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Building a teaching profile while earning an experimental physics PhD

Posted by Melissa on November 20, 2008

In response to Arjendu’s post about the exceptional candidate pool for our tenure track search, the Incoherent Ponderer asks what are the criteria that make candidates exceptional at a small liberal arts college and how are candidates evaluated. Because this is my first faculty search, and because I haven’t been involved in the first pass reading of applications, I’m not going to answer that question in detail. The generic answer is that exceptional candidates are people who are passionate teachers and dedicated researchers, with the additional caveat that they are enthusiastic about involving undergraduates in their research projects, excited by the opportunity to be innovative in the classroom, and committed to participating in the broader college community.

One question brought up in the comments to the Incoherent Ponderer post is how does one prepare for a position at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). Though it is difficult for some faculty at R1 universities to appreciate this, a few students begin their graduate careers believing that their dream job is a faculty position at a SLAC. Often these individuals attended SLACs themselves. In many ways, knowing that a SLAC faculty position is your ultimate goal from the start of your graduate school career allows you to intentionally shape your trajectory so that you gain diverse and meaningful teaching experiences while simultaneously building a strong research profile. Trying to balance building your teaching profile while growing your research career is an early version of the same balancing act that will occur as a faculty member at a SLAC. You can’t neglect one dimension for the other.

As mentioned in the comments over at the Incoherent Ponderer, the situation that experimentalists face in trying to gain teaching experience is difficult for a number of reasons. Theory grad students spend much of their graduate career being funded by TA positions, whereas experimentalists get RAs early on. In addition, for an experimentalist, being physically present in the lab at all hours of the day and night is a necessity, and that tends to prohibit spending significant time in the classroom, even if one wants to ultimately teach.

Within these constraints, how can an experimental physics PhD student build a teaching profile for a SLAC position without compromising his or her research productivity? I don’t have answers, but I can share my experience. From Day 1 of graduate school I thought that I might want to become a faculty member at a SLAC, but I also enjoyed doing research, was funded by research fellowships for 5 of my 6 years of graduate school, and recognized that my primary commitment was to my advisor and my PhD project. Here are a few of my thoughts for those interested in preparing themselves for a SLAC career while in grad school…

1) Some universities have a Preparing Future Faculty program–a great option if your school has one! These programs vary from university to university, but the goal is to help students understand the varying expectations and experiences of faculty at different types of institutions (research university, liberal arts college, community or technical college) and to gain experience with a variety of pedagogical approaches for different types of classes. At the University of Minnesota, I took two semesters of PFF classes, one of which included an internship that allowed me to observe and guest teach at any institution in the region. Don’t postpone these classes too much because your advisor will likely want you to become ABD as soon as possible, and once you are ABD you usually can’t take courses.

2) If you have to TA for several semesters, request to TA a variety of courses, and if you are an experimentalist, consider TAing for an intermediate or advanced level lab course, if that is an option. I had a high energy experimentalist friend who was a TA for the advanced lab course and was able to bring a lot of those lab ideas to her SLAC as a new faculty member. The SLAC loved the innovation, and my friend got to teach labs with which she was familiar.

3) Try to get some experience where you have ownership of what you teach (beyond just teaching a recitation section), but without having to own an entire course. What do I mean? Well, I had the option to teach an upper level course as an adjunct at a local college. I thought this would be a great opportunity to gain teaching experience, but I was widely warned by faculty members that this would be a disaster for my progress in the lab. Knowing what I know now about the amount of time that must be invested to teach any course for the first time, I realize that these folks saved me from a serious slowdown in research productivity. What I did do, however, was to find an opportunity to teach small units (one week or so) within physics courses taught by others. I was completely responsible for designing these class sessions, writing a relevant exam questions, etc, but I was only immersed in this for brief spurts of time. The challenge is to find the appropriate faculty member to approach about this option.

4) Consider joining the AAPT. This is a group of people who are dedicated to improving physics teaching at all levels, and you can get a sense of what types of issues these people think about by belonging to the organization. Even better, try to attend an AAPT national meeting (those can be expensive so perhaps not the best option for a graduate student unless it is being held in your neighborhood) or for a cheaper alternative, attend a meeting of your local AAPT section.

5) If your university has an REU program, consider getting involved with this program or helping to oversee an undergraduate who works in your lab. This will help you understand the challenges and rewards of working with undergraduates on research and allow you to speak knowledgeably and realistically about how undergraduates can contribute to your research.

Of course, if one doesn’t have the research profile (publications, presentations, letters of recommendation) to complement the teaching profile, one won’t be a competitive candidate at a place like Carleton. It’s all about balance, and there is no single “right” way to do things. There are as many career paths as people. Unfortunately, for graduate students interested in a position at a liberal arts college, it can be tough to find any balance when one is working on an experimental physics PhD in the context of a research university where many faculty may not understand or value the faculty role at a liberal arts college.


2 Responses to “Building a teaching profile while earning an experimental physics PhD”

  1. dave said

    Good advice… I also got special permission from my department to adjunct at a nearby community college while I was still working on my thesis. Most programs won’t allow grad students to work outside of their assistantship, but my Chair made an exception because he and my advisor were aware that my eventual goal was SLAC teaching.

  2. asad said

    Can I just say that using the acronym “SLAC” is very confusing for physicists who think immediately of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

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