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.