What can you be with a PhD? An impactful research mentor

I attended a two-day workshop called “What Can You Be With a PhD?” (WCUB) on November 4-5, 2017. This article is published as the second in two-part coverage of the “Teaching and Education” panel during WCUB.

What exactly can one do once they are deemed an expert in their respective field? The answer to that question turns out to be: many things! WCUB brought together active scientists, teachers, and professionals in a series of panels designed to give you an insider’s look at non-research university academic career paths.

During WCUB, I sat in on three sessions exploring three different career paths. Two of them were related to the academic sphere, “Teaching and Education” and “Government Jobs,” while the third was a departure from the academy, “Non-Research Industry Jobs.” Here, I present highlights from the “Teaching and Education” panel. As the two essential elements of this job are teaching and research, I will present information from those topics, focusing on research in this section. However, the panel went over many other topics ranging from the interview process (a day with everything from research feasibility talks to impromptu lectures in front of students) to work/life balance (expected, but those first three years are going to be demanding).

The panel members were: Dr. Victoria Ruiz (also our moderator), Dr. Jessica Allen, Dr. Nathan Lents, and Dr. Matthew Marcello (a Rutgers alumni!).

Research matters

Having attended a small college myself, I have always valued the quality of education I received there. The combination of a nurturing environment, excellent teaching, and ambitious collaborations allowed to me achieve a dream that I never planned for. Yet, coming to a research university presented me with the rather bizarre line-of-thought that valuable research does not occur at the college level. Though the stakes of research are not at as high as at a research university, the outcomes are nonetheless impressive. As Dr. Cech, Professor at University of Colorado, Boulder, Nobel laureate, and benefactor of a small college education, details in his article: Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?, Small liberal arts colleges produce a disproportionate amount of eventual PhDs on a per capita basis when compared with research universities. Top scientists educated at small liberal arts colleges include, Dr. David Baltimore, Dr. David P. Corey, Dr. Jennifer A. Doudna, and Dr. Katherine L. Friedman.

This impressive and truncated list of names suggests that it is no accident that choice of education matters. Therefore, when thinking of a teaching career at a small college, be aware that the standards for your research training are not any lower than they would be at a research university. As Dr. Lents succinctly put it, “Do a post-doc and make it good.” Dr. Ruiz wholeheartedly agreed. For her 5-year post-doc, she chose the best lab she could and did the best work she could. This may seem like a tall order considering the amount of teaching experience needed to secure such a position, but as demonstrated by the venerable panel members, it is completely attainable. There are certainly positions for those who want nothing to do with research- look for “lecturer” positions in this case.

Work hard during the grad school/post-doc years and train in the cutting edge to be able to teach your future students (check!). Then, once you have secured that cushy small college position, relax and forget about the push-to-publish that has haunted you for the past decade. Right? Wrong. Faculty at small colleges still have publication requirements. Publication requirements will vary from university to university, from one publication a year (this includes reviews and book chapters) to two peer-reviewed articles over five years. A big difference is that where you publish is less of a factor. Moreover, publication in a pedagogy journal often counts towards fulfilling these quotas.

Building a research approach that yields publishable results is something that all of us have been trained in to some extent. Still, having that research totally depend on undergraduate hands is enough to make some of us break out in a sweat. Yet, at small colleges, that is exactly what is required. Your research matters to the extent that it is accessible to your undergraduate student population. As Dr. Lents pointed out, there are “many different kinds of institutions. Higher echelon places will have more money and more resources.” The higher the echelon, the higher the chance you can continue working with mice. Small colleges often do not have the resources of facilities to maintain a vivarium, so Dr. Marcello suggests to figure out in advance how much it would cost to run the experiments you want in the model organism you have access tomodel that you have access to. This has the added advantage of being prepared for interview questions about the feasibility of your research plan, which Dr. Marcello underscored was of tantamount importance.

Almost hand in hand with research is funding. NIH grants are available to undergraduate research programs. The NSF also awards equipment grants to these kinds of institutions. Though the competition is just as high, the pressure to obtain these grants is reduced as the university pays your salary- not grants. However, research costs are also reduced. Undergrads typical perform research on a volunteer or for-credit basis, and the university provides a small dollar amount for each student in the lab. For those cases when your expertise is in an area that really does rely on an innovative, and likely expensive, piece of technology, Dr. Ruiz said, “Collaborate! When you are applying, present your network as a strength and confirm that you can access facilities when you move to the new school. Maintain your ties.” Dr. Allen even said that at one of the institutions at which she interviews, collaboration with a larger university was expected.

A professional staff of scientists (including technicians, grad students, post-docs, and staff scientists), millions of dollars in funding, and the newest research tools are a few things that are not commonly found at small colleges. However, with a little bit of creativity, you may be surprised what your own innovation and the untapped ambition of an undergraduate student population can do to advance your research. As in the classroom, teaching and collaboration are at the heart of successful undergraduate projects. If you think that these two elements are inextricable, then a teaching and research position may be for you.



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