Advice for junior faculty at a research university

May 25 2007 Published by under Academia, Rant, The Business of Astronomy

Chad just posted a bit of pre-tenure advice, including the very important advice to take all advice with a grain of salt. I would say that also applies to the rest of his advice, because I'm about to post contradictory advice. You should also take my advice with a grain of salt. Be aware that it comes from somebody who has been beaten into being very cynical about the system. On the other hand, you can learn from my mistakes.

My advice here is specifically for faculty at a research University, most specifically Vanderbilt. It's primarily for physics and astronomy (indeed, primarily the latter), but will apply to a lesser extent to anybody in the physical sciences. I would hope that the two new hires in astronomy at Vanderbilt will at least read and think about this, even if they decide thereafter that I'm full of it.

  1. Keep your eyes on the prize. Your goal as junior faculty is to get tenure. Your goal is not to do your job well. Of course, those two goals are not orthogonal... but neither are they parallel. Time spent improving how good a professor you are is time wasted if it does not also improve your tenure portfolio. This is extremely frustrating, because of course most of us have some sort of sense of personal pride and responsibility, and most of us care about being a professor. However, it's very important to keep your eyes on the prize, or you might get bitten. The most important aspect of this is:

  2. Don't waste time trying to be a good teacher. Research universities, even the ones that claim to care about that, don't really care about that. Vanderbilt cares about looking like it has good teaching, not about actually teaching well. Your teaching will be judged not by how much the students learned, or even any sort of imperfect assessment technique designed with that goal in mind. Your teaching "quality" will be judged by student evaluations. As such, your goal should be to maximize student evaluations with a minimum of effort. The student evaluations used by Vanderbilt don't, at least in the sciences, correlate terribly well with how much the students learned. If you have bad evaluations, then you are almost certainly a bad teacher. But you can get medium to good evaluations with a wide range of student learning outcomes.

    One corollary of this is that you should pay no attention to education researchers like Slater and Prather, and by no means attend the APS/AAS/AAPT junior faculty workshop. After you have tenure, then you can decide if you want to spend time on that kind of thing. All that paying attention to those guys and attending that workshop will do is fire you up with enthusiasm about teaching as an intellectual activity, it will inspire you to do a better job of actually imparting some lasting knowledge to your students, and it will get you excited about and interested in teaching. It will get excited about a whole bunch of stuff that is not in your interest. None of this will be rewarded when you are judged by your university. The single lesson that you need from that workshop I will tell you right now: when you are teaching, you need to tune your assessment to your course goals. If your course goals are for students to understand processes, but you test them on memorization of facts and equations, then what the students will learn is memorization of facts and equations. You are assessed by your student evaluations, so all you should be concerned with is your student evaluations.

    It is entirely possible to get good student evaluations by teaching an "active learning" course that uses all of the best practices and materials that have been coming out of physics and astronomy education research. However, there are ways to get good student evaluations that require less investment of time, and are less hazardous. A lot (though not all) have found that when they first start using "active learning" techniques, their student evaluations take a temporary dip. The consensus seems to be the reason is that you are challenging the student assumptions about what a science course is "supposed to" be. Perhaps this is worth it with advanced courses, but when you are teaching a non-majors course (which, honestly, at least half the students are taking for no reason other than to satisfy a requirement), it is much in your interest to avoid challenging those assumptions. Students come in expecting that in lecture, they will just need to passively listen and take notes. They expect that spending a lot of time rereading the book, memorizing terms and definitions, and memorizing equations and the occasional procedure for soling a problem, is everything that is needed to score perfectly in the class. Do not challenge this assumption, because it's not worth it. Teach a fact, definition, and problem method memorization class, because it is much easier and faster for you to do that than it is for you to teach a creative, up-to-date, better, active-learning sort of class. Make sure your lectures are informative, entertaining, and clear, and make sure you are very clear about what it is you are expecting the students to do. And, leave it at that. Extra time spent figuring out how to teach a better class while maintaining your student evaluations is time and energy wasted, time and energy better spent on other things.

    Or, really, not "better" spent, for I still am idealistic enough to think that we should be teaching as good of classes as possible, that we ought to be trying to help educate people about how science works. But, alas, that attitude isn't the attitude that is best rewarded at a research university. Remember to keep your eyes on the prize. You aren't judged on that stuff, you're judged on student evaluations, and your goal is not to do your job well, your goal is to get tenure. So while time and energy won't be "better" spent on things other than paying attention to current educational research, that time and energy will be spent much more in your interest.

  3. Obsess about getting funding. Obviously, I highlight this, because it has been my Achilles heel. However, I think it's something worth considering, for a couple of reasons. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, this is the thing that is least under your control. Making progress in your research and publishing is almost entirely under your control. Yes, there are vagaries of weather and telescope time, there are vagaries of the science not working out the way you thought it would, but hard work will lead to publications, and you can just do it. Your classes are under your control. Your funding.... Well, nearly everybody I've talked to about my situation has said something to the effect that NSF astronomy is so oversubscribed, that it's a crap shoot who gets the funding, etc. You can write a good proposal, but who is reading it is just as much (if not more) important than what you write.

    You can make sure everything else works, but this one you have to worry about. Obsess about it until you have it in the can. Some specific pieces of advice:

    • Universities like "continuous funding." Even if you get a three-year grant, keep submitting proposals until you have a second one. If you wait until your grant is one year from expiring, you may be facing that 1-in-5 chance (or worse) of getting an NSF grant, and will be facing a gap (that may never end) in your funding. Ideally, you have grants that overlap, and you have a grant that is active at the moment when you go forward for tenure.

    • Submit multiple grants each year. NSF astronomy has a call once a year. Make sure you're submitting at least three grants each year. One can be yours, and the others should be with Co-PIs, either from your institution or from other institutions.

    • If you're an observer, get a Co-PI from an institution that has guaranteed access to a large telescope. Without that, you are at a disadvantage in the eyes of many NSF astronomy panels. (Probably because those panels include people from places that have guaranteed access, and have argued that the limited funding resources are best spent when they go to the places that have the observing resources.)

    • Figure out who is best funded at your institution and in your subfield, and try to pick their brain as to how they do it. I can give you the name of the astronomer at Vanderbilt, but if you're there it's pretty obvious who it is.

    The second reason you need to obsess about getting funding is that it is the skill you were least selected for. True, you probably don't have a lot of teaching experience before starting your junior faculty job, but you have demonstrated an ability to communicate well. If your colloquium was an incomprehensible disaster, you wouldn't have been hired. Lean on those skills for teaching (once again, don't mess around with learning new "active learning" techniques), and lean on your research skills for publishing. You've already got both, and you were selected for that. You weren't selected for your ability to get funding. Given that this isn't something you've been trained to do, and given that funding is so amazingly tight in astronomy, and finally given that funding is an absolutely non-negotiable requirement for tenure at a research unviersity, you must, absolutely must, obsess about it.

  4. Don't worry too much about publishing. Do it, but don't worry about it. The fact is, you have already demonstrated that you're very good at getting research done and published. If you hadn't, you wouldn't be in this job. There are so many post-docs vying for the rare faculty position that the faculty of your institution wouldn't have hired you if you hadn't already demonstrated a good publication record. Keep doing what you're doing, make sure to get papers out. Do collaborate with other people, because then you will have your name on other papers and your publication list will get longer. If you must have a metric, in astronomy one first-author paper a year plus three or four other co-author papers a year should be just fine. A paper first-authored by one of your graduate students should be as good as a first-author paper for you. You can have fewer first author papers if they are highly cited, high-impact papers, but the total number (including co-authored) of papers shouldn't fall below the 3-per-year rate.

My biggest mistakes were caring too much about the teaching, putting a lot of energy and thought into how to teach better, and not obsessing enough about funding. A lot of the time I spent going to teaching workshops and thinking about how to improve either the form or the content of my classes should have been spent working on additional (ideally collaborative) funding proposals. I know I give good public outreach lectures, and as such I know I can give good "present the facts" class lectures. If I hadn't tried so hard to make the class better, if I hadn't challenged students to learn to understand the science in the introductory class instead of just to remember it, I would have fought less of an uphill battle in getting student evaluations (which, by the way, are just fine), and more importantly, I would have spent a lot less time on my classes. It was time wasted for me, clearly, since my tenure case is in the toilet for funding reasons.

The goal is not to be a good professor, the goal is to look like a good professor to those who will judge you. The goal is to get tenure.

Keep your eyes on the prize.

10 responses so far

  • Stephen says:

    May I suggest #5: Don't burn too many bridges.
    But seriously, I agree the system sucks.

  • Rob Knop says:

    May I suggest #5: Don't burn too many bridges.
    Yes. I am a sterling counter-example.... I'm so cynical about the system at this point that I think the best contribution left for me to make is not to contribute, but to warn others to be aware of the things the system tries not to admit about itself.
    -Rob

  • Rich says:

    Rob,
    As a former Vanderbilt undergrad (BS'00), I appreciate your critical take on Vandy and the broader academy. However, I think you're really going too far when you say that Vanderbilt and other research institutions don't care about teaching. You argument seems to be based on two points: "Vanderbilt doesn't care about teaching because (1) I'm a good teacher but I'm not going to get tenure, and (2) Vanderbilt measures teaching through flawed student evaluations."
    Neither of these points leads logically to your conclusion. By your own (repeated) admission, you're being denied tenure because you don't have funding. That isn't Vanderbilt's fault. It may be the funding agencies' fault, or it may be your fault. In either case, your only beef with Vanderbilt is that they don't value teaching enough to give you tenure anyway. That doesn't mean that they don't care about teaching-it just means that they don't balance teaching and research the way you wish they would.
    In fact, when I was a student at Vanderbilt, a physics professor was denied tenure. What I heard from several sources was that his poor teaching evaluations were the main cause. Granted, I was far-removed from the actual decision making, but this is at least potential evidence that Vanderbilt does factor teaching into tenure decisions. Ask your colleagues at the end of the hall--they know me and they'll know what I'm talking about.
    Your second point is that Vanderbilt, et al., rely too much on student evaluations. I agree. However, the use of a flawed method for evaluating teaching doesn't mean that Vanderbilt doesn't care about teaching. Anyway, regarding tenure, the purpose of Vanderbilt-style teaching evaluations isn't to provide the most accurate measure of teaching quality. Their purpose is to help identify rotten teaching, and I actually think they do a pretty good job of that.
    Apparently, you aren't a rotten teacher. Congratulations, you've surpassed the admittedly-low threshold that is necessary, but not sufficient, for tenure. You won't get tenure just because you're better-than-rotten. You won't even get tenure just because you may be great, so the fact that the student evaluations can't measure that is irrelevant. As a matter of fact, Vanderbilt does (or did) provide other ways to evaluate teaching, e.g., small group analyses. It won't help with tenure, but Vanderbilt does want good teachers and does provide resources to help them.
    I believe that Vanderbilt would love to have a perfect system for evaluating teaching-it just doesn't exist, and there are limited resources that constrain any potential alternatives. Could they do a better job? Probably--it still doesn't mean they don't care. But I'm honestly curious about this: at schools that supposedly care about teaching, how do they evaluate it? Is it significantly different from Vanderbilt? Is it significantly more effective?
    Finally, even if you're correct, and Vanderbilt is absolutely ambivalent about the quality of its teachers, there are still many good teachers at Vanderbilt! I worry that all of your criticism paints an inaccurate picture for impressionable prospective students who may read your blog. I've gone on to a Ph.D. program at a well-known school in Upstate New York, and for what it's worth, I believe that Vanderbilt's teachers did provide me with a quality physics education--comparable to my peers who come from schools of all sizes, from all over the world.

  • Rob Knop says:

    Rich -- what you say is right, student evaluations are good at identifying rotten teachers.
    But that's as far as it goes. The point of my post is not to talk about whether or not there are good teachers at Vanderbilt, but to point out what a junior faculty member needs to worry about to get tenure. Excellent teaching is not one of those things. All they have to do is pass the bar of minimum student evaluations. Beyond that, anything they do does not help their tenure case one whit.
    You can be vetoed for bad teaching, but good teaching above the veto level doesn't help your case.
    I think a lot of places don't care about teaching as much as they claim to. But there is a lot of work out there on even better ways to do student evaluations than the old, crusty form that Vanderbilt and so many other places use. If they really cared, they would do something. Tune your assessment to your goals. Vanderbilt has designed the system so that teachers need to get decent student evaluations. That does keep the worst teachers out, but doesn't really do anything to encourage teachers to think about how they can be teaching their class better. And, indeed, if you spend too much time on that, you are de facto punished for it.
    In either case, your only beef with Vanderbilt is that they don't value teaching enough to give you tenure anyway.
    This is wrong, by the way, and the way you phrase it suggests you entirely miss the point of my post. If I have a beef with Vanderbilt, it's that, like every other research University, tenure is the product of your accomplishments, not the sum. Too low in any one area, and your case is a non-started. For some areas-- like teaching-- perhaps this is appropriate. But the simple fact of funding dollars is pretty harsh given the current funding climate in astronomy.
    I appreciate that you're being defensive of Vanderbilt here. However, my intent is not to attack Vanderbilt per se, nor to say that they're all bad because they're not giving me tenure. My intent is to point out the reality of the situation, and the reality is that teaching is only valued so much, and the way in which it is valued means that there are certain things you should be doing to best optimize your effort for getting tenure.
    -Rob

  • Rich says:

    Rob, I never challenged the main point of your original post. As far as I can tell, your advice is sound. If there are junior faculty at any research university in the country who actually believe that they're going to get tenure for excellent teaching, then you've set them straight.
    I was challenging your statement that Vanderbilt and others don't care about teaching. That's a serious claim, whether or not it was your main point. We agree that it plays a minimal role in the tenure decision, but that's just not enough to justify what you're saying.
    In your reply, you make the milder statement that, "places don't care as much about teaching as they claim to." Put this way, I agree. However, it's just as true for many other things that universities claim to care about: student life, community relations, campus crime, etc. This doesn't mean that universities don't care about any of these things, or that they aren't serious about improving them, given their resources and their other priorities (and the other priorities are very complicated).
    I don't understand your reply to that particular quote. It seemed to me that you were trying to deduce how much Vanderbilt cared about teaching from how it was going to impact your tenure decision (or, rather, not impact it). I've gotten that impression from some of your earlier posts as well. Actually, I think you can deduce that to some degree--I just think you go too far.
    Since I have a thesis to write, I'll have to give you the last word. Don't worry; I'm leaving academia as soon as it's done.

  • Kapitano says:

    You've heard of Goodhart's Law? "When an indicator becomes a target, it ceases to indicate".
    Example: Schools measure success in teaching by exam results - so they gear their practice towards maximising exam results at the expense of actual teaching. Result: exam results no longer indicate success.
    Seems to relate to your second point.
    The term comes from the British economist Charles Goodhart, who wrote in 1975 that the government's attempts to control the economy by controlling inflation were doomed because they could only make inflation figures meaningless.

  • Dan Duerr says:

    Speaking as someone that's at a big research institution, but in a very different field, I get the "don't focus on teaching" advice frequently. I first heard it my first year of grad school, and have continued to hear it since, both from faculty and from other students on the market.
    As academia stands, research universities don't care about good teachers. It's exactly as Rob says--they want teachers that meet minimum requirements and then focus the rest of their resources on other priorities (for us it's publications, for Astronomy it sounds like grant money plays a significant role). Prestige is simply not measured in classroom performance.
    On a personal note, I think this really unfortunate. But it is the way that the game is played.

  • Rob Knop says:

    In astronomy, publications matter too -- but if you do good work and write it up, it *will* be published, pretty much. I have the impression that in the humanities, getting a publication accepted is a lot harder than it is in the sciences. Yes, things get turned down in the sciences, but only if they are flawed. If they are right (or at least as correct as one can tell given the information available-- we do of course turn over results over time!), and aren't completely rehashes of old stuff, they make it into a journal.
    -Rob

  • Gordon says:

    Rob -- what a bummer. I just landed on this page (I've read your blog before, but not for a while). This really sucks!
    I think your comments about the funding are spot on -- you really really have to have that. I'm at UW, another major research institution, and I've seen someone's case get delayed because of that. Fortunately they hit the jackpot the next year and went through just fine.
    I had a really interesting conversation... wait -- did I blog it? Yes: http://gordonwatts.wordpress.com/2006/10/18/science-funding-not-so-good/ - basically as some NIH and other forms of funding good people take more than 5 years to get funding. No idea where that will lead to in the future, but various research universities may have to adjust.
    Another thing about teaching. I did try active learning. I probably never did it as well as you. But the trick I did to keep time small was to teach the same course 3 years in a row. By the third year I was down to about 2 hours of prep time for a whole week. Then I could spend some time working on new stuff (like the active learning) without making the rest of my research program suffer. Not that this is helpful.
    And I often heard the same advice about teaching: "Be good enough, but don't spend the time it takes to be great." The other thing I found was that peer review and student evals (we have both) are often very different. One peer review focused closely on the fact that I dropped a vector sign from an eqn I was writing. Another thing I found was that some people are just naturals. I think they could come in and say nothing by 4-letter words for an hour and still get great ratings. The system is no perfect. Though I have also seen evidence that it is good at weeding out the really bad teachers.
    At any rate, this really sucks. I'm sorry it ended up this way for you!! And good luck!

  • Rob Knop says:

    One peer review focused closely on the fact that I dropped a vector sign from an eqn I was writing.
    Ugh.
    The key is to get competent peer review that really reviews your teaching.... I'm not sure that a really good system exists for efficiently evaluating teaching quality.
    -Rob