Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Teaching at a SLAC

I decided to go to grad school so that I could become a professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC) like the place where I spent my formative years (affectionately known here as Small Friendly College). As I have progressed through grad school, I have become less sure that this is what I want to do. There are a handful of conversations I've had that stand out and that sway me one way or another.

While Jon and I were traveling in Remote Foreign Country in the year before I started grad school, we had the great fortune to cross paths with one of my favorite college professors, my mentor who wrote my letters of recommendation. He mentioned to me that he was retiring. I was saddened to hear this news, but in the conversation that followed I could see he was truly burnt out from decades of teaching at SFC with all of the mentoring responsibilities that don't cease even when students graduate. The fact that he was great at his job created greater demand for him as an advisor and professor. As a student, I didn't realize the extent of professors' responsibilities or recognize how the closeness of student/faculty interactions at a small college could be draining. Do I want a job with so many face-time demands?

Fast forward 2 years. Herb and I were discussing mentor's upcoming retirement. Herb, who was the college roommate and thus personally knows my SFC mentor (see explanation here), remarked that he has no interest in retiring anytime soon. He attributes mentor's desire to retire early to the different professorial lifestyle and expectations at SLACs. More food for thought. Is being a SLAC professor potentially more exhausting than a professor at a big research university?

Another year goes by. I returned to SFC and had a great conversation with a friend who is teaching there this year. I was explaining my concerns about teaching at a place like SFC because I don't want to get burnt out like my mentor was. She, as a visiting assistant professor, now has an insider's perspective on departmental expectations. SFC has a fantastic tenure-track assistant professor who is teaching great classes, mentoring students, and doing great research with undergrads. She is also working her butt off, staying late, and everyone can see that. What is the department's response? You're doing awesome work, but we're concerned that your pace is unsustainable. We recommend that you work less and make time for your family and yourself in order to prevent yourself from burning out. This was refreshing to hear, and it really makes a lot of sense for a department to send this message to someone who they would very much like to keep around but are concerned will work themselves to a point of departure. Might I be so fortunate as to end up in a place like SFC where the department's advice to a fantastic tenue candidate is work less?

I haven't ruled out jobs at SLACs, but I'm also interested in jobs with conservation NGOs or maybe a government position. Maybe I could even cut it at a mid-sized research university with some grad students. I still don't know. Thankfully, I don't have to yet, but I do keep mulling over it because I do want to make sure I have adequately prepared myself for the job I want.

**Note: I just polished a post I wrote last month, and it was posted under last month's date so I'm including a link here for those of you who would otherwise miss it.


EcoGeoFemme said...

This is an argument in the SLAC/R1 debate that I hadn't heard before. Very interesting!

You've said before that you are a classic extrovert. Based on that, I can't see someone like you being happy long-term in a government lab or similar where you don't get to have lots of interactions with lots of different people. Maybe the demands at a SLAC that burn other out would actually be energizing for you?

Karina said...

EGF, do you mean the facetime/burnout argument?

I'm an extrovert in the sense that I tend to be energized from being around people, though I tend to be a little slow to warm up to people that I don't know. And there are definitely some situations that don't energize me. I think I would generally enjoy being a SLAC professor, but if it got to feeling like I was always 'on' then I think I'd get worn out (or if I had to work insane hours to keep up with everything).