Thursday, March 08, 2012

Too Much of Too Many Things

Not long ago, I was informally looking at someone's research and teaching record, as a prelude to their tenure evaluation. This was not in any official evaluation capacity (I was not writing a letter), and this was not someone at my own university. It was more of a "take a look at this CV and see if you think this person has a chance" kind of thing.

Based only on what I saw in the research record, this person has little or no chance of receiving tenure at their university, which expects a certain amount of activity with respect to publications and grants.

But then I looked at what this person has done in terms of teaching and advising, just in terms of time spent on these activities (I had no information about quality), and it was a lot. It was immense, considering that the university also had moderate research expectations of its science faculty.

I am missing some important information about this situation, such as whether this person could have decreased the number of courses taught by obtaining grants and 'buying' out teaching time, but just from what I saw, it seemed like there was a huge mismatch between expectations (by the university) and what was humanly possible (for the tenure-track professor).

I have written before about how I feel fortunate that my job has a good balance of teaching-research-service in terms of expectations/time for each. If all of these components of the job are valued by the university, and if we are evaluated based on how well we do with each of them, then we need time to do them. That seems obvious, but I know there is disagreement in the land about how professors should spend their time.

I should note that my positive view of the teaching-research-service balance in my current job is not just based on how I feel now, as a tenured professor; I felt the same way as an assistant professor, at least in terms of teaching and research expectations. I did feel that I was doing more service work, particularly in the department, than some of my peers, but it wasn't anything I couldn't handle (and I believed that I could have said no to some of the committee work, without consequences, if I had wanted to).

I also realize that just because I think my job has a good balance (and I would say the same thing for my job at my previous university), that doesn't mean that everyone else thinks the same thing about their similar professor-jobs in my department/university. The reasons why I have this positive view are many and complex, including my being happy to work a lot, enjoying doing many different things (though not necessarily too many or all at the same time), and the flexibility of of my department in determining teaching schedules.


Do you feel that you have a good (reasonable) balance of what your institution expects you to do? Or is there a big mismatch between, say, teaching load and research expectations? (It would be helpful to specify career stage, discipline, general type of institution.)

If you do feel there is a big mismatch, do you think this is a general feeling shared by your colleagues in your department/institution, or is there a lot of variability within your unit? Is there anything that can be done about this mismatch, or is it hopeless in the face of widespread belief that professors don't teach enough, and yet should also be pulling in the big grants and publishing in Nature or Science every few months, while serving on 9 committees and doing outreach?

If you feel that there is a good balance in your job, is this also a widespread view in your department/institution, and is there someone in particular responsible for creating this good work environment? (dept chair, college dean, provost, president..).


Anonymous said...

I'm an tenure-track assistant professor at a research university, and one of the things that's still not even clear to me is what *is* "a lot" or "immense." I know that, right now, what I am doing/expected to do is beyond what I am capable of reasonably doing if I am to maintain sanity and an excellent research record, but thus far, I've found there's a huge lack of information re. what is *actually* expected vs. "if you did everything on this humanly-impossible list of things then you'd be so amazingly awesome and it would make our lives easier, so we're asking you to do them but actually (silently) expecting that you won't."

Female Science Professor said...

Is there someone you can ask? (mentor, friendly senior colleague etc.)

Anonymous said...

I am basically in the same position as anonymous above. I am a first year tenure-track professor at a research university. I think part of the issue is that I want to do everyone 100% but I am finding this is hard to do in terms of time available. Perhaps I will find the balance in the next couple of years? I hope so!

EliRabett said...

Eli will sit down and write something longer, but there is a major issue which you probably are missing if this is a wanna be place: There is no staff support: No markers, few teaching assistants, no business office at the department level and often the college level and worse. The purchasing department knows how to handle toilet and copying paper, but not much else, etc.

If you want to figure out what this person is doing, look at how many of the educational activities are assigned, e.g. classes, and how many are voluntary (reworking curricula, etc.)

another anonymous person said...

Hmmm. Expectations on teaching and research, I think there is a good understanding at my R1. Service vs teaching and research, less so. Especially since the line between the three is not always clear.

On the one hand, when I was going through the pre-tenure stage, my senior colleagues kept telling me to cut back my service to focus on research and teaching. On the other hand, the same colleagues kept asking me specifically to add more service activities, with the implication that if I said no it would be remembered. And then at tenure review, they were all shocked and appalled at the magnitude of my service commitments, despite my having enumerated them in every annual report. On the extra hand, the excess service did count in my favor.

John Vidale said...

My immediate reaction is that "who should I do as a prof?" is asking for a recipe, with definable portions, all feasible, and ideally taking the form of a check list.

Some jobs, like delivering morning papers (does anyone do that any more?) work that way. Did the papers arrive? Were they are time? Was the subscription money collected?

However, the beauy and the difficulty of faculty positions is there is no clock, no checklist. Indeed the value of research that faculty do is usually undefinable, and despite Herculean efforts, deducing what students learned, remembered, and had value to them is elusive.

So it is helpful to study past successful profs, consult mentors, and ignore unrealistic expectations, but performance depends on one's inner compass to do the right thing and acumen to do it well, and coaching can only take one so far.

I've been at four places, in roles with a wide variety of expectations, and feel like I've basically taken the same balance every time, albeit with with somewhat different opportunities. Digressing in "unproductive" ways like writing this, and other quirks. I think it is a mistake to try to adapt to others' expectations if one is not naturally inclined to succeed as a prof.

Anonymous said...

My university is a PUI that wants to grow its research program so the expectations in terms of scholarship are growing. Unfortunately this does not come with an increase in money or lab space for research or in a decrease in teaching/advising. So new faculty are being squeezed hard. I think I can handle the balance they want but that's because of some of the unique features of my research (on the less costly end) and because I don't have kids or really any sort of life outside my job (it's ok I like it for now). For a number of colleagues though I think they're really distressed that the expectations are becoming unreasonable. The issue I think the university is failing to grasp is that this will affect retention both because people will fail to male tenure and because they'll choose to leave to seek a better balance. I have never heard anyone in admin or in positions of power in the dept (chair, RPT head, etc) bring up issues of retention but I know 2 junior colleagues on the market because of these issues (out of a relatively small dept). The mis-match between expectations is a bad plan for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I'm an associate professor at an R1 university and I find a very big mismatch between the upper level administration's expectations (run a large research program, graduate a lot of students, and teach a huge amount of courses and students without any TAs) and what we actually do in the trenches. It is very frustrating.

Anonymous said...

I think that there are a couple of different components to finding the "balance" you speak of. One is the balance between what is expected of you and the resources you are given and the other is a balance between what you're supposed to do and what you can actually handle. As a "senior" tenure-track assistant professor who has been at a couple of different institutions (my packet will go in this fall!), I felt that both of the departments I've been in tried hard to make sure that the new faculty had the resources they need. I got mixed messages from senior faculty about what was required (people suggested that I would need 2 NIH grants to get tenure in a department where none of the faculty had R01s, for example) but my feeling is they were just trying to motivate me - others have recently received tenure in that department without 2 R01s. However, one of the reasons I decided to move was that I felt the teaching load was a bit too high for me to be as productive as I wanted research-wise. This was a personal balance, plenty of people in my field are very successful with even higher teaching loads. But when an opportunity to move to a different university came up, the lower teaching load (among many other things) was quite attractive. Now I feel like I've found a very good balance between what I'm "supposed" to do, what I actually do and what I can handle. That doesn't mean that I'm not nervous about submitting my tenure packet, but I feel like the department has my back.

Who is responsible for making these departments good places for new faculty? In the first case, I think the department chair had a LOT to do with it. In the second case, it's more of a cultural thing. Our department and college have excellent leadership and other related departments seem to have the same balance, so I assume that upper administration is also on board.

second-rate scientist said...

I agree that departmental expectations need to be stated right up front. Also, somebody needs to check in on a regular basis to make sure the tenure-track faculty is heading in the right direction.

That's what should happen. Here's what is happening to me: I'm in my 4th year on a TT position at an R1 institution, and at most universities, I'd be toast by the time the tenure decision rolled around. I've managed to secure a few small grants, but my independent publication record sucks right now. You are probably asking yourself why my department keeps a dead weight like me around?

Because I'm cheap. I bought my way onto the tenure track by getting grant funding (I started as a research instructor in another lab). I never got start-up. My lab got stocked via my grant funding and by my own scavenging of used equipment from surplus. I also made myself invaluable by taking over a medical school course when the previous director unexpectedly retired.

Nevertheless, the more senior faculty I've sought out for advice have looked at my c.v. and told me I probably won't be considered for tenure. Because the baseline is a comparison to faculty who did get start up, and had no teaching responsibilities. Also, those faculty are located in supportive, straight basic research departments. My department is mostly clinical. Basic scientists are an afterthought.

I've been told I can focus on the "teaching track" but experience has demonstrated that these are always the first faculty to get jettisoned when the state cuts the budget yet again.

Lately I've managed to wrangle a small amount of department support so I can keep the lab going while I try to get more grants funded. I've also gotten out of teaching for a year. So I'm really focusing on my research at the moment and I can only hope this pays off.

Anonymous said...

I know it sounds like it would be better if there were specific metrics, like 3 papers/year with the TT prof (or an advisee) as major author in a journal/conference proceedings with a particular impact factor or acceptance rate, but that has it's own problems as well because it emphasizes quantity over quality. The fuzzy expectations cause anxiety, but overall allow more flexibility. TT profs should get lots of feedback from mentors and chairs so the TT years aren't entirely mysterious, but I like a vague system (though I agree it can also be abused).

Anonymous said...

I'm an associate prof at an R1 and have been blessed with a good balance. There have been some random inequities/difficulties, but on the whole, our unit seems generally happy with these things, as far as I can tell. We are a small unit, so there's no getting out of service, but there doesn't seem to be too much grumbling.

MathTT said...

On the one hand, when I was going through the pre-tenure stage, my senior colleagues kept telling me to cut back my service to focus on research and teaching. On the other hand, the same colleagues kept asking me specifically to add more service activities, with the implication that if I said no it would be remembered.

This x 100.

So, so tired.

quasihumanist said...

At my university, the workload of faculty has led to many faculty putting less effort on their teaching by demanding less out of their students, thereby creating a culture of low expectations, especially for undergraduates.

Anonymous said...

You only really know what the expected teaching-research-service balance is at your university when someone gets denied tenure for having it wrong. Several years ago at my university (small R1, known for its excellence in undergrad education), a tenure denial (a rare thing at our place until that year, anyway) really shocked the community. This woman, a biologist, had an active NIH grant, had graduated a few PhD students, mentored several undergrads in her lab, had a decent (not earth-shattering, but decent) publication record, was a vey popular teacher and advisor, and an active member of a high-level university committee. We actually saw her as an almost ideal case-a perfect balance of teaching, research and service, a future leader of the university. No one understood it, until the next year, when more people in science and engineering did not get tenure, and the year afar that, the same thing. In all cases, these people had solid, but not ground breaking research programs (that used to be OK at our place), and adequate but not empire-building funding. When I look back at that first tenure denial, it was pretty clear that this was the symbolic sacrifice, the one that told everyone "Things are changing around here".
But now, at least, everyone knows what the expectation is.