Why I’m leaving a Research I University for a Liberal Arts College

I knew at a pretty early stage in my life — my freshman year of college, to be exact — that I wanted to become a research mathematician.  I have degrees from fancy research universities and had visiting positions at fancy research facilities. I worked up the ladder from Assistant to Associate to Full Professor of Mathematics; mentored postdoctoral fellows and graduate students alike; and received NSF grants to conduct research with undergraduates.  And the one thing I’ve learned throughout it all:  I hate working at research universities, and its time for a career change.

A Researcher’s Life for Me

I never really taught any classes until I started a tenure-track position in the Midwest. I had done five years of various postdocs in order to establish my research program, but those five years were spent almost entirely doing research. Whenever I did teach, I taught advanced graduate-level courses (like algebraic number theory and class field theory). The handful of undergraduate courses were basically graduate-level courses (for example, I taught abstract algebra from Dummit and Foote).  I even told myself that I didn’t like teaching and that doing research was life.

Me as a Postdoc at Caltech (December 2003)

Working With Students Outside the Classroom

Even though I wasn’t teaching many undergraduate courses, I was spending a lot of time working with undergraduates. I was conducting research with highly motivated students as well as mentoring underrepresented minority students who were having a hard time adjusting to life at a Predominantly White Institution (PWI). I found working with these students refreshing and affirming: I myself was once such a highly motivated undergraduate who wanted to work with faculty, and I am an underrepresented minority who is still trying to adjust to life at a PWI. I could relate with the students, and I could also find inspiration in their success.

Me as Director of Caltech’s Freshman Summer Institute (August 2007)

When I accepted my first tenure-track position I was a little hesitant about finally taking on the role of “professor”. I had to formally worry about creating a syllabus, juggling multiple teaching assistants, acting as a course coordinator, and trying not to screw up too badly. My classes were still pretty advanced — linear algebra and differential equations — but I was teaching undergraduate-level courses.  I found it wasn’t that bad.  And that I was actually pretty good at it.  And that I even enjoyed it.

But are Research I’s Right for Me?

I eventually moved up the ladder at my Midwest Research I University.  I was granted tenure in 2010, graduated my first graduate students in 2014 and 2015, and had advised two postdoctoral scholars over the years.  I even made Full just earlier this year (as evidenced by my promotion letter here).

Jamie Weigandt’s Thesis Defense (June 2015)

But after 10 years in this role, I began to realize some issues which I found disturbing.  I began to wonder: “Is being at a Research I University really for me?

Issue #1: We view having to teach as punishment

In my last year working for my current university, I have had several opportunities to use course buyouts so that my teaching load would be reduced. I told a few colleagues that I turned down these buyouts (i.e. using money from a grant to pay salary instead of teaching classes) because I wanted to experience student interaction as much as I could in my last year. These colleagues first gave me a wry look, and then caught themselves before they asked “well why would you do something like that?”  I could see the realization in their eyes of this contradiction. We work as professors at institutions where we are paid to interact with students, but we revel in the idea of having course reductions so that we can teach less.

Me Teaching Differential Equations (MA 30300) to 100+ Undergraduates

I would be naive if I didn’t recognize the drudgeries of teaching — grading, writing lecture notes, grading, holding endless office hours, grading, dealing with whiny students who just want a few more points, and grading. But there is power in exposing another human of a concept that builds on humankind’s collective knowledge — generations of people have built on other generations’ collective knowledge, and the hope is that the generations after us will continue in this fashion. We may get bored teaching calculus but we should take pride in the fact that fifteen generations ago calculus didn’t even exist!

Issue #2: There is Rampant Social Isolation

Unfortunately mathematics, like much of higher education, encourages isolation. It is true that mathematicians collaborate more than ever (here is an old SIAM survey analyzing the trend) but most of our training in graduate school involved many hours alone, writing a dissertation or solving a difficult problem. And usually to get a tenure-track position at a Research I we have to hop from one postdoctoral position to another, making it very difficult to establish friendships or any other roots. This means by the time we reach our mid 30’s many of us are used to spending many years alone — or at best isolated with a spouse and budding family.

Imagine now a department full of perhaps 100 faculty who have gone through similar experiences — and then trying to convince them to be social with each other.  As the old joke goes: The difference between an introvert and extrovert mathematician is: An introvert mathematician looks at his shoes while talking to you. An extrovert mathematician looks at your shoes.

Fortunately, many Liberal Arts Colleges have much smaller departments, and it is expected that it’s members will be somewhat social with each other. It shouldn’t be a surprise that most of my mathematical friends are faculty at Liberal Arts Colleges (here’s looking at you Dagan Karp, Dave Kung, Adriana Salerno, Francis Su, and Talithia Williams).

Dave Kung and I at Purdue (March 2017)

Issue #3: I’m Really Tired of Being the Only One

I am an African American male.  I have been the only one in most of the universities I’m been to — the only student or faculty in the mathematics department. In fact for a while at my current Research I University, I was only one of two African American faculty in the entire College of Science — which houses seven departments for 300 faculty and staff serving nearly 3,000 students.

Allow me to put this into perspective.  African Americans make up roughly 12% of the general population.  This means on average one out of every eight people you pass on the street will be African American.  In my College of Science, that average drops to one out of every 100 faculty you meet on our campus.  To say that I feel isolated is an understatement.

I have been willing to work with my university on bringing more underrepresented minority faculty to visit campus to give talks (especially through my speaker series in 2011, 2012, and 2013) and bringing more underrepresented minority students to conduct research (especially through my REU).  But it gets very tiring.  Very Tiring.  Especially when you’re still trying to work with your own postdocs, graduate students, and research projects.

Talithia Williams and I for the College of Science Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration (January 2016)

Are Research I’s Right for You?

Most of us receive our advanced degree in mathematics from large Research I Universities. But how do you know if pursuing a career at a Research I University is right for you? Here are some questions to ask yourself.

Question #1: Do you like spending time with undergraduate students outside the classroom?

If you work at a Research I, you can have a perfectly successful career working on your own research and collaborating with other faculty in your department — and only have minimal interaction with undergraduate students. If you work at a Liberal Arts College, you will probably spend many hours interacting with undergraduates about mathematics as well as other issues not related to mathematics. However, if you work as a Research I University you will have the opportunity to interact with graduate students in the same way, something which you won’t have the opportunity to do at a Liberal Arts College.

Question #2: How important is it that you like your colleagues?

Larger departments have a tendency to be less social; they even have fewer departmental meetings since so much work is relegated to committees. Smaller departments interact a lot more because the share of work must be equally distributed amongst a handful of people. If you work at a Research I, you will most likely be in a department which is so large that you won’t know most of the people you work with. If you work at a Liberal Arts College, you will most likely be in a department which is so intimate that you’ll know too much about the people you work with.

Question #3: Are issues with regard to Diversity and Inclusion Important to you?

Most colleges and universities promote their faculty based on activity in three areas: Research, Teaching and Service. Research I Universities heavily weigh Research activity (almost to the exclusion of the other two) whereas Liberal Arts Colleges heavily weigh Teaching and Service. If you do care about issues which do not fall into Research or Teaching — such as serving as the advisor for a student chapter for the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) — your place of employment may not reward this type of Service when it comes time to promotion.

My Solution to these Issues

After nearly 20 years working at various Research I Universities and Research Institutions, I’ve come to the conclusion that the culture of working at these is just not for me.  Now, I still love to do mathematics research, but I’m much more than someone who just does research in isolation all day.  I enjoy working with graduate students and undergraduate students alike.  I like to mentor younger faculty on finding a path to meet their career goals.  And I like to socialize with underrepresented minorities.  I’ve found that the best solution for me to address the three issues I’ve outlined above is to switch to work at a Liberal Arts College.

I will leave Purdue University to begin work at Pomona College in 2018.  Here are just a few of the specific reasons why:

  • Teaching isn’t a punishment: Pomona has only 1,600 undergraduates, but more than 400 of them are mathematics majors.  This means students are excited about mathematics — and this is a culture I want to be a part of as well.
  • No more social isolation:  The current president of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), Ami Radunskaya, is on the faculty.  I am the current president of the National Association of Mathematicians (NAM).  Coincidence that we’ll be in the same department?  I think not.
  • I won’t be the only one: Pomona has a very diverse student body.  To quote about the Class of 2019: “For the first time, students of color make up the majority of the class at 51.4 percent. Of these students, 13.8 percent are Asian, 11.6 percent Black/African American, 18.3 percent Hispanic, 7.4 percent multiracial and less than 1 percent Native American.”  It comes as no surprise that Pomona’s new president is an African American woman, Gabi Starr.  I have found her comments on the recent events in Charlottesville to be more comforting than those of my current president.

Of course, all of this is a big experiment.  I haven’t started working at Pomona College yet.  But this is a new challenge I’m willing to meet, and a new chapter in my career I’m willing to embrace!

This entry was posted in cultural pressure in academia, intersectionality, mathematics experiences, retention. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Why I’m leaving a Research I University for a Liberal Arts College

  1. Aaron Bertram says:

    Yes, but what about the students in Calculus and Linear Algebra courses at Research I’s? There is increasing diversity in that group, and they need role models from among the faculty. I do not doubt that this is the right decision for you, but if everyone followed in your footsteps, those students would be much worse off. And there are so many of them!

  2. C. Diaz Eaton says:

    I love your perspective here. I am at a private SLAC. It is still a predominantly white/European faculty. We finally have a visiting faculty of color this year. Our students can either afford private school or really want a small student teacher ratio. However, the students that I want to reach are students that much more often choose/can afford public tuition. Choosing a private SLAC (especially a less selective one as ours) can mean choosing a much higher student debt load to graduation, and so I often feel at conflict in my career advice to these students who tend to pursue low paying service careers.

    In fact, the teaching and service load is so high, that I do try to offset teaching with grants so that I have some time to pursue some of my own research interests. Lately, therefore, I have questioned whether I’m in the right place to serve those that I want to serve, despite the collaborative interdisciplinary environment that I love.

    Perhaps this is just part of the 7 year itch. I submitted my portfolio for full and may get a letter one way or another this year, like you. However, any thoughts about the counterargument?

    • Prosandcons says:

      I would have to agree there are definitely quite a few things to consider when moving to a smaller school. Pomona is a special place, I think. At least from the colleagues that I have come to know there. I too have a heavy teaching load which I didn’t mind when I chose a position at my institution but what I didn’t know was that I would be working with so many colleagues whose approach to teaching is fueled by being more concerned with the numbers of students that need to be served rather than being innovative in the classroom. I’ve had to seek the discussions that I crave about teaching strategies and even working with undergrads in the research lab from outside my university largely. I’ve written and been awarded multiple grants to buy some of my time and have also paid for the training of a teaching post-doc. While it moved my career forward, the end result were colleagues in my school deciding that I wasn’t like them and that I was a research snob. I was literally called that by a colleague, who currently holds a university leadership position. What I’ve come to realize is that no place is perfect but where I want to be is a place that understands and models the teacher-scholar model. Not at a place that solely focuses on numbers of students in chairs. All SLACs are not the same.

  3. Kate says:

    Great points! And a great story of following your passion and doing good for self and students. Will the next article be, “why I left an elite, private, liberal arts college to teach at a regional, public, liberal arts institution with professional studies” ?

  4. Joyati Debnath says:

    Well done, Edray! I am so proud of you!

  5. Christina Sormani says:

    I love working at a research university, loved completing my undergrad at a research university and going for my doctorate at a research university. I had wonderful teachers who were world class mathematicians (Nirenberg, Lax, Morawetz, Greenleaf, Cheeger, Lin and more). I do not see why there is this false perception that being a research mathematician at a top tier university does not include teaching and enjoying it. Those of us who are not at top research universities who have higher teaching loads and no graders do complain asking for lower loads to have the time, but not because teaching isn’t important to us. We are still teaching a hundred students or more a semester. We are also teaching doctoral students and postdocs. We are reaching and influencing more students than professors at liberal arts colleges. Those of us at commuter public universities reach a far more diverse student body than any dorm based campus can provide. So please, if you live teaching and you live research, don’t leave for a liberal arts college. Stay at the universities where hundreds of students a year can benefit from your teaching. And please give public universities a chance even if we are facing overwhelming budgetary shortfalls because the overwhelming majority of students attend public universities. They are our future.

  6. Karen Parfitt says:

    Looking forward to working with you at Pomona!

  7. Barbara says:

    Wonderful article, and refreshing viewpoint. I have stopped teaching undergraduates when I took my current appointment in 2002, and I sorely miss it.

    On a personal note, I wish one day everyone would recount that joke by saying “An introvert mathematician looks at their shoes while talking to you.”

  8. Chad Topaz says:

    Huge congratulations, Edray! Our LAC world is very lucky to have you!

  9. Eric says:

    We look forward to having you join us next year. You’re stepping into a strong and intellectually diverse department, and I hope you find being at Pomona a rewarding, fun and engaging experience!

  10. Eirini Poimenidou says:

    Well done Edray! Pomona is lucky to have you. You will also be closer to EDGE!

  11. Chelsea Walton says:

    A few comments about this piece and responses to it here and elsewhere—

    1. Please refrain from giving unsolicited advice to a seasoned underrepresented mathematician on what they should do with their career, even if this is done indirectly. “We need you here. We need you there. We need you everywhere.” does not help; in fact, this adds to the problem of underrepresented mathematicians battling burnout.

    The author, and others like him demographically, are not yours.

    But if you must say something, then I suggest saying “We need you happy with your job” as when one is happy in this profession, productivity and positive impact and influence occur naturally. This is precisely what the author has conveyed— choosing to have a happy and productive career despite what everyone else wants or expects of him.

    2. Please refrain from convoluting the author’s decision with your own personal choices or regrets. I also happen to be a US-born African-American, and I’m female. I was also “raised” in the R1 environment from my undergraduate training, to graduate training, to postdocs, and finally to my current and upcoming positions. I’ve done well and am really enjoying myself. But what does this have to do with the piece above? Absolutely nothing. The benefit of working in an R1 environment is an old discussion, so let’s try not derail the fresh perspective above with chat about matters that have been discussed thoroughly. Perhaps this piece does not pertain to you.

    Personally, I love this post. It’s honest. It’s brave. The author is sharing his experience with a decision that is not often condoned, let alone encouraged, namely, actively deciding to switch from an R1 institution to a Liberal Arts institution. Coupled with the factors arising from being underrepresented, I feel the author has a unique point of view on this matter, a view that I respect. I also appreciate his openness in discussing his experience in this public forum.

    Most importantly, Congratulations Edray! I look forward to seeing what’s to come!

  12. Courtney says:

    I really, really hope things work out for you. It seems that your career has gone tremendously well and that you are well-positioned to get exactly what you want out of it.

    As someone who has worked in SLACs for fifteen years, I have a very different impression of the environment than the one you describe here. I offer some observations because I think that the professoriate would do well to examine the hierarchy it has arranged, inherited, and propagated between R1s and SLACs.

    As most SLACs are PWI, a faculty can be extremely isolated since they are the only one in the department teaching in that field. This can be very tricky when one is teaching in areas addressing gender, race, class, sexuality, and disability. In addition to the social difficulties, come promotion time, one might well be called upon to fight to justify the relevance and rigor of one’s areas of research and teaching. Students’ displeasure with regard to those areas matter even more and are, arguably, more difficult to deal with since student evaluations matter more.

    That time on grants et al. is taken up with administrative work, advising, teaching, grading, and committee work. It is a huge fight to get to a moment to read anything that is not a student’s paper or assigned for class (and bear in mind, those readings have to be geared to undergraduates, so you aren’t necessarily reading the most complex and advanced work in the field).

    Also, the usual teaching load is 3/2. Pomona is lucky with a 2/2. Some places have a 4/4. It is very rare to be able to double up on classes, so those are all individual preps.

    Every faculty member in a department has to pitch in to design, revise, and maintain the curriculum. One teaches an equal number if not more intro courses than upper level. And there is often no single dedicated office assistant. And hardly ever any TAs or RAs. Those that there are have, as expected, minimal training in research and teaching, so that’s on us.

    We only get one semester sabbatical, sometimes at a reduced pay rate. I know quite a few people who were forbidden from taking the fellowships that they had earned at highly regarded institutions (Harvard, the American Antiquarian Society), because it didn’t coincide with their sabbatical schedule.

    Few SLACs have a dedicated composition department staffed with faculty, which means that in addition to or as part of those intro courses, one has to teach writing across the disciplines, which is nice in theory, but a lot of work.

    Lastly, those of who are at SLACs are not necessarily there because we love teaching so much and are shitty researchers. It’s a JOB! And those are few and far between. There was a dramatic shift on SLAC campuses when the job crunch first started, driving highly trained, highly capable researchers to campuses where one didn’t always need a PhD to teach. The old guard that never had to compete to publish an article or a book or present at a conference in order to get promoted, because the professoriate was much smaller, do not understand or appreciate the context of the current environment, assuming that if it was easy for them, it’s easy for us to get a manuscript placed with an academic press (and it’s worth noting that the presses are also contracting). But because they haven’t been compelled to compete, a provincialism can reign, one that misunderstands or punishes those of us who do try to publish in the best outlets and have seat at the table in conferences, fellowships, etc. And the R1s propagate this notion that SLAC faculty aren’t real scholars without even reading our work, leading to a hierarchy of scholarship that has nothing to do with merit, but is entirely about locational prejudice.

    We have a lot of work to do in academia in addressing inequities (I don’t mention adjunct labor but that, too, is an important part of the issue). I appreciate your opening up the discussion.

  13. Layton Olson says:

    Although hate to lose you from the Midwest, would be interested to learn more about how you share online courses (at research university or liberal arts place), with opportunities for viewing by cross sections of the population in high school, community college and public libraries in Learning Centers in all 43,000 zips and 2,000 community college size (Innovation and Skill Cluster) areas of 100,000 to 200, 000 in 56 US states and territories. Boiling down math and information decision sciences, and natural process modeling, including graphics management, for Khan Academy style stuff that might go out via ACT and College Board networks for inclusion. As a graduate of Pomona College way back in 1964, I look forward to seeing math team projects by students perhaps shared with alumni, and with full Pomona Valley community (including community colleges and Cal Poly Pomona as smaller version of Purdue where my cousin went) as a Learning (Watershed and Economic Development) Community. Plenty to do.

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