Monday, July 31, 2006

College vs. University

I went to a small liberal arts college on the East Coast and I loved it. It was the perfect place for me to go to college. I met some amazing people, made friends who are still among my best friends decades later, and discovered exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I went to college very passionate about a particular field of study in the humanities, expecting to major in that field, but after only a semester, I was interested in something completely different (science) and that was that. I didn't have any women professors in my chosen field, but the male faculty in my major department were great and were encouraging about my plans for graduate study immediately following my undergraduate years. One professor, who was sort of my mentor, gently told me that I might have problems owing to my quiet and unassuming personality, but he said it more to prepare me for the future than to discourage me from anything.

So off I went to a Big Research University for graduate school. Yes, it was a shock in some ways, but my undergraduate background in my field was solid, and I had confidence in myself, even if I didn't initially impress my graduate professors. I was small, female, and looked like I was about 14 years old. There were 60+ grad students in my department; at one point, there were two women students. At the most, I think there were 5-6 women students.

The level of discrimination was, shall we say, high, and I apparently contributed to my low status by proclaiming that my career goal was to teach at a small liberal arts college. Success was defined as getting a job at a large research university. Anything less was seen as pathetic. Every year, the grad students, as part of an evaluation of merit by the entire faculty, had to write a research summary and indicate our career goals, and, even once I knew better, I continued to write that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college -- because I did.

I just couldn't see myself at a large university. I did not like what I saw in terms of the faculty culture at my graduate institution. There was one female professor - a terminal associate professor mired in depression and strangeness and very marginalized and treated with scorn by faculty and students alike. And then there was all the other stuff that I don't want to rant about now, but it was disturbing. No, that was not for me. And my postdoc institution was, if anything, even a worse place for women than my grad school. Such a place was definitely not what I wanted. Instead, I could see myself teaching and doing research projects involving undergrads at a friendly college just like the one I attended as an undergrad.

I had some interviews at small colleges, and some interviews went well (I got one offer but turned it down, as I described in a post a few days ago), and others did not go well. My 'credentials' of having gone to a small college as an undergrad helped get me in the door for interviews, but I found that I had to be careful about how interested I appeared in research, even if my focus was research involving students. At one interview, I gave my interviewers an updated copy of my CV, noting that the version they had was out of date because I had submitted some papers and a paper formerly in review was now in press. One of the interviewers took my new CV, slammed it on the table right in front of me, said "If you care about things like that then you CLEARLY do NOT have what it takes to teach at a place like this", and walked out of the room. I did not get that job.

And then I did get a job at just such a place. It was so close in type to my undergraduate school -- a well-known Small Liberal Arts College (SLAC) on the East coast -- that it was like a dream come true, even though the position wasn't tenure-track. And I hated it. If you force me to, I could come up with some nice things to say about this school and its students, but it's an effort. I really think that I might have been more content at a different SLAC with nicer colleagues and administrators and students who weren't so into their social lives that classes were an annoying distraction, but even if I ignore the specific pathological personalities I had to deal with that year, there were still 2 general issues: (1) I had to teach so much -- so many classes (3-4 each semester), so many labs (4 each semester), and so many students with independent projects -- that I didn't have time to do anything well; and (2) There was no research support at all -- most of my colleagues were happy with their own lack of research and were suspicious and hostile to anyone who was interested in being active in research, even fairly small scale research. I know it is different at other SLACs -- I have visited them and given talks at them and I have summer interns from various SLACs every year. I was very unlucky that the SLAC where I taught was such a bad fit for me. Even so, I don't regret changing my career path to research universities.

When I participate in some panels re. women in science, I find that many students and postdocs have the impression that small colleges are friendlier places to be -- perhaps less stressful and easier for balancing family and career. Maybe that's true of some places, but I don't think it's true as a generalization.

I love teaching and I love research, and a research university has the right balance for me. It's ironic that I ended up at a peer institution to my graduate school, yet many of my fellow grad students who were confident that they'd end up at just such a school, did not. How bizarre.

1 comment:

PhD Mom said...

I appreciate your insightful comments on career selection. I think many graduate students feel pressured into academic careers at a research institution, but I also have a fair number of friends at smaller universities and even high schools. I'm sorry that your SLAC experience was poor, but I am glad to see that you stood up to the pressure throughout gradschool and remained true to your goal.