Life for faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions (Guest Post by Kim Hannula)

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.

(If you want my perspective on how to get a job at a PUI, I posted about that last year, here, here, and here.)

*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.


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Your teaching load sounds hellish.

I teach physics at a large public undergraduate institution. There are pluses and minuses. The pluses include having a big department with more people specializing in different things (both in terms of research and also the service tasks--we don't all have to be experts on every administrative matter!). The minuses are that we mostly teach intro service courses--physics for engineers, physics for pre-meds. Upper-division courses are a rare treat. Although from your schedule we see the downside of a schedule heavy on those courses: Lots of time demands.

Which brings me back to another plus: While the freshman courses aren't the most exciting, and while I won't pretend that once you have it prepped you can do it on autopilot every quarter thereafter, it definitely gets a bit easier after a while, making it possible to put more effort into the advanced courses and research projects.

On research, if you have time for it (something that depends on the school and department) we have more intellectual freedom here: We don't have to establish a reputation as "Teh bestest EVAR in teh subfield!!11!" We just have to be productive. (What "productive" means depends on the school.) That means I can move between fields, try different things, and not stick with building up in one field and competing with a bunch of other people to become one of the top dogs in the subfield. That is liberating intellectually as well as time-wise. Of course, it helps that I'm a theoretician, so I don't need to buy new equipment whenever I want to do something new.

Thank you for sharing.

Our teaching load is mandated by the state - at non-research institutions, faculty are supposed to teach 12 credit hours per semester. (Lectures are usually 3 credit hours; labs are 1.5 for a 3-hour lab.) Adjuncts are supposed to teach 15 credit hours per semester, because they have no research, advising, or committee responsibilities. (It's not a choice the department made in order to teach a full major.) About half of my usual teaching load consists of either intro courses or other general education courses.

That's hellish. We also have 12 hours/quarter, but labs are 2 units (for 3 hours) and while intro lectures are 3 units most upper division lectures are 4 units. If an intro lecture class has 100 students instead of the usual 50 we get 5 units instead of 3. And we have enough flexibility on workload that we can often get by with 11 units, or maybe 10 if we're supervising a lot of students. Last quarter I had a large freshman lecture (5 units), an upper division lecture (4 units) and a freshman lab (2 units).

And other physics departments in our state university system have it even better.

ha! I only get 1 credit for teaching 3 hour labs. Maybe I should move to a PUI.

At the private college where I started teaching, we didn't get any credit for teaching labs. So the humanists would teach five classes a year, and we would teach five classes plus any associated labs (two per lecture section, for intro classes).

From what I've seen, geo departments aren't very good at playing the system to reduce the faculty teaching loads. (I've seen some other departments work the system in clever ways - biology departments usually can't, because they have so many students, but the physics and chemistry departments here have figured out ways to make their lives somewhat less overwhelming. I've seen a lot of tenure denials in PUI chemistry departments, though... they've got high expectations to go with their somewhat lighter workload.)

hey, my alarm goes off at 5, and I get to bed at midnite or later, and thats being male, married and teenagers (though one with major problems) at home. (the midnite or later is because 4-10 is family time, well after my afternoon run to reset my clock, go back to work at 10...use to be 9 until son became teenager.

Sure PUIs offer great flexibilty, but feel like you are on the job all the time. its a way of life, you enjoy it or not.

I started reading this blog because I had hoped to see that women involved in academia had begun to envision alternate ways of doing academia. Striking a better balance between home/work/family/personal/leisure lives.

What I see constantly in the posts and in the comments, though, is disheartening. Is there no way to work in academia without completely dividing up and selling all of your time?

Shouldn't the contributors on this blog be working against the stresses and strains of having to think about working/not working every minute of every day? Don't we want to sleep for 8 hours each night and to take days off on the weekends?

If pushing academic life in this direction is not happening here, where will it happen?

As long as there are too many Ph.D.'s chasing after too few tenure-track jobs, there will be a ton of competition and administrators will be able to ask a lot of us. It's a small niche under intense pressure. You can have the most family-friendly, progressive-minded people in the world, but if everybody wants this job and there are too few openings, those facts will dictate much of what happens.

At least the PUI model is more sustainable than the research university model. The research university is producing the Ph.D.'s and having professors produce students who become professors who produce students etc. leads to exponential growth that cannot be sustained forever. The PUI isn't contributing to exponential growth, just hiring some of the products of exponential growth.

Why are so many of those Ph.D.'s competing to join this niche and causing the pressure rather than fleeing it? Well, despite all the hassles, tenure does come with substantial freedom to teach the subject as you see fit and to do research as you see fit. If you love your subject and you love teaching, those are major prizes, being able to do what you love with nearly complete security. So these jobs will be highly sought-after, and the administrators will be able to ask a lot of us because it is in part a labor of love, and also because there are tons of would-be replacements out there. Toss in the way that exponential growth makes grants and publishing competitive, and there you go.

The pressures of the job are products of an unsustainable model.

AlexK asks:

Shouldn't the contributors on this blog be working against the stresses and strains of having to think about working/not working every minute of every day? Don't we want to sleep for 8 hours each night and to take days off on the weekends?

Great question, AlexK. We ARE working against it, but we are working for change within the system. I believe that, at this point, I can be a more effective agent for change within the tenure-track faculty than working from outside (plus, you know, I like my science and I support my family). I do things like speak up for childcare on my campus and against "mandatory" evening meetings. And as I get farther along in my career, I'll be able to do more. Alice is already doing a lot more, in bringing the ADVANCE program to Purdue. Another part of what we do, the part that is most visible on-blog, is share how the system works, and doesn't work for us. So that women considering careers in tenure-track STEM fields know what to expect and maybe have some tips and tricks when they start out. We also hope that by sharing our stories, people in positions of academic power might be more inclined to start to fix the broken system.

Oh, and I do take weekends off. I generally work 1-2 hours during the afternoon nap on Saturday, and 2-3 hours most evenings, but my weekend days are off. It's amazing what a child can do for your time-off discipline.

AlexK asks the big question:

Is there no way to work in academia without completely dividing up and selling all of your time?

I don't know. I don't think academics is the only career to push people for time like this, however. I suspect a lot of people in business career also work long hours and struggle with work/life balance. I think academia may be slower to recognize the benefits of treating employees like human beings than businesses are.

Great post, very informative. Thanks!

AlexK: I think the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. I saw comments in the last post that suggested that women could solve the problem of wanting to be both an academic scientist and a mother if they would only switch their ambitions to a less research-oriented institution. Many do, but find that, although the teaching/research balance is different, the stress is still there.

And like Sciencewoman, I've spoken up for improved family leave (including care of elderly family members and adopted children). It's difficult to push through, though, in tough financial times.

Thanks for the post! Just what I was looking for!

I'm one of the people who said something in favor of undergraduate institutions in the last thread. I don't claim that this is an easy life, but when I talk to my friends at research universities it's quite clear that this job is comparatively easier in terms of work-life balance. Many of the assistant professors in my department (physics department at a large but cash-strapped state school) are able to keep reasonable hours. (I don't, but I have my own reasons for this, because I choose to do certain things that are not required for tenure but are personally satisfying for me as an individual.) Many of them enjoy significant family time in the summer. The first couple years are not easy, but it gets manageable faster here than at research universities.

I think that my task here is better defined for me, there are fewer uncertainties about the expectations, and the goal is quality in what I do rather than the pressure of competition for status within the field. The task here is not easy, but it is more manageable and sustainable than trying to compete within an ever-shrinking niche. All of these things serve to reduce stress and give me a feeling of freedom.

I am not going to suggest that this job is ideal in terms of balancing the personal and professional, or that it shouldn't change. I will, however, suggest that what we do here is (1) comparatively more sane than the job at a research university and (2) not subject to the same pressures that are making the research university model ever less sustainable. The research university is likely to get even worse before it gets better, while I think that undergraduate institutions will evolve in a healthier direction in a shorter time.