Choosing an Academic Career: HBCU or PWI?

Last month, MiSciNet introduced Ask Dr. Clemmons, a monthly advice column for scientists and engineers in training who are seeking top-notch academic, career, and personal development advice. Please read the introductory column to see what the column is all about and then send me a question of your own!

Dear Dr. Clemmons,I am an African-American female, and I am currently completing my doctorate in toxicology at a majority institution. I am seriously considering teaching at a historically black college or university instead of at a majority institution. I am trying to come up with a list of pros and cons regarding this decision. Can you help?Future Faculty Member

Dear Future Faculty Member,

First, congratulations on reaching the point at which the end of your Ph.D. program is in sight! Many minority students never reach this goal, but you have clearly survived the Ph.D. process. Moreover, you're also taking the time to think hard about what you want to do next.

As far as the decision whether to teach at a majority institution (PWI or predominately white institution) or a historically black college or university (HBCU) goes, it is bound to be a very personal one; there's no one-size-fits-all answer.

One way to approach the decision is to define your long-range career goals and then think about how a job at either type of institution will advance those goals. In other words, I suggest that you work backward in making your decision. Talk with people who are currently professors at PWIs and HBCUs. Although you don't have to restrict your inquiries to toxicology faculty members, you should try to find tenured professors who know the ropes in academia and can guide you in the right direction. Ask these individuals how their careers have developed in light of the choices they made to take positions at one type of institution or the other. What are their regrets, if any? What would they do differently if they had the chance to do it over again? Is a decision made at this point in a career irrevocable, or is it possible to move from one type of institution to the other? Whom else might you talk with who can help you make this decision?

Please keep in mind that it is very important for you to solicit and receive candid responses to your questions. After all, the people you are talking with are helping you make a very important decision that could affect your quality of life for years to come.

I noticed that your question emphasized your interest in teaching rather than research. This is an important point and may help you reach a decision. Traditionally, the academic mission of HBCUs is centered on teaching, not research. On the other hand, PWIs run the gamut, and there is an abundance of teaching and research universities to choose from if you go the PWI route. Because you are completing your Ph.D. at a PWI, you probably have a good handle on what a professorship at a major-research university looks like. On the other hand, if you have indeed made up your mind that teaching is in your blood and are convinced that you would like to focus most of your time on this activity, then I urge you to consider the HBCU route. It may be more satisfying for you because you get to focus a bit more on the teaching aspect of the job as well as reap the other benefits inherent in being at an HBCU. Another possibility might be one of the many liberal arts colleges that espouse teaching as their primary mission; a teaching position at one of these schools could also meet your needs.

Recognizing that you may want the best of both worlds, with both teaching and research as priorities, you may want to consider teaching colleges with excellent track records in undergraduate research. There are some excellent HBCUs and PWIs in this category. Xavier University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, come to mind, although you should check out the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching for more information regarding each type of school.

The ability to mentor students is also an important aspect of becoming a professor, and I will assume that having the chance to mentor minority students is among the reasons you would list as "pros" for an HBCU position. At an HBCU, you get to surround yourself with students who will immediately identify with you and who will seek your guidance because they know that you were in their shoes not so long ago.

Giving back to your community is very important, but if mentoring is indeed a motivating factor for you, then, as a graduate of both an HBCU ( Spelman College) and a PWI ( Georgia Tech), I would argue that the minority students at PWIs need your help even more than those at HBCUs. In my opinion, there are two important reasons for this. The first is that minority students at PWIs need to have access to professors who look like they do. As you know, this is most often not the case. For example, if I had not attended Spelman, I would never have had a black female professor during my entire undergraduate and graduate educational experience! This is a travesty and must not continue. You may be able to do your part to help conquer this problem.

Teaching at an HBCU: Pros and Cons

  • Fulfillment of personal goals

  • High regard for teaching as a priority in general

  • Teaching primarily minority students

  • Possibly lower pay scales

  • Uncertainty of colleagues' interest in establishing rigorous research programs

  • Lower National Institutes of Health institutional funding levels

  • Smaller selection of schools

It is important that all students see diverse faculty members, which leads me to the second reason you might want to consider a PWI over an HBCU: Majority students need to see minority professors in their classrooms if they're going to develop healthy respect for minorities (and women!) as professors. This is especially important in the sciences. Unfortunately, when majority students are not exposed to minority professors, they are more likely to buy into the myth that we do not exist or that our skills are not up to par with everyone else's. Again, you may be able to help stop this cycle by pursuing a position at a PWI.

Although most professors would say they are not in academia for the money (and they would be right), for most people, income has to be a consideration when they're choosing a career path. This is especially true for minority students, who are often expected to contribute monetarily to their extended families. Minority students might also have high student loan debts from a self-financed education or simply a desire to achieve a better station in life than their parents were allowed to have. This may or may not be the case for you, but I am sure that compensation levels are also on your list of important considerations for employment.

Whatever the case, I think that your concerns about money, if you have any, are valid. It is unrealistic for academicians to be expected to live on bread alone, although I understand that this is the prevalent attitude. What I would like you to be able to do is to weigh any monetary considerations with your level of happiness. No amount of money is worth setting yourself up for misery, but this is exactly what some people do. Once in your chosen academic position, whether it is at an HBCU or a PWI, you should constantly reevaluate your happiness level in the job and compare this with your compensation level to see whether any adjustments are in order. Never forget that you always have the power to change your situation.

It is worth noting that in general salaries are higher at PWIs than at HBCUs. However, HBCUs are more frequently located in places that are less expensive to live in than are many of the cities and towns that host PWIs. Therefore, don't just consider dollar amounts but also where you would be spending those dollars. See the boxes above for a list of these and other pros and cons to consider when taking a position at any university.

Teaching at a PWI: Pros and Cons

  • High regard for teaching , but also for scientific research as a priority

  • Access to more classroom and laboratory resources

  • Mainstream colleagues with similar interests

  • Better pay scales

  • Higher National Institutes of Health institutional funding levels

  • Greater selection of schools

The bottom line is that only you can make this significant career decision. Write down a list of personal pros and cons for each position. With those thoughts (and the facts!) in front of you, follow your gut instinct and pick the career path that you feel would make you happiest in the long run. My last bit of advice for you is to keep in mind that life is too short for regrets, and you do not want to find yourself second-guessing your career decision at this important juncture in your life. So make your choice carefully!

Good luck to you!


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