If as a grad student, you are anything like I was, then you likely know you are already interested in becoming a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). This article is for you. If you haven’t even heard of a PUI before, don’t worry, this article can still be for you!
Having gone to a small, public, liberal arts college myself, the mentorship I received during my undergraduate career was paramount to where I am today. I knew that once I finished my doctoral training, I wanted to give back to students by providing the same level of support that I had received. As a first-generation college student, nobody in my family knew what careers in science were all about, nor did I, nor was I even interested in first about careers in science. I can go on for days about my own journey, but I thought I should stay focused (for once) and talk about my own personal advice and some advice I was given about pursuing a career at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution).
What is a PUI? Primarily undergraduate institutions are often smaller colleges or universities that differ greatly from larger research universities – the type of school you may be pursuing your graduate education at. PUI schools can be either private or public, offer different types of resources both for faculty and students and have varying levels of research present at the college or university. As a professor at a PUI, your role is often multi-faceted. You are faced with a heavy teaching load, typically a 4-4 or a 3-3 if you are lucky. Those numbers correspond to the number of classes you teach each semester. If you teach at a 4-4 college, this means you teach 4 classes (typically 12 credits) in the fall and 4 classes (typically 12 credits) in the spring.
At my current institution, I am responsible for a 4-4 teaching load. Also depending on the size of the college, these classes may all be the same, or may all be completely different, as in my case. Something that many people are unaware of is that at these smaller colleges, you likely will be teaching subjects outside of your comfort zone, something that takes some time to get used to. Depending on the size of the school, you may have to be a “jack of all trades”. For instance, at my college, I teach half biology and half mathematics due to my occupational background prior to graduate studies. My experience is not unique though. My friends and colleagues at other institutions have backgrounds in cell biology or neuroscience, but end up teaching classes like microbiology, anatomy, physiology, or nutrition, even though they did not specifically study in those areas. You may be thinking to yourself, “How can I teach a class in an area that I don’t have a specialty in?” The answer is—you have a Ph.D.! Therefore, you are one of the fastest learners out there. You spent the last x-number of years of your life learning material quickly and efficiently to prepare yourself for any number of questions from your committee. In reality, that is not much different than you preparing a lesson plan to teach a class on muscle physiology, even if you are a geneticist.
How do you get a tenure-track position at a PUI? When applying for graduate schools, I focused heavily on schools with teaching assistantships. However, I ended up getting accepted to schools without teaching assistantships and pursued my Ph.D. in a research-intensive program. My biggest piece of advice: get as many opportunities to mentor students as possible! Most programs also allow you to get experience as an adjunct professor or teaching assistant at other local colleges. Finding the first job is ALWAYS the hardest. Nobody wants to take the risk of hiring a Ph.D. student without any formal teaching experience. Once you get that first one though, the others come far easier. I was extremely fortunate in that I was an adjunct for only 3 semesters before I landed my full-time tenure track position. Others aren’t as lucky, but never give up!
What is it like working at a PUI? Again, everybody has a different experience, and this is especially dependent on the school that you work at. I personally find my career beyond rewarding. I love teaching others about things I know and inspiring interest in things students never thought about before. Those ‘aha’ moments are the reasons I stay in this profession. Beyond your heavy teaching responsibilities, I mentioned earlier, you are also required to participate in department and general faculty meetings and participate in service to the college. This typically looks like serving on college committees, which vary in time commitment and participation requirements. You also have advising responsibilities on top of that. Oh, and if you think that’s enough, you also have your scholarly activity. Scholarly activity is defined as contributions to research in your field or research on teaching pedagogy. This is can be one of the hardest components to accomplish, depending on your institution. Some institutions have fantastic laboratory spaces, others do not. A common thread is that most department budgets do not pay for research. Also, most small institutions do not have animal facilities or fancy equipment that you’ve become accustomed to in your R1 institution’s laboratory spaces. When preparing for a career at a PUI, do a mini “literature review!” What things have been done at the college previously? How expensive is your research to get off the ground and running? A key to success in your research agenda is to link it to classroom learning. This will not only make it easier to get funding through your college, but students will be able to apply what they are learning in class to a hands-on project. Your responsibility is to give undergraduate students real, hands-on experience. A huge piece of advice that I was given when thinking about the research agenda was to keep it simple. Think: what skills will students gain from participating in research with you?
Even though every occupation comes with its own challenges, I personally find that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. If I were given the chance to start over, I still wouldn’t trade my position.
Did you find this article helpful? Are you interested in teaching at a PUI? Connect with me on Linkedin. I’d love to hear from you! And don’t forget to follow Beyond the Ph.D. on our socials at beyond-the-phd.com for more career guidance and other STEM-related content!