Sixth Annual Survey
Great Colleges to Work For 2013
Many Professors Spell Career Success in Nontraditional Ways
By Katherine Mangan
Todd Bigelow for The Chronicle
In the early days of Brent W. Roberts's academic career, the signposts to success were easy to recognize. "At first it was rather pragmatic," he says. "I needed to get a publication or two in order to get tenure. I didn't have any grandiose goals early on."
But as he climbed the ranks to tenured professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, "my definition of success changed rather dramatically," Mr. Roberts says. He studies the impact of personality traits (such as conscientiousness) on major life goals, and the ways in which personalities change over an adult's life. Now he feels most successful when he's contributing ideas that help advance knowledge in a particular field.
His work on conscientiousness "isn't exciting, and the press doesn't pick up on it. People look at it and think yeah, whatever," he says. But when his studies are cited by researchers working to improve educational performance or by economists citing the role that conscientiousness plays in job performance, "I feel like I'm contributing something useful," says Mr. Roberts, who has published more than 100 articles in psychology journals.
When it comes to defining success in their careers, many faculty members, like Mr. Roberts, cite factors other than the typical markers of promotions, tenure, raises, and publications.
A major career switch prompted Linda I. DeLong, an assistant professor of organizational leadership at the University of La Verne, to re-evaluate her accomplishments. She began teaching at La Verne, a small private university in Southern California, as an adjunct in 1990 while working full time as a human-resources administrator in the banking and insurance industries. Friday and Saturday evenings, she'd head to campus to teach culture and gender issues in management education, giving her students, many of them working professionals, ideas to try out on their jobs.
In 2010 the insurance company she worked for changed hands, and her job was eliminated. That same year she completed a doctorate in education in organizational leadership and segued to teaching full time.
In her previous jobs, which involved hiring and firing employees and designing salary-and-benefit packages, her climb up the corporate ladder brought tangible signs of success—pay increases, bonuses, and more-impressive titles. In academe, the rewards aren't always so immediately recognizable, and the pay grade is a lot lower.
"You don't realize the impact you're having until you get to events like graduation," Ms. DeLong says. "Then you see your student—a single parent who told you she was really tired and maybe it didn't make sense to do this, and you kept telling her it would pay off. Hearing her name called as she walks across the stage ... money can't buy that feeling."
Sometimes Ms. DeLong hears from students years later. They might contact her to tell her that a theory learned in class helped them untangle a problem at work. One former student said her efforts to get data from clients in Latin America would take twice as long as she expected, because her foreign contacts prefaced their work talk with friendly chitchat. Recalling discussions in Ms. DeLong's classroom about cultures that value collectivism versus individualism, she scrapped her usual cut-to-the-chase business style and improved her relationships with those clients, she told Ms. DeLong.
The lessons students take away from Jose M. Guerra's classes are even more tangible. Mr. Guerra, who teaches welding at South Texas College, says some of his biggest successes have come from his interactions with high-school dropouts attending the College, Career, and Technology Academy, in Pharr, Tex., on the border with Mexico.
The academy, which is run by the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and the two-year South Texas College, serves low-income students, nearly all of them Hispanic.
Over the past year, Mr. Guerra has helped about three dozen students there earn welding certificates that have helped some land jobs in the region's booming oil business and in other industries seeking trained craftsmen. Many of the students he works with are simultaneously earning their high-school diplomas and getting a head start on college.
"When they start, they're so rough around the edges, with no sense of urgency in their lives," Mr. Guerra says. As soon as a student pulls down the hood on his welding helmet and puts a torch into a pool of molten metal, the transformation process begins.
"With welding, you can start with a raw material and by the end of the day, you have something useful that you can touch," he says. "The materials you work with can last for 100 years."
Welding, which can be dangerous and physically demanding, isn't for everyone, but when a student takes to it the way Mr. Guerra himself did as a teenager, and parlays that skill into a decent-paying job, he feels a sense of accomplishment.
For faculty members whose primary focus is research, one measure of success that tenure-and-promotion committees often zero in on is how much they raise in research grants. By that standard, Roger V. Gonzalez, a professor of mechanical engineering, admits that he often came up short. He has spent years developing inexpensive artificial limbs for amputees in the developing world, first at LeTourneau University and now at the University of Texas at El Paso. Grants for those projects have been hard to come by, because they involve making something simpler and cheaper rather than more technologically advanced. And because the developers were a student group from a small, little-known university, they flew below the radar of international aid agencies. As a result, he and his students have had to turn to friends and family members to help defray their costs, which include flying to impoverished regions to teach workers how to make the prosthetic limbs themselves.
But by the standards that matter more to him, the work has been hugely rewarding. An artificial knee joint that he and his team developed in 2004, while he was at LeTourneau, is helping more than 1,000 amputees in at least 27 countries live more independently.
"I measure my success by how many lives I've had a chance to impact," Mr. Gonzalez says. That includes not only the recipients of the prosthetics but also the students and colleagues whose lives are transformed by the experience. Several of his students have gone on to pursue careers in bioengineering, and for others, he says, "we're giving them a chance to solve real-world problems and motivating them to become change agents."
Returning to his alma mater, which took a chance on him by accepting him as a provisional undergraduate in the 1980s, has allowed Mr. Gonzalez to help other first-generation minority students become entrepreneurial engineers. As head of UTEP's leadership engineering program, which begins this fall, he'll work with the Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering to deliver parts of its interdisciplinary curriculum to the Texas campus. If he can inspire more students to become engineers with a social conscience, he'll consider that a major success, Mr. Gonzalez says.
For faculty members who have already passed traditional milestones of achievement, like getting tenure and being promoted, seeking out new ways to measure success is key to staying engaged and satisfied.
Lenore Frigo is a tenured full-time instructor of psychology at Shasta College, a two-year institution in Redding, Calif. After 15 years of teaching, she was beginning to feel burned out and was looking for a new challenge.
"I went into teaching because I liked the stimulation of new ideas, and I was beginning to feel like a tour guide who's giving the same presentation over and over," she says. Being successful at this stage of her career means coming up with new and better ways to reach students. One of her goals is to create a "flipped classroom," where students listen to lectures before coming to class and spend their time with her engaging in higher-level thinking and problem solving.
"I've always been driven by what's the next step, and when you reach a certain point in your career, there's no obvious next step," she says. "I can create it by keeping up with changes in pedagogy and getting involved in student groups so that I can understand my students' dreams and goals and struggles in a way that I can't teaching a class of 200 students." She recently started advising a global-awareness club and would like to spend time observing high-school classes to gain a better understanding of the study habits her students arrive with.
Mr. Roberts, the Illinois psychology professor, also finds that his students' success can be an important barometer for the mark he's making on his field.
He spends a lot more time mentoring now than he did early in his career. "Training the next generation of researchers is enormously rewarding," he says. "I've had students and postdocs who have gone on to do quite well, and I wouldn't have defined that early on as success."
Some of those students are working on problems continents away. "When someone in Luxembourg has an idea they'd like to vet, they can pop me an e-mail," he says. "I answer a few questions and can help guide the idea to fruition."
By helping other researchers fine-tune ideas and getting students excited about the possibilities of science, "I like to think that I'm making the place a little better than I found it."