Sciencewoman says: Some of readers have been wondering about what life is like for those jobs at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs). Alice and I are indubitably unqualified to answer that question, so Kim Hannula of “All of my faults are stress related…” graciously offered to provide some perspective. Kim is an incredibly thoughtful blogger about teaching and about geology, so you should all be reading her.
In the comments on Alice’s post about grad students and balanced careers, there was some discussion about working at a primarily undergraduate institution, and questions about whether that would be a good choice for people who want a more balanced career. Sciencewoman asked if I would be willing to post a description of a typical day in the life of a PUI professor, so… here I am.
Some background about me: I’ve been teaching at PUIs since I finished my PhD in 1993. I’ve taught at two different schools – I started at a private liberal arts college, and I now teach at a public one. And I’ve got a five-year-old son, born just before I came up for tenure in my current job.
This description is generalized – when I mention students, I’m describing the types of interactions that are common, rather than particular events that happened on a particular day. But, with some details blurred, this could be any Wednesday during fall semester:
5:30 am: Alarm goes off. I shower and check e-mail before the kindergartener wakes up.
6:45 am: Time to start trying to get the kindergartener out of bed, dressed, and fed before the bus comes.
7:30 am: Put the kindergartener on the bus.
7:40 am: Grab my stuff, climb on my bike, and ride to work. (Moving into town improved the commute significantly – last year it took an hour to get to my office after getting out the door.)
8:00 am: Arrive at my office. Turn on computer, get coffee, check e-mail.
8:15 am: One of my juniors comes by my office. He’s got questions about the cross-section. By the time I’m done talking to him, another student has come by.
8:55 am: Dig through binder for notes for today’s lecture. Make two trips to the room, because I can’t juggle the modeling clay, the masonite board, and the old slide-viewing magnifying thingy at once.
9:05 am: My junior class begins. Fortunately, I’ve done this fourteen times before, so we’re able to mess around with strike-slip faults without too much trouble. (I don’t get the modeling clay to quite the right thickness, though, so we have to try a couple times. I have to skip some stuff that we usually discuss. Maybe we’ll cover it on Friday.)
10:00 am: End of class, beginning of office hours. My juniors have another class that meets at this time, so I search through Google Earth to find a good site for my weekly challenge for my intro class. I almost get the coordinates onto the online course-management software when one of the seniors comes by to talk about his job hunt. By the time he’s done, I need to run to class, so I leave the Google Earth assignment half-written.
11:15 am: My intro class begins. I’m working with a new textbook this year, and I’m trying to change the class to fit it. Fortunately, I spent an hour or so last night putting together something in Powerpoint, so I can waltz into class and start with minimal prep time.
11:55 am: We’ve managed to have a very interesting discussion… about two of the slides. It looks like my teaching plans still need revision.
12:10 pm: The intro class ends. I head back to my office and eat at my desk. There are a bunch of e-mails, getting ready for the department meeting tomorrow. Oh, and I almost forgot I was supposed to schedule a room for the Four Corners Geological Society meeting next month. There’s also an e-mail from a possible collaborator on a geoscience education project, with a bunch of attached articles about assessment. I don’t read it.
12:30 pm: One of my juniors has a question about the cross-section. We look at it for about twenty minutes.
1:25 pm: My students are all in class again. I go back to the Google Earth assignment and get it online. I’ve got a little free time, so I start filling out a travel authorization request for a conference. My senior thesis student comes by, and we go into the lab to look at thin sections.
2:30 pm: Lab for my junior class. I don’t have a TA, so I spend the next three hours bouncing from person to person, answering questions.
5:30 pm: Lab is over. I pack things up and go home.
5:45 pm: Arrive at home. My parents have been taking care of the kindergartener, but I still need to cook dinner, see what notes the kindergartener brought home, and get him to bed.
8:00 pm: Kindergartener wants the hummingbird story one last time before falling asleep.
8:15 pm: Start grading Monday’s labs from the intro class. The labs that the juniors turned in today and that the sophomores turned in yesterday will have to wait, maybe until tomorrow night, maybe until the weekend. It’s a good thing that I don’t have to worry about writing an exam or putting together my AGU presentation for a few more weeks.
9:00 pm: Read blogs.
10:00 pm: Go to sleep.
My Mondays and Wednesdays are similar – two lectures and a lab. On Tuesdays, I have a four-hour mapping class in the afternoon. Thursdays are free, except for the department meeting, but I need to go home by 3 pm to meet the kindergartener’s bus. On Friday, I only have two lectures, but the kindergartener gets out of school at 1:30 pm.
I usually spend my free time at work (Tuesday and Thursday mornings) grading, writing exams, showing my thesis students how to do lab work, holding office hours, going to meetings, working on presentations for a conference, or analyzing samples for the intro class project. I spend at least half a day on weekends grading, as well. (If I’ve given an exam, the grading takes at least a day. Luckily my husband is willing to take over entertaining the kindergartener.) I don’t do any research of my own during the school year – not writing, not data-crunching, not analyses. I do grant-writing and research in May, which is the only month when the kid has school and I don’t. If I want to do lab work, I need to write grant proposals for funding, and then drive five hours and spend a weekend working on the nearest microprobe. It’s not productive, but I’ve got tenure. I frequently feel guilty about being deadwood, especially in a world where so many talented PhDs go for years and years without finding a good job.
This would be my story in a normal year – 24 credits of teaching per year, which comes out to approximately six lecture courses and four or five labs divided between two semesters. This year is different for me, because I got really worried about how to manage kindergarten, and convinced my department to make me part-time while I figured out how after-school care worked. So this semester I’m only teaching one class, I spend my Tuesdays working on finishing up a paper, and I am home when the kindergartener gets home. (I’m also being paid 2/3 of my normal salary – this is only possible because I’ve got a spouse with a much better-paying job.)
There’s a flexibility to negotiate here, and that’s fantastic. But it depends entirely on having supportive colleagues – I’m really lucky. I also was able to come up for tenure while on (unpaid) maternity leave. (But that wasn’t the default option – that would have been taking the time mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act in the summer, when I wasn’t teaching anyway, because my son was born in April.)
This is a public liberal arts college. At the private SLAC where I started out, I taught five lecture courses and four labs a year, got paid more, had more institutional money to travel to conferences, had a regular schedule for sabbaticals, had a choice of purple or green pens (along with the traditional black and red ones), and was expected to do excellent peer-reviewed research and bring in major external grants. (For tenure purposes, the small ones that supported students didn’t really count.) I was in the office every weekend, and every day in the summer (unless I had traveled for field work.) I would frequently meet my husband for dinner, and then return to the office to write grant proposals. I didn’t have kids then. I knew women who did – some got tenure, some didn’t. But the stress wore on all of them. (They got one semester of maternity leave, or nothing if the baby was born in the summer. And nothing slowed the tenure clock – if you had a baby while an assistant professor, you just had to be more productive with your time.)*
My impression is that the research expectations at PUIs have been increasing through time. The tenure criteria are vague – “excellent teaching”, “scholarly achievement.” At the private SLAC, that might translate into a sales pitch to prospective students: “our professors are good enough researchers to be at Yale, but they are dedicated to our students.” At my current institution, the research expectations have become less vague, but more demanding, over the time I’ve been here. And for hints of where the future is heading, I’ve heard some new buzzwords from a former senior thesis student who now has a PhD and teaches at a private SLAC – “high-risk research,” to distinguish faculty research from work with undergrads.
I enjoy teaching, and I love working with undergrads, so my job suits me. But I wouldn’t choose a PUI because it is less stressful, or more humane for families, or a more woman-friendly environment.
*It may sound as though I left that school because I wanted a more balanced life. I didn’t – I didn’t get tenure there.