Research program first, teaching second?

Ok, well I’m back. Not that I was holidaying it up or anything. I feel like I’ve spent the whole of December lying on my back in bed. First that little GI thing I got from my daughter and then the nasty sinus head cold that I’ve had for the last 5 days. Imagine cooking Christmas dinner for a houseful of guests, and walking 3 households worth of dogs like that. I’m better today, thanks.

Now I’m starting to think about January and February, and all of the competing responsibilities I have for the next few months.  See, I think I’ve taken on a lot….rather, I KNOW I’ve taken on a lot. Writing and teaching are going to be especially heavy in the next couple of months, and I’m always asking myself how much I can logically take on in any given time period, and of those tasks- where my efforts need to be focused most and what can get less attention, at least in the short term. There is triage going on in my head, and the triage is based first on what needs to be done to get grants goals accomplished and get grants renewed, and second on everything else.

Anyway, as far as getting grant goals going and grants renewed. I know that in order to get these things to happen I have to get the new people that I have hired up to speed and working, and I have to push out papers. I have 3 papers that I want to turn out relatively quickly, for one I have a nearly complete manuscript, for a second I have to motivate my postdoc to give me some text, and for the third I need to put my head together with my collaborators and we have to turn out a manuscript quickly or we are going to get scooped on the story. I’m DELIGHTED to have all this writing to do, writing about actual data, that is. It is this, and getting the lab moving now that I have filled up the group, that I really want to be doing. The fact that I want to be doing the writing makes it easy to have this as my top priority.

There are also lots of tasks that are less fun, or let’s say that I get less personal satisfaction from, that also need to be done.  I’m teaching here and there in various courses in the spring, and for two of these courses it will be the first time I am delivering the material. For one of the courses, taught out of my home department, I am taking over some established course material and I am charged with updating the content. I don’t find this fun (I’m not sure anyone does), but I know it needs to be done. For the second course there was a bit of a crisis and I decided to be a good citizen and help out. Now, I know what you are all saying… (you… VOLUNTEERED?…WTF)… but I think these things need to be done from time to time, and this teaching is in a department where I have a joint appointment- so it is a bit of calculated pay-it-forward.

This all seems pretty straightforward when you look at it from the research intensive faculty perspective. Individual research program first, teaching second. Right? But the problem with this is that this is not how the institution seems these responsibilities- or it is, at least, not how they talk about them. I hear about a bazillion hours of stuff in meetings on curricular redesign, how and where lecture hours are to be delivered, and the needs of the professional/undergraduate students, and absolutely zero on developing a strong research program and managing and running a productive group. I spend countless hours fighting for small amounts of resources, mainly facilities type resources, that are necessary for me to get research done- it just doesn’t seem to be a priority of the institution. Sometimes it feels like their triage is the exact opposite of my triage… theirs is teaching first research second… and mine is research first… teaching second.

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10 thoughts on “Research program first, teaching second?

  1. There is also the very serious question of what an institution says are its priorities while faculty are muddling along and what it actually does when it comes to promotions time. Not just tenure but beyond as well.

    It would not be unusual at all for a University to talk a good game about the three legged stool of research, teaching and service but to find one leg more important, come tenure time. And that leg is rarely teaching or service. Junior faculty in particular should examine the records of those who passed tenure easily and those that had to struggle or were denied at their Univ. How did these people’s stools balance?

  2. DM- I don’t know anyone who got tenure on teaching. No one. I’ve heard that it can be done but you have to be exceptional… and maybe even transformative (develop new curricula etc)… but never-the-less. I’ve not seen anyone do that. Ever.

  3. I don’t know anyone who got tenure based on teaching (and I’ve only taught at primarily undergrad institutions). However, I know of many people who have been denied tenure (or pre-tenure reappointment) based on teaching. That makes the time-juggling particularly tricky.

  4. Administrative committee work, curriculum development, and teaching in general should be done by the tenured yet unfunded faculty. If you act like one of them, you will become one of them.

  5. But the problem with this is that this is not how the institution seems these responsibilities- or it is, at least, not how they talk about them. I hear about a bazillion hours of stuff in meetings on curricular redesign, how and where lecture hours are to be delivered, and the needs of the professional/undergraduate students, and absolutely zero on developing a strong research program and managing and running a productive group. I spend countless hours fighting for small amounts of resources, mainly facilities type resources, that are necessary for me to get research done- it just doesn’t seem to be a priority of the institution. Sometimes it feels like their triage is the exact opposite of my triage… theirs is teaching first research second… and mine is research first… teaching second.

    This is all an illusion. As has already been pointed out, what you need to figure out are the priorities of the tenure and promotion committees. My guess is that their priorities will be much more weighted towards research.

  6. When I first arrived at Big U, senior faculty in my department made it very clear what matters for tenure:
    1. Grant money, papers, and good outside letters.
    2. Decent, not necessarily good, teaching.
    3. Pull your weight in service.

  7. There’s a lot to be said for the advice ScienceGeek got from senior faculty.

    It could be that the group use more collective time addressing curricular concerns than research concerns because (a) enrollment is bread-and-butter for the institution, (b) resources are available for the former, not the latter, and/or (c) curricular concerns span across a variety of substantive areas. None of these reasons would change the formula ScienceGeek has passed along.

    One of the myriad challenges of being on tenure-track is to protect your time for what you must do, while also conveying respect or appreciation for what senior colleagues do. Maybe junior faculty publish more than senior faculty, maybe even lots more. Junior faculty might think (your) (their) careers are harder than the careers of senior faculty and the junior faculty may well be right. Caution: Avoid putting much into that. Focus on what you need to do.

    So yes. Pull your weight pre-tenure in all three broad areas of academic work; do more than pulling your weight in research accomplishments. Get yourself awarded tenure so you may find out what it’s like to be a tenured associate prof or prof — funded or not. Academic life will be better with faculty like you on board with tenure. Cheers!

  8. Some of what you are seeing, in terms of comparable levels of institutional guidance on teaching vs. research, may reflect a difference between biomedical sciences and the rest of the university. Medical school faculty (usually) teach less than faculty in much of the rest of the university, including the engineering faculty and the science faculty in the College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences (or whatever your school calls it). Those faculty may be getting their tenure primarily on research just like you, but they (often) teach a little bit more than medical school faculty. And tuition is probably a somewhat more significant revenue stream for them. (This is just on average; for all I know your school could be unusual.) A physics or chemistry professor probably has full responsibility for an entire course ever quarter or semester, while a med school professor probably teaches parts of a course or two, and sometimes might not teach at all. And engineering faculty have to supervise all of those senior design projects on top of their graduate research students (hence all those cars and robots and stuff that run around the engineering portion of campus in the last week of every school year).

    And humanities faculty sometimes teach even more. (Although sometimes they don’t.) And in the humanities and even some professional schools (e.g. law) the amount of grant money will be lower. Sure, they have fewer direct costs than you, but fewer direct costs means the administrators can’t collect as much overhead either.

    The result of all of this is that in the rest of the university teaching is, if not a bigger criterion for tenure, at least a bigger responsibility, and a somewhat more significant revenue stream. So there will be more institutional resources provided for teaching.

    Also, classroom teaching has more similarities between disciplines than mentoring of research students. English faculty don’t usually have the concept of a “research group” with funding and assigned projects and equipment and facilities. Even physical sciences research groups are often slightly less hierarchical than biomedical groups (fewer technicians and soft money folks, mostly the group is a professor, a few postdocs, and grad students). Certainly, there will be certain issues related to mentoring of a Ph.D. student that will be universal across the university, but a lot of it will be completely foreign going from one discipline to another. OTOH, I find that I can talk about classroom teaching with almost anybody on campus and discover common concerns and problems and solutions.

    So, if it seems like the school provides more resources for teaching than research, it’s probably because (1) teaching issues are more common across disciplines than research issues and (2) in much of the rest of the school, teaching occupies a slightly larger portion of faculty time and generates a larger fraction of revenue.

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