty position. I've heard of a non-negligible number of places (often R1s) where a department can create a position for a retiring industrial researcher who has specific lab expertise. The non-TT person can teach the lab classes, assist with instrumentation throughout the department, join in supervising grad students, etc. Since the position isn't tenure track it doesn't carry the grant funding responsibilities. It's great for the tenured faculty because you are more independent than a post-doc and you're not spending your free time searching for a job elsewhere. You also preserve group memory about research, equipment, etc. This kind of position may not be advertised per se, so it would involve conversations with contacts at appropriate schools.

Also, talk in confidence with trusted peers in academia. Get a sense of the "season" in your field. I know that my engr field has a typical "apply in fall, interview in spring" season, and there are many fewer positions off-season. Talk to very few (perhaps zero) of your lab colleagues about this. News of a potential departure can spread like wildfire.

Finally, I agree with dictyranger that you need to evaluate your current situation. Do all your peers work that hard? Is it the workplace, or is it your self-imposed reaction to the workplace? While you can change the workplace, it isn't nearly as easy to change your own patterns.

Good luck!
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