Second Thoughts

September 26, 2007

I've completed seven years of post-undergraduate education in the geological sciences. I have my master's degree. I have my Ph.D. I've endured physical chemistry, differential equations, fluid dynamics, and everything else they could throw at me. Finally, I'm ready to be a professor.

I've even made it to the end of this interview and I'm pretty sure it's a good fit. Now I just need to meet with the department chairman, talk about my dreams and aspirations, and go home and wait to find out if I got the job.

We sit down together in his office and talk through what is expected of a tenure-track faculty member. Just the usual banter; he tries to sell me on the department's facilities, the quality of its faculty, the curriculum. After spending the past two years in a postdoctoral research position, I am excited to talk about interacting with students, advising, and teaching. Maybe I can even help out with its field camp in the Rockies.

But just before I steer the conversation that way, the chairman hits me with this: "Your tenure decision will be based 80 percent on your research, 15 percent on your teaching, and 5 percent on your service," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. I'm not sure I heard him right.

"15 percent on my teaching?"

Look, I love my research, and a handful of people scattered around the world think it's great stuff. But if I were to accept a job at that university, I would be interacting with hundreds of students a year, and sending them off into the world with a little more knowledge of how the earth works. Sure, they might not become geologists, but even students from one of my introductory classes would be able to converse about topics like flood risk, fossil-fuel depletion, and climate change. They might even inform their parents that they probably shouldn't buy that beach house since it might wash into the sea next year.

And here the chairman is telling me that an extra publication narrowly focused on my little corner of the geology world is more important than all of those young minds?

I suppose the track I am on has made me a good candidate for a big university research job, and maybe that's why I keep applying for those positions. From day one of my Ph.D., it was clear that the goal was "publish, publish, publish" -- and I did. I had nine publications by the time I was one year out, I had the Nature paper that everyone dreams about, and people were inviting me to give talks at meetings and seminars. It was great.

But the longer I did that, the more I realized something big was missing from my professional life.

I spent my days in a room with empty shelves and bare walls trying to keep up with the literature, spew out computer code, and figure out what my next publication should be. I rarely went into the field. I never interacted with students. I tried not to miss any grant deadlines, since I needed to stack the 1-in-10 odds in my favor. And I was constantly stressed out about whether I was productive enough.

Granted, that life had its perks: I set my own hours, I commonly worked in coffee shops, and I had wonderful colleagues. But the visions I had about being a professor involved teaching classrooms filled with students, running field trips, holding office hours, and seeing the occasional "Oh yeah, I understand that now" expression on a student's face.

My postdoc was supposed to be the bridge to achieving that vision. But sitting in that interview, I suddenly wondered if my vision even exists at a large research university.

As it turns out, I didn't get the job; but that didn't really bother me. What did was the conversation with the chairman. "15 percent on my teaching?" How can we expect to send educated students into the work force if professors need to focus 80 percent of their effort on research that may have absolutely no practical applications?

Questions like that one continued to plague me as I tried to figure out my next move. The good news came a few months after that interview, when I found out that one of the grant proposals I had written had been approved, for almost $600,000. The money meant I could start down a new and exciting research path, investigating the effects of climate change on landscape evolution in the Arctic. I would be able to stay at the university where I have been a postdoc and be promoted to a "research scientist."

It felt good to have some success from a large federal agency and to know that I still had a job. Reviewing the budget I had written for the project months earlier also gave me some clarity on the questions I had been pondering.

One budget line in particular stood out: "Indirect Costs: $188,584."

I suddenly remembered the part of the equation that I had been ignoring: "Your tenure decision will be based 80 percent on your research." Huh. I guess if my research puts almost $200,000 into the university's general fund, that would make a president, provost, and dean happy, wouldn't it?

Certainly even the most successful undergraduates won't be stuffing that kind of money into their business-reply envelopes for the alumni fund.

So now I'm wondering: Are department heads interested in research because they place such value on the selfless pursuit of knowledge? Or does all that grant money just help them make the case for a new building? Is the learning environment better once a university has that new student center with a Starbucks and Macintosh G4 workstations for checking e-mail? Maybe. Does it facilitate student learning to have those state-of-the art classrooms that wirelessly beam PowerPoint slides to students' laptops? Probably. But wouldn't it be even better if the faculty could put some of that 80-percent effort back into teaching, so those PowerPoint slides beaming across the classroom make sense?

For now, I'll keep applying for the tenure-track jobs that fit my research interests, and I'll hope that I can beat out the 80 to 100 other qualified Ph.D.'s who want the same position.

But I'm also going to dig deeper in my conversations with faculty members and department heads, to make sure I end up in a place where teaching actually matters. Of course, if I need to devote more of my time to teaching I might never publish another paper in Nature. The invitations to give talks and seminars might tail off.

But I hope that I can get a little closer to that vision of developing fun and interesting lectures, holding office hours, and leading local field trips, without feeling like I'm taking time from what really matters. After all, why am I trying to become an educator if I won't have time to educate?

Patrick Callahan is the pseudonym of a postdoctoral fellow in the geological sciences at a university in the West. He will be chronicling his search for a tenure-track job this academic year.