Wednesday, February 20, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Targeting a CC

A new correspondent writes:

I'm currently a sixth year graduate student in the Molecular Biology department at [Major Research University]. I've decided that I want to teach after finishing, but I'm torn between the community college and small liberal arts college career paths. As a short term option, I'm considering a teaching postdoc, where I would work in a science lab but also be involved in teaching. For example, in one program I can choose a lab that I want to work for, and a separate teaching mentor to work under. Over the course of three years, while doing research, I would co-teach a course with the teaching mentor and gradually take full responsibility for it over that time period.

My understanding is that this sort of training would greatly increase my chances of finding a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. However, I'm concerned that this wouldn't make me a more desirable candidate for a position at a community college. Would a community college hiring committee consider this experience useful? If so, would it be considered more or less valuable than having spent three years as an adjunct?

I know that the life sciences aren't your area, but I was hoping that you and your readers might be able to help.

I'm impressed that you see a teaching-oriented position as a goal, rather than as a compromise or a fallback. That's half the battle.

The stereotype – self-defeating and terribly destructive, but widespread – at teaching-oriented places is that Ph.D.'s from highfalutin programs aren't serious about teaching. I'm not sure how much of that is based on bitter experience of past hires, how much is based on a cynical/accurate reading of the priorities of those programs, and how much is sour grapes, but it's pretty common.

So the burden on you – fairly or not – is to counter the stereotype. Simply claiming a love for teaching won't cut it, especially if there's nothing in your background to suggest that you mean it. But if you can show that, given the option, you chose a teaching-intensive route that involved pedagogical mentoring, you're in good shape.

The other issues with cc's and lower-tier liberal arts colleges would be the academic caliber of the entering students, the higher courseload, and the modest funding for facilities and travel. Depending on your research agenda, you may find it difficult or even impossible to continue your research. (Higher teaching loads compound the money shortage with a time shortage.) I don't know your field well enough to know how easy it would be to scale your research to the facilities available, so I'll just ask my wise and worldly readers in that field to chime in on that.

If there's some way for you to gain experience with students whose levels of academic preparation are shaky, that would be of definite value at most cc's. Since we have open admissions, we get some students whose high school performance wasn't so hot. (We get stronger ones, too, and sometimes they're in the same classes. Teaching to a wide range of abilities simultaneously is a crucial skill at this level.) If there's some sort of tutoring program, or maybe an intensive summer program for students who need to catch up, some involvement in that could be of real value.

(Honestly, one of the more valuable experiences I had in my grad school days at Flagship State was working as a tutor in the writing center. Seeing students struggle through the process of writing, up close, gave me an incredibly useful perspective for my own teaching.)

If you can show by your actions that teaching is your priority, and that you're pursuing these positions because you want to, you should be in good shape.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – especially in the life sciences – what would you add?

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


Comments:
I'm not in the sciences, but I was struck by a colleague's approach of doing "science," while working a liberal arts college. Like every science Ph.D., he had "come up" through "BIG SCIENCE" (big lab, big grants, big research budgets). However, doing 'big science' at a small liberal arts college was a non-starter. So, he has focused his entire career on a fairly rare moth, found only in Colorado. He spends summers collecting specimums, etc., and even drags undergrads along to help in the collecting and documentation. During the school year is when he analyzes and writes.

While it's not BIG SCIENCE, he's had no problem securing smaller grants or getting published. He is, of course, a working scientist.

What was remarkable was his commitment to teaching science in a non-"BIG SCIENCE" environment. He thought it was critical that all BA's, across the board, understood science and could think scientifically. Working in a state that has a legislature that routinely attacks evolution in the state curriculum, I found his commitments highly admirable.

There are ways to transition from the BIG SCIENCE, BIG HISTORY, etc schools, but I think it takes a fair amount of fore-sight and planing to make the transition work for the individual.
 
Kudos to the person asking the question. That approach would make most hiring committees at our CC happy. Very happy, actually.

The big tradeoff is taking the person with lots of experience who does not have much depth or breadth of experience with the field (not smart enough to pass the quals, for example) over the person with a great degree but unknown teaching skills for dealing with our student population. We need to see letters about demonstrated teaching experience. The writer will have those, and we would be happy.

I'll add that what calugg said applies to people with success at small liberal arts, but also at mid-size MS schools. You either need a program that can fit in a small lab or go to a school that is in striking distance of a lab you can use during the summer, perhaps collaborating with your PhD or post-doc research group.

I blogged about many aspects of this situation last summer (look under "jobs" in the sidebar) except for the specifics of a CC job search. Ran out of time. But one important detail (see part 3) goes beyond what DD said. The vast majority of PhDs in academia will go to an institution "below" where they did their degree: higher teaching load and fewer resources for research. I suspect it is even worse in biology with its superstar lab structure (one PI, lots of high paid galley slaves in untenured dead-end jobs producing lots of new PhDs to replace that one PI). All students need to know what future they must prepare for.
 
My understanding is that this sort of training would greatly increase my chances of finding a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college.
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Just wanted to comment on this statement. I think your e-mailer might be wrong on this one. I have discussed this with professors at small liberal arts colleges regarding what they are looking for. All the faculty at SLACs that I talked with stated that they preferred applicants went the traditional post-doc route and found teaching experiences on top of that. The reasoning was that they wanted faculty who could carry out research with the undergrads and had the potential to teach. This was in the molecular/biochemical/genetic life sciences. Might be different for those in other aspects of the life sciences. Many of these "teaching" post-docs are a source of cheap labor for the SLACs so be wary. Some are really good. Find out where the previous postdocs in the program went on to.
 
I'm a molecular biologist, too, so a note on the money issue:

Calugg is dead on about finding a project that will be within your resources for time and money. I deliberately chose to work on an understudied and difficult group of organisms, because it allows me to get real science done (and get real funding and publications) without the perennial risk of being run over by a 20-person team with $5M in grants. You and your team of intrepid undergrads are going to have to think like a mammal among the dinosaurs: zip in, grab a piece of low-hanging fruit, and then zip out again before you get flattened.

I'm not sure how much of this kind of work could be done in a cc environment...the teaching loads are very heavy, and you'll only have your students for about a year of productivity. Seems like it'd be hard to get up sufficient speed to make this work.(CCPhysicist, how does this work for you?) I do, however, have respected colleagues at SLACs.
 
It sounds as if the letter writer is referring to one of the IRACDA programs. I am in the IRACDA program at UNC called SPIRE. These are 3 year research/teaching programs funded by the NIH. The teaching load varies by program from 2 full courses to a few weeks of 1 team taught course, but for all IRACDA's the teaching aspect occurs at historically minority universities, so you definitely gain experience teaching courses at different levels and to students with varying levels of preparation. Most fellows of the program tailor their postdoc lab to match the type of position they are looking for. A colleague that studied human genetics in graduate school switched to a yeast genetics lab because that will be reasonable to work on at smaller schools. Former IRACDA fellows have a very high tt academic job placement percentage, over 90%.
 
No research (other than teaching related studies) is done by anyone I know at this CC. There is zero time during the school year, and summers are usually filled in with some spare classes, serious long-term prep work for the next year, and blogging.

You would not even get a year out of the best students. They are gone to a summer internship or transferred to start their major in the summer. That said, we might actually get something publishable out of project initiated by a student this year, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

The reason for PhD expertise at a CC is just to have that wealth of knowledge that provides correct answers to cool questions students ask about MRI or superconductors or you name it. My 50 publications back in my pure research days are worth nothing at all. We only care about your teaching when it comes to hiring. We care a lot about that, and you better realize that when you apply.
 
If you want to do molecular research, don't even consider a community college unless you detect an unusually strong commitment to research and get in writing that they will give you lab space. They will not give you start-up money. Most of the time, they won't have the equipment you need (like -70 freezers, ultracentrifuges, hibe ovens etc.) or what they have will be so over used for teaching you'll have to fight to use it for your own projects.

A SLAC or Masters granting institution might be a better fit for you but there too, I would do a traditional postdoc before a teaching postdoc. You will need papers to get a job at Master's granting instutions and most grad students don't have enough.

But before you do anything, get some teaching experience. Not just one section of a Mol Bio lab but a whole lecture or something where you have to write up the curriculum. If you went to a program like mine, you taught for perhaps one semester as a T.A. and that's it. You have no idea after that kind of experience if you'll like it or not so before you torch your research career, get your feet wet a little more.
 
I'm a molecular person at a 4yr state-funded institution. Our students are mainly from the region and many are first generation students and/or transfers from CCs within our "system".
One of our college and departmental(biology) goals is to provide every student who wants one with a research experience (lofty, given our typical teaching load of 12 hrs/semester). We do this mainly by striving to use investigative-type labs with our courses and by requiring all faculty to have student-friendly research programs - to the extent that the student will present a poster at the end of year at our on-campus conference. Most of us have 3-6 students we mentor outside of the classroom on research projects, some of us do manage to publish and we take students to national meetings. A few of us have been successful getting NSF and NIH funds although most of us rely on local or state funds to keep things afloat in the lab - not easy for molecular work.

Here are some of the pluses we have: 1) a new science building with great teaching labs and separate research space. Along with the building came some funding for equipment, so we're in good shape there. You would want to look for something like this in a job you'd apply to - facilities (or lack of) can make or break research success.

2) A supportive (to the extent that they can) administration, providing small sources of funds to students for research and providing funding for extra work days for faculty to write grants.

3) Students who want to be involved in research and who really step up to the challenge. By the end of their time with us, many of them are operating like grad students. But - then they're gone and you start all over again from scratch with the newest ones. This is a unique aspect of research with undergrads (I think) that you must enjoy!

The main negative: no matter how you slice it, there are not enough hours in the day to teach a full load AND do research AND do all the other things faculty are expected to do (outreach, committees, etc.) . This struggle for "balance" is ongoing and I really don't think there is a balance to be achieved. You do the best you can from day to day and typically it means research doesn't progress as fast as it might at an R1. This in turn influences how many papers you can publish (which by the way, is NOT required for tenure here) which in turn can influence your competitiveness for grants and/or another job.

Having said all that, what we typically look for in a job candidate is somebody who ideally has both teaching experience and solid research credentials (post-doc typically). For teaching experience, the earlier post about having taught your own course, worked up labs, learning outcomes is right on. TA experience or guest lecturing is certainly a plus but somebody who has had some solid teaching experience under their belt can really hit the ground running. To achieve this, another option you might consider would be to apply for 1 yr visiting positions after a post doc and then put yourself on the market for a permanent job? Also, if you haven't already, take a look at some sites like Council on Undergraduate Research (www.cur.org) and PKAL (www.pkal.org. Attend education symposia that are typically part of larger society meetings (ASCB, ASBMB etc.) and talk with folks there. There are lots of variations on the main themes I mentioned above at places that combine teaching with science research at undergrad institutions. It's usually not easy (what is?) and certainly not glamorous (who needs that anyways?) but I find my job to be very satisfying both personally and professionally.
 
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