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Perspective: Preparing for a PUI Career

CREDIT: Frank Flack (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

I often talk to graduate students who are interested in learning more about my job as a professor of chemistry at a top-tier liberal arts college and about the best way to prepare for a job like mine. Many of them express frustration with graduate school experiences where teaching is discounted. They want to spend their careers in a place where teaching will be valued.

It's counterintuitive to some, but in my opinion the best preparation for a faculty position in science at an elite liberal arts college is a good, productive Ph.D. followed by a research postdoc.

I recall finishing my Ph.D. with a similar frustration. I hated the sense that graduate students were treated like mindless technicians. It bothered me that some faculty members felt that they were "not paid to teach" and didn't need to take teaching seriously. Not that this was the prevailing attitude: Many faculty members I knew enjoyed teaching and took their teaching obligations very seriously. But dismissiveness towards teaching was -- and still is -- all too common at institutions that emphasize research.

An elite liberal arts college can be a very good alternative to the research-intensive track. We have really bright students with the potential to be extraordinarily creative knowledge producers, and we definitely get paid to care about them. Most of us feel our institutions have a social mission. We believe that we can -- indeed, should -- invest time and energy in developing the potential of students who enter our institutions without the advantages that accrue to wealth and privilege. We value good teaching, but I'd say that the quality we value most in faculty members is the ability to create and sustain an environment in which students can learn and, more importantly, learn how to learn. Being able to do that is very different from the ability to deliver a polished lecture.

In my experience, most elite liberal arts colleges want to hire science faculty members who are irrepressibly curious, driven to ask questions, and have the technical skills needed to answer those questions. We teach more by example than by any other method. When we are excited by the search for knowledge, when we feel curious and confused and maybe a little bit ignorant, and when we work hard to get past that confusion and hold ourselves to high standards, our students learn to do those things, too. That is when we are at our best.

What is the best way to prepare for such work? It's not what you might have assumed. It is not, I think, by learning to lecture. It is, rather, to become the best scientist you can be. It's counterintuitive to some, but in my opinion the best preparation for a faculty position in science at an elite liberal arts college is a good, productive Ph.D. followed by a research postdoc. Some teaching experience -- and evidence of a commitment to teaching -- is a nice supplement.

Courtesy of Rachel Austin
Rachel Austin

Of course, a research postdoc isn't the only route to solidifying research skills and cultivating curiosity; I went directly from my Ph.D. to my current position. Still, I recommend strongly that anyone who wants to be on the science faculty at a top liberal arts college pursue the best research postdoc possible. My institution has not hired anyone lately, not even for a long-term temporary position, who didn't have a research postdoc.

At an institution like mine, the advantages of being an outstanding scientist go beyond the example you set for your students. In my experience, colleagues who are uncommitted scholars tend to burn out quickly and absorb themselves in the socially rewarding world of college service, which can push them further away from their students.

It is hard to understand this when you are young, but preparing to be a good faculty member means preparing yourself to sustain a career for 30 to 35 years. Liberal arts colleges generally don’t provide the intellectual stimulation that research universities -- with their steady stream of seminar speakers, graduate students, and postdocs -- generally do. A liberal arts college faculty member must be able to keep his or her own fire burning.

Sabbaticals help. Most liberal arts colleges have generous sabbatical programs. A faculty member is expected to use them, generally, to visit a research institution for a shot of research adrenalin. But sabbaticals aren't sufficient fuel for those who lack a deep curiosity and love for the practice of science, with all its frustrations and technical challenges. A professor who lacks these qualities rarely -- possibly never -- has the energy to sustain a career as a scholar much past tenure and ends up becoming a source of answers, as a teacher, and not of questions, as a scholar and scientific mentor.

There is an apparent irony in this message. On the one hand, my job allows me to focus intensively on my students. But on the other, the best way I can help them is by setting an example of what a scientist can be and do. Parochial preoccupations don't set a good example. In my view, one of the things that is so liberating about science is that it isn’t about me: It is about the world and what we can learn about it -- an outward, not inward, focus. I consider it my professional, ethical obligation to stay focused on doing creative and interesting science so that I can pass on to my students a knowledge of what science really is and what it means to practice it.

Rachel Narehood Austin is a professor of chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Her interest is in understanding the mechanisms of metalloenzymes, especially those important in the global cycling of elements. Currently she has research support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy. She was chair (with co-chair Ariel Anbar) of the 2010 Gordon Research Conference in Environmental Bioinorganic Chemistry. She is a member of the editorial board for the journal Metallomics. She is a past winner of her college's Kroepsch award for excellence in teaching.