Research at non-research schools – My story (II)

Based on my experience, what would be my advice to anyone considering a tenure-track faculty appointment in a science department at a non-research institution, such as a 4-yr college, if that person had some ambition to establish a respectable research program, one that can be called “successful” by some accepted standards ?

Let me immediately cut to the chase — the take home message of my post is: yes, it can be done. No, in all likelihood it will not be the same research program that one may have established at a R1 institution. Its scope, aim and breadth will not be as far-reaching, but that need not mean that interesting science can not be pursued, leading to non-trivial new results. In many respects, doing research at an undergraduate institution, or in any case at one whose primary focus is not research, is like being an underdog at some sport competition — one has nothing to lose. That means, among other things, that there is little or no institutional pressure to accomplish anything remarkable [0]; on the other hand, if something remarkable is accomplished in spite of the institutional limitations, that is a reason to be proud of oneself.
However, the unquestionable hurdles that one faces, when trying to run a research program at a liberal arts college (LAC — why SLAC ? Why does it have to be small ?), or more generally at a non-research institution (NRI), can cause major frustration, if one walks into such a setting with unrealistic expectations, i.e., believing that magically the place can start operating like a big time research powerhouse, just because (s)he has joined it.

These are my observations, in random order, based on my five years at San Diego State University (SDSU):

1. It is your research, dammit
Precisely because expectations are different from those at a R1 institution, not only in terms of scholarly achievement but also funding, you have the freedom of picking just about any research topic that suits you.
Nobody will ever come and tell you, for example, that the area of research in which you are engaged is “not where the money is, these days”, that you are competing against researchers at more prestigious places and simply have no chance of being recognized and/or funded, that you should seriously consider switching to a “less hot”, “perhaps less on the cutting edge” (read: boring) research subject, where competition for resources is less stiff. Nobody will ever suggest to you that you ought possibly join forces with other members of your department, in order to contribute to an existing effort, rather than risking branching out on your own. One of the worst nightmares of any tenure-track assistant professor at a R1 institution is to go up for tenure with a weak funding record, and the likelihood of being funded does influence one’s choice of research subjects.
Not so at a NRI. As long as your research effort leads to a reasonable number of publications (I say one a year is already good enough) on respectable journals (for example, Physical Review B, for a condensed matter physicist), and can involve undergraduate students (or Master’s students if there is a graduate program leading to a Master’s degree), you are doing what the institution expects of you. If on top of that some funding arrives, so much the better, but the pressure to obtain it is far less than at a R1.
Honestly, I do not think I would have continued doing research on my favourite subject as an assistant professor tracking tenure at a R1. For, despite its unquestionable fundamental importance, as a research subject it is simply regarded as “not fundable”, hence the paucity of researchers actively pursuing it these days.

2. Obtaining funding is impossible… or, is it ?
Things are actually not that bad, considering that a) the amount of funding that one necessitates is significantly less than at R1 school, as little support is needed for students (only Summer support for undergraduate students and typically one to two years for Master’s students), and b) funding agencies such as, for example, the National Science Foundation (NSF), or the Research Corporation do have specific programs earmarked for research and undergraduate institutions. Competition for those awards is not as fierce, given the relatively small fraction of active researchers who operate from within mostly undergraduate institutions.
I was funded by the NSF (Division of Material Research) as well as by the Petroleum Research Fund of the American Chemical Society during my five years at SDSU, for a total averaging approximately 45k/year. The type of research that I do being mostly theoretical/computational, this was actually plenty of money.

3. Yes, there will be a library…
Of course you will have internet access (yes, believe it or not I was asked if I did), of course there will have computers. If they have hired you to set up a lab, of course there will be technicians, of course they will provide equipment — maybe not the latest and the greatest, but those who made the decision of hiring you are not clueless. If they wish you to carry out a research program in your area of interest, they are prepared to support it to a reasonable degree (no, not as they would at a R1 school, but then again you will not be evaluated as you would be at a R1 place either [0]).

4. Yeah but… I really need a super duper lab !
If your subject of research really requires expensive equipment or facilities not accessible to you because you operate from within a NRI, are you out of luck ?
Not really. It is a simple fact that research is becoming more and more expensive for everyone, these days, and some projects can only be carried out at major facilities that are not connected to individual universities (e.g., national laboratories). In physics, this applies not only to areas such as high energy, where very little can be done in-house, but even condensed matter physics. Anyone involved in neutron scattering experiments, for instance, will be inevitably spending a significant fraction of his/her research time where the beam is.
This is why a lot of the current experimental research is collaborative in character, nowadays. So, you need to establish and maintain collaborations with researchers who have access to those facilities and equipment.
Now, why would those people accept you as part of the collaboration ? What can you give them in return ?
Well, you are a good scientist with interesting ideas, work hard (especially during Summer), and when you go and visit your collaborators at high-power research institutions you bring with you bright undergraduate students who will be applying for graduate school soon. It is a valuable educational experience for the students, and for the institution that hosts them an opportunity to lure them into the graduate program.
The key, for someone operating at a NRI, is to develop a specific technical skill, expertise, perhaps in some niche specialized area, in which students can be trained at the NRI but that can be of interest to other groups, elsewhere.

So… what are the problems ?
Mainly four, in my opinion:

P1. Most people around you do not “think research”
This includes the majority of your colleagues, whose last published scholarly paper might date back to their time in graduate school, as well as your department Chair, Dean and Provost. They will likely go ho-hum on you, the day you enthusiastically tell them that your paper was accepted in Physical Review Letters, or that you were awarded a competitive research grant, or invited to give a talk to some important conference [1]. So, if you are looking for people who will encourage, support and compliment you along the way, as well as reward you for your research accomplishments, you will have to keep in close contact with colleagues, collaborators and mentors at other (research-oriented) universities.
Moreover, things that you may have scientifically grown up taking for granted, such as seminars, colloquia, distinguished visitors — you will likely see none of that at your place of work — most of your colleagues simply do not care about any of that. They would much rather go home, after taking care of their classes and office hours. This means that you will have to make a habit for yourself of driving regularly to the closest research university, if you wish to listen to a science seminar.
It is no accident that I am listing this as the number one problem, because I do believe that in the long run it is the most difficult thing with which to live, research-wise. It has a huge, downing effect on one’s initial enthusiasm.

P2. Graduate students and postdocs
They are not there. Simple as that. And they are what makes this profession fun. It is very difficult to keep oneself motivated to carry on with research, without the stimulus provided by junior colleagues. Doctoral students are not there by definition — while it is possible to do surprising work with Master’s students as well, they are there for a short time only. By the time the fun starts, they are ready to move on. In principle one could hire postdocs, but in practice it is extremely difficult to attract one at a NRI.

P3. You won’t take me seriously, will you ?
I have written about it so many times that I am beginning to bore my own self. The scholarly environment in America is awfully stratified. A lot of the time people will stop at where you got your PhD and/or where you are working at, in order to decide whether or not you are worth listening to. This includes journal editors and program directors.
If you are based at a NRI, you cannot possibly be doing serious research, and if you claim you are, you are probably delusional. I can see it for myself, it is much less of a struggle to get papers accepted, or to receive speaking invitations these days, than it was when I was at SDSU. In general, the level of scrutiny to which my work was subjected back then is much higher than now. It is a sad state of affairs, but, alas, it can’t be changed (or at least it won’t change any time soon).
Now, having acknowledged that it is a problem, is this such a big deal ? Not really. P2 is really what did it for me. I was not at SDSU long enough to experience P1, but I could see its effect on senior colleagues.

P4. Teaching load
This can be quite high. I rarely taught less than two courses per term, and did teach three during some terms — that leaves very little time for research. My family situation was that my wife was in graduate school, and that meant for her taking long classes at night. That still left me time to do research, mostly at night, but clearly a high teaching load is a problem, if one wants to run a lab.
Funding can help one reduce somewhat the teaching load, as the institution signing off on your grant proposal commits to giving you some teaching relief.
Clearly, however, if one hates teaching a liberal arts college or a mainly teaching institution is not the place to be… I know, it is just an example of the profound type of statements that can be found on my blog — that is what keeps you, my faithful reader, hooked.

Notes

[0] This is worth restating, given the confusion that ostensibly exists among many graduate students and postdocs on this subject. You would think that this would be obvious, but, standards for promotion and tenure at a liberal arts college, or at any non-research institution, are different (often vastly so) from those at a R1. Greater emphasis is placed on teaching than on research, and even the research activity that one carries out is evaluated differently — for example, significant attention is usually paid to its educational component.

[1] Not all of them. Some of them, the ones who have managed to stay active in research or who were at some point in the past, will understand and appreciate the significance of your accomplishments. On the other hand, some of these people will actually resent you, because of your success in research, and may well turn out to be your worst enemies. In particular, watch out for the ones who slip in comments such as “Well, I just hope this does not distract you from your teaching”, or “Hey, if you can manage to have your teaching load reduced because of this, good for you — me, I am here to teach.”

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6 Responses to “Research at non-research schools – My story (II)”

  1. Cherish Says:

    Here’s a question for you: what about lower level research institutions? It seems (from the perspective of the uninitiated) that they would have many of the benefits of a NRI but not have as many drawbacks. Of course, depending on the place, they may also have significantly higher expectations for publications, which I imagine would be rather stressful to a person who is not yet tenured.

    • Massimo Says:

      Cherish, my impression is actually the opposite, and that is one of the reasons I elected to go to SDSU instead. My sense back then was that, at a second-tier research school, the struggle to attract the fewer and fewer physics majors or graduate students, the need to step up the level of the operations and improve the standing of the school, the relentless search for funding to support research, would actually lead to greater pressure on a tenure-track faculty. My impression was that one would be evaluated at tenure time based on how significantly the person had contributed to raising the visibility of the place, and that was something that was conveyed to me during the interview as well.

  2. Schlupp Says:

    “Why does it have to be small ?”

    I gather from my blog reading that the “S” is often meant to be “selective” instead of “small”. As in “we emphasize teaching, because our student are so important and not because research is expensive, and also, we need to emphasize the difference to the state undergraduate school a bit more, thank you very much, because we do not offer the type of education that just anyone can afford”.

    “If you are based at a NRI, you cannot possibly be doing serious research, and if you claim you are, you are probably delusional.”

    Obviously. Which is why those special NSF-money-fountains for NRIs are just so much wasted money that SHOULD go to real scientists. Or so I was informed.

    Thanks for the posts!

  3. Researcher Says:

    Excellent post! Massimo, do you know of any factors (in addition to obtaining VERY good results, of course :)) that, in your opinion, have helped you most to overcome P3, and would you please care to share this knowledge with the rest of us? Thanks in advance.

  4. transientreporter Says:

    In my experience as an SLAC prof is that colleagues generally fall into two camps – those who are so cynically delusional that they believe no real research can be done on campus, and those who are so idealistically delusional that they believe the sexiest, cutting-edge, expensive research can be done on campus. The only productive people are the ones who can tailor their work so that it can be done cheaply, sporadically, and with Master’s students. Impossible? Then you belong in the first camp. Banal? Then you belong in the second.

    Regarding your points:
    1) You have the freedom to choose your research projects – but you should limit it severely. IMHO, in my field at any rate, the trick is to find a niche technique and work it to death – especially by setting up collaborations with people off-campus.
    2) You’d be surprised at the number of small grants available – not only AREA grants, but little grants. $5k here, $10k there etc – chump-change to an R1 lab, but a lifeline for people like me.
    3, 4) Collaborations are key. And it doesn’t hurt to remind people at big schools that the NSF, for instance, has a – ahem – Broader Impacts section that they take rather seriously.

    Your problems:
    P1) True. But that’s why the internet – and blogging in particular – is so cool for those of us at SLACs. It connects us to a global university. I don’t think being a scientist at a small teaching university is as isolating as it used to be.
    P2) This is the real bottleneck – especially for labor-intensive, life sciences research. But that’s what you signed up for.
    P3) Fuck ‘em. Who cares what douchebags think? The key is doing the best science you can with what you’ve got. Just because you’ve got challenges that bigger universities don’t, does not mean you should be satisfied with sloppy work.
    P4) This is the real challenge. Finding TIME to do research. Finding TIME to write grants. As you mention, there is not necessarily any institutional push for you to do it. You may elicit resentment from people who think you’re just trying to weasel out of teaching. The path of least resistance is to teach and go home.

    Additionally – at least in my situation – they make plenty of allowances for a weak research record. But if you get consistently bad teaching evaluations, you will be denied tenure. They take it very seriously.

    BTW, I think second-tier research institutions are the worst of all possible worlds, not the best.

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