|Preparing for a Faculty Career at a Predominantly Undergrad Institution: Insights from Mary Konkle|
You have to love working one-on-one with students and be comfortable wearing multiple hats—teacher, researcher, mentor—simultaneously to succeed at a predominantly undergraduate institution (PUI). Mary Konkle, PhD, loves the accomplishment she feels working at one. Konkle is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Ball State University, having moved recently from her tenured job at Eastern Illinois University (EIU, 2010-Spring 2017). She transitioned from a research-intensive university (Vanderbilt, where she received her PhD in chemistry in 2008) to a PUI (Trinity University) as a postdoctoral scholar. She shares some insights from her experience.
PUI faculty are focused on teaching and performing research with undergraduate students. It is critical for postdocs to gain instructional experience and demonstrate a track record of mentoring undergraduate students in scientific research. Instructional experience does not have to be teaching as the instructor of record, though that certainly helps. Konkle chose Trinity, a well-regarded liberal arts PUI, for her postdoc, because she wanted to have experience working with undergraduate students. She led organic and general chemistry labs while there, and leveraged that experience to land a job at EIU. If you are at an institution with undergraduates, you can look to gain mentorship experience by talking with your advisor about taking on one or two undergraduate student researchers.
Konkle also found great value in doing a postdoc in the lab of a pre-tenure faculty member at Trinity. She was able to observe the tenure preparation process first-hand and learned what it would take to successfully obtain it. Running chemistry lab sessions at Trinity gave Konkle insight into the costs of running a biochemistry lab and the resources she would need to be successful as a junior faculty member.
When conducting research at a PUI, the practicality of your approach is critical. It must be feasible to be conducted with students and at institutions that don’t necessarily have large core lab facilities. A great way to get over the logistical hurdles is to build collaborations with other researchers who can provide some service that your institution cannot. You must also be in a research space that is not too crowded and competitive, as it will be difficult to compete at a PUI. If you join the faculty at a PUI, get undergraduate students in their labs early in the students’ academic career, Konkle advises. Then you will have productive students for a couple of years after training, as opposed to a year or less for a senior student. Also try to stagger your undergraduate researchers so that more senior students can train newer ones, and your group isn’t left with a large brain drain after one year’s graduation ceremony.
While the facilities and time spent doing research may vary at a PUI relative to a research-intensive institution, the currency of productivity is still the same: publications and grants. At PUIs, applying for grants—even unsuccessfully—is viewed favorably, and many institutions have internal funding mechanisms to assist you in your work. In addition to peer-reviewed scientific journal publications, conference presentations and publications are regarded as valuable. The key is to show a willingness to disseminate your lab’s work to the larger scientific community.
When applying for jobs and interviewing at PUIs, it’s important to check that institutional resources and expectations align. Balancing teaching and research can be a challenge, but some institutions will give you credit for teaching in exchange for mentoring students in independent research. This type of structure indicates an institution’s flexibility and understanding that your time as a faculty member is finite and that credit should be given for teaching students how to conduct research outside formal class settings.
Konkle’s teaching load often will include two lecture courses and one lab course, as well as student mentoring, but it can be as high as four lectures per semester for other professors at PUIs. In the case of a 4-4 teaching load (four classes in fall and four in spring), institutions should have reasonable expectations for research from a faculty member. The expectations and experiences can vary drastically between institutions. You need to talk to multiple faculty at different institutions to get a feel for what they do and the expectations for teaching and research at their particular institution and its peers.
Finally, being a good teacher is important at a PUI. You won’t get tenure if you are a bad teacher. The key for new faculty is to show improvement over time. If you are addressing issues you have with teaching and retooling your courses to be more effective, your instructional ability will be viewed favorably. Konkle recommends getting assessments of your teaching early on in a course. She has students evaluate her teaching around midterm, which allows her to make adjustments before the end of the term when official teaching evaluations are completed.
Working at a PUI brings its own challenges, but it can be rewarding and lacks some of the intense pressure of getting large grants from NIH and NSF that is expected at a research-intensive institution. You are more directly involved in educating, training, shaping, and inspiring the next generation of innovators, which is a pretty good thing to be doing with your life, as long as you are OK with wearing all those hats.
Christopher Smith, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in the Department of Psychology at Vanderbilt University. He serves as junior co-chair of the Vanderbilt Postdoctoral Association.