Monday, February 04, 2008


Ask the Administrator: When Should I Turn Pro?

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a graduate student in a field that's lucky enough to not have that
many people clamoring for faculty positions. In fact many small
universities are so desperate that they're willing to accept faculty
with only an MS in the field.

With this background in mind, I'm about to finish my master's degree
and I would like to teach, preferably at a small liberal arts school.
I've also have the chance to finish most of the requirements for my
Ph.D. rather early in the game(I've already been to a refereed
conference and a journal article is in the pipe). I'm seeing lots of
jobs at liberal arts schools for visiting professor positions where a
MS is acceptable.

This brings me to my question. What should I do? Should I jump at the
chance now and try to get my feet wet as a faculty member? I think I
can finish my dissertation and teach at the same time(famous last
words) but I'm wondering, from your perspective as an administrator at
a teaching school which would be better, a candidate that did things
the conventional route(Ph.D. and working as a TA) or a newly minted
Ph.D. who had real faculty experience under his/her belt?

Also how would you advise someone like me to approach schools like
this? I have industry experience as well as a year of being a TA.
What's my angle?

First off, congratulations on being in a position to have the choice. Most of us – myself included – can only gaze in awe at that. Imagine – the ability to command respect in the marketplace. Wow.

This is one of those situations in which personal life variables make a tremendous difference. If you have spousal/partner considerations or other financial exigencies to make the decision for you, then so be it. But you don't mention that, so I'll go on the assumption that there's no deal-breaker on the personal side.

Observation and experience both tell me that one of the great lies in the English language is “the dissertation is nearly done.” At this point, for my money, a dissertation is either Done or Not Done; there is no 'almost.' I've seen far too many smart, well-intentioned, hardworking people discover that 'one more semester' becomes 'one more year' becomes 'three more years' very quickly.

A decade's worth of observation has also taught me that it's much easier to finish a dissertation without a full-time teaching load. Yes, it involves living the grad student life of Ramen noodles a little longer, but once the thing is actually done, you'll be in much better shape than someone with a Master's who is struggling to juggle writing with teaching with the demands of committee service and a jaundiced tenure committee.

Some folks, I suspect, jump on the market at the first possible opportunity with the expectation that they'll be able to 'write their way out' of a middling job in a few years. It does happen, but it's rarer and harder than many grad students seem to think. For one thing, the lower-tier schools – the ones people try to escape – typically have higher teaching loads than the higher-tier schools. (What this says about the value higher ed places on its core function, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.) Unless you're flat-out superhuman, you'll produce less research with a 4/4 load than your competitors at schools with 3/3 or less. There are only so many hours in the day. Add to that that the lower-tier schools are less likely to offer you RA's or TA's to do the dirty work – grading, say – and you can't just skate on charisma, like you could in a more elite setting. Teaching at the lower levels is more time-consuming, because the students need you more and your ancillary resources are less. Add to that a higher load in absolute terms – more courses per year -- and you'd be working at a serious disadvantage.

(The disadvantage is compounded when you look at 'visiting' positions. A 'visiting' position expires in a short time – typically a year – so you don't get a break from the market, and you have to move again in a year. Both the job search and moving are serious time sucks. I wouldn't advise going that route if you can avoid it.)

From an administrative perspective, too, I'll point out that it's much more common to advertise entry-level faculty positions than senior ones. So if you get a few years under your belt at Nothing Special State and then try to move, you may have priced yourself out of much of the market. Although that probably seems maddeningly arbitrary from a faculty perspective, it makes perfect sense from my side of the desk. The only way to maintain reasonable full-time staffing levels and still balance the budget, especially when seniority is the prime determinant of salary, is to hire folks initially at the low end of the scale. We've actually had to turn away some wonderful applicants with fifteen years' experience, simply because their salary expectations would have broken our budget. When 'productivity' and 'salary' are mostly disconnected, these things happen.

Unless there's some major external reason you haven't mentioned, which is certainly possible, I think you'll probably get the best outcome overall if you're willing to defer gratification a little longer. Finish the dissertation while you have the relative luxury of a light teaching load. Then hit the market at the peak of your value.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

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

I can only speak to my experience here, but I can tell you that working makes it very hard to finish your dissertation in a timely fashion. I went to work at a nonprofit right after finishing my comps and tried to write my dissertation. 14 months later and I took a teaching fellowship so that I would have time to write. I managed to get 1/2 of the dissertation done on the fellowship, then landed a TT job at a comprehensive university. I taught all new courses (for a start up program), did tons of service (because I was the only junior person), and worked 18 hours days. It was a miserable experience, especially when the tenure clock was going and I had to produce other research on top of the dissertation.

I did manage to finish, but there were days that I wanted to pull my hair out.

The other thing to remember (and I agree with Dean Dad here) is that visiting jobs are short stints. If the college is anything like ours, you'll be expected to teach all the crap classes. You'll have a huge load (both of preps and of students). Plus, you'll spend a great deal of time prepping your packets for your next teaching job. That makes it hard to get any research done.

If you have the financial wherewithal, I'd opt out of the market until you were done with the Ph.D. If you don't have a choice, then you'll definitely need to block out "research time" for yourself and stick to it -- don't let your students suck up all your time.
I also can only speak from experience. As much as I hate to say it, DD is right: that "one more semester" does turn into three years VERY quickly. I have a good advisor who keeps me on track, but teaching a full load (3/3 for me) takes much more time than I thought it would.

You may think you can heed everyone's advice to put as little as possible into your teaching, but IME you can't slack off on teaching and feel good about yourself (at least I can't). We all have days where we more or less wing it, but too many of those days are really demoralizing.

The alternative of staying up/getting up at 3 AM to finish grading that just has to be done is also not appealing. It gets old very quickly.

Finish the dissertation and then go on the market. I wish I had.
I agree with everything D says about 1 semester turning into 3 years. I'd also add:

1. At a liberal arts school, besides the teaching load there are LOTS of campus & service obligations that take up a LOT of your non-teaching time. This will make it especially difficult for you to finish your diss in a timely fashion, because if you don't participate in this stuff, you are screwing yourself come tenure time, and if you do participate (as you should) there is very little "free" time for writing.

2. If you do decide to take a job now, get VERY VERY clear on tenure expectations. Will the tenure and promotion committee at a liberal arts school *realize* that you are qualified with only an MS? In most liberal arts schools, a "terminal degree" is considered a pre-req for most of the jobs-- how will a committee full of PhD's evaluate you and your progress towards tenure?
Like everyone else says---finish the PhD first!

My field (computer science) also has a robust job market, since a lot of people go to industry. Often, students start sending out packets in, say, December 2007 for interviews in March and jobs that theoretically start in June.

What really happens (in the best case) is that they work on their thesis until mid-January and start teaching at the beginning of January. Not so fun, although not fatal to anyone yet.

I did a postdoc for a year. It was great, especially after I landed my job in May. I then "turbocharged my start as a faculty member", as my advisor puts it, between May and January.

One more point. In CS, people often go on the market with no teaching experience (this seems quite different from other fields!) I'd taught a summer class. Having some teaching experience is useful, but having a lot of teaching experience is less useful, it seems.
As someone who has been teaching and trying to write a dissertation, I say finish the PhD first.

Even if you think the SLAC teaching position is the perfect job for you, finish it anyway. You may want to move up within the SLAC, and being chair or Dean will most likely require a PhD. Also, playing campus politics is much easier if you have a PhD.
Could someone please explain what the numbers in 3/3 and 4/4 and so on mean exactly? Muchas gracias.
To answer the question:

3/3 means you teach 3 classes during the Fall and 3 during the Spring. 4/4 means 4 classes during Fall and 4 during Spring.
5/5 means well you get the idea
6/6 means you kill yourself.
One thing I would add is that the best way to view a "visiting" professorship is to equate it to "glorified adjunct". You will be the TA, not get one, in most instances. Hence the comments from "disenchanted" about load.

Similarly, a "visiting" position is generally not tenure earning. It will count towards experience factors (both the postivie ones, "5 years teaching experience preferred", and negative ones, "you are more expensive to hire because we have to pay you for your experience", such as DD noted), but not toward tenure unless something very specific has been put in writing.
lol at the "6/6 means..."

visiting faculty are low on the pecking order. I have to fight for my job every year, despite good evals and doing more work than my peers. And often I do 5/5 where all 5 classes are the same. That took will make you want to kill yourself--you're teaching 100 level, crap classes that bore you to pieces and what for? So you can beg for a job next year?

Finish the PhD take the TA experience and make the most of it.
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