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

It was 1997, and I, like many other science postdocs, was looking for my first tenure-track position. I had been a postdoc for five years at that point, and the academic job market in physics did not look any better in those days than it does now. Contingency plans were in order for anyone in my position not living in a fantasy world. After much pondering, and lengthy discussions with my very supportive spouse, I came to the decision that that was going to be my last attempt — in case of failure, I would switch to a different career, possibly in finances, a sector which at that time seemed to absorb many wannabe physicists.

I really did not want to leave physics though. I had invested 16 years of my life between undergraduate and graduate school, as well as postdoctoral training. I really loved science, and therefore I felt that, while it had always been my aspiration to be working at a research university, even ending up at an institution mostly focusing on teaching (e.g., a four-year college), providing little support for faculty research, would still be preferable to embarking on a new professional path that would take me away from research and science [0]. I therefore sent many applications to such institutions, and in fact hoped that the teaching experience I had built as a postdoc would make my application stronger at those places.

I was lucky enough to land two offers, from two physics departments at very different institutions. One of them was a respectable second-tier research university, with a medium-size physics department with a full-fledge graduate program. The second was from the largest among the California State University campuses. California State University (CSU) is a very strange animal, in the American higher educational landscape. While nominally a teaching institution, it has some research ambition, and indeed in some of its campuses first class researchers can be found. For the most part, however, it operates as a teaching institution (I come back to this point below).

Well, that should have been a no-brainer, right ? After all, I wanted to be at a research university. Why would I choose to be working in a smaller department, at a place with no physics doctoral program (only a MS one), little or no institutional support for research, with a teaching load that would likely frustrate any attempt of mine of establishing a research program and where I might end up essentially isolated from the scientific community ? Why would I choose to be at a place where being taken seriously as a researcher, both by colleagues at research universities as well as by program directors would be in itself problematic ?
Well, for a number of reasons, some having little to do with science or my career.

True, the other offer was from a research university, but not a prominent one. I felt that, while expectations would be those of a research university, the funding that I would likely be able to attract, the doctoral students or postdocs whom I would get to supervise, the research projects that I would realistically manage to carry to fruition, would put me at a disadvantage vis-a-vis my competitors at comparable universities. At a non-research university expectations might be different, and that would mean less pressure on me [1].
Moreover, my wife had already had to leave two graduate programs, in order to follow me in my peregrinations, and was now rightfully reclaiming a chance to finish her own doctorate. As it turns out, the CSU institution that made me the offer had a program that would suit her perfectly, while the other did not. Obviously, it would be silly to deny that considerations of geographical appeal played a role into our decision as well. And finally, I was so relieved to have landed a job that would let me stay in physics, ending years of worries and lack of sleep, that I did not really care much about “research” versus “non-research”.

So, I took the job at CSU, and worked there for five years. It was a great experience, both from the professional and personal standpoint. Eventually I decided to leave, to move to my present research university [2]. I did manage to establish a reasonable research program at CSU — indeed, the fact that I landed myself a job at a research university testifies to that. Ironically, it was perhaps the very (relative) success of my research activity that made me desire more, that made me want to be at a research university with a doctoral program.
In all honesty, though, for all the undeniable limitations that CSU has for a scholar with research ambition, despite the clear difference in scope and magnitude between the research environment and facilities at my current and previous institutions, I do feel that I may well still be at CSU, had a doctoral program existed there.

There are undeniable, major challenges that anyone with research ambitions working at a non-research, or mostly teaching institution faces, and it would be silly to pretend that they do not exist. The scope and type of operation that one can run is generally not comparable to what one can do at a Research I university.
That is not to say, however, that one cannot establish a respectable, dignified research program, capable of generating interesting new science and providing great personal and professional satisfaction. The key is keeping expectations at an earthly level. Do not aim at the moon, for there are no rockets to get there — simply take advantage of the fact that there is a lot of science that can be done, not all of which requiring a 20-person group, funded at the multimillion dollar level.

In the next part of this post I shall describe what I regard as the most significant hurdles, based on my experience, as well as some (unexpected) advantages that one actually enjoys at a non-research university (yes, there are some) [3].

Notes

[0] Judging from the large number of applications for tenure-track faculty positions that many non-research physics departments received in those days from young scientists with impeccable research credentials, I think that I was not the only one feeling that way.

[1] I remember of my interview at the research university, several of the people to whom I talked suggesting that I might consider switching to a different field of research if I should get the offer, for mine may not grant me access to sufficient funding. The importance of collaborating with other faculty was stressed repeatedly, as joint research proposals would be more likely to succeed, and that meant that I would have to find a way to contribute to existing research efforts in areas other than mine.

[2] Yes, my wife did finish her doctorate.

[3] No, I did not negotiate essentially anything, nor did I use one offer to leverage a better deal from the other place. Salary and start-up package were almost identical (actually slightly better at CSU), but a direct comparison would be misleading for the reasons that I shall explain in the next part of this post.

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

  1. Schlupp Says:

    You “did manage to establish a reasonable research program at CSU” and I “somewhat like an occasional piece of chocolate”.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Thanks for this – I love hearing everyone’s career path stories. And I’m very glad that your wife got her doctorate!

    I’ve actually visited the campus of the university you didn’t go to – my cousin went there and took me to visit once. It’s a lovely little college town, but having also been to the city you ended up in, no contest. (From the person who chose location before anything else šŸ™‚ )

  3. transientreporter Says:

    The key is keeping expectations at an earthly level. Do not aim at the moon, for there are no rockets to get there..

    Just to reiterate your point, if you are applying to a teaching college, and you’ve been doing high-powered, fancy-schmancy research, you better spend some time coming up with a more reasonable research program that can be performed in more modest surroundings involving undergrads and Master’s students. The search committee will want to know what your plan is, and if it sounds implausible, they’ll kick your ass out of the interview room. Of course, it’s up to you to do some homework and figure out what constitutes “a reasonable research program.”

    I’m looking forward to the follow-up to this post.

  4. Steven Says:

    Doesn’t SDSU have a PhD program now?

    For awhile I’ve thought working at an institution like the MS-granting CSUs would be an ideal fit for me since I enjoy taking on smaller research projects which aren’t terribly important in the grand scheme of things but do provide useful nuggets of information. Projects that make ideal masters thesis. It’s great to hear you enjoyed your time at SDSU, I wish the CSUs were hiring now!

    cheers.

    • Massimo Says:

      Hi Steven, SDSU has some doctoral programs but not in physics, nor will it have one in the foreseeable future, I think. They are all joint programs, i.e., a doctoral partner institution must be found, as CSU cannot run independent doctoral programs, as established by the master plan of higher education for the state of California. University of California is the only state doctoral school.

  5. microbiologist xx Says:

    Really nice post. I’m probably about a third of the way through my post-doc and I am already starting to worry about what my job prospects will be like when I get out. (Actually, I think it’s fair to say I started worrying aboit this in grad school.) Ultimately, my goal is to get a TT position at a research university, but recently I’ve started looking into different avenues that will help bolster my teaching experience in the event that I find a good offer from a 4yr institution. I would much rather take on a job at a teaching university and have a lab primarily focused on undergraduate research than leave the field all together.

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