The Sliding Scale of Academia

When I start thinking about where I am going in the future – or when someone asks me the age-old question, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” – I hesitate to answer. My hesitation is well-warranted. It has been my experience that professors and adults alike enjoy providing you a label and tossing you into a predetermined box. It’s quite funny how quickly they change the way they interact with you. Honestly, I am not about that life. This could potentially close off some really important doors that I am still investigating. And, as it turns out, I am a growing human being with extreme amounts of passion; wild and wonderful amounts of passion. So I don’t need constraints. Thanks, but no thanks.

Secondly, I have learned that professors who have only been in research-style departments have no idea how to explain what is going on in other types of departments. Either that, or they don’t like telling the truth. And so I threw my thinking cap on and decided I would venture into the world and learn about these varying departments with my own eyes! Here is what I (as objectively as possible) saw and learned.

But wait … before we begin, let me explain how I view different departments. On one hand, we have departments that are heavily invested in teaching, but have little to no research component. On the other, we have departments which are all about the research, and where (while there may be a teaching component) your ability to teach is of secondary concern. All departments fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Now, let’s dive into some examples!

A small, private college  

I first visited the University of the Cumberlands. The math department consists of four faculty members and the university is largely focused on teaching. The professor I shadowed explained that when he arrived, the college told him, “Teaching is the number one part of your job. If you would like to do research, that is nice, and we would happily encourage that as long as it does not get in the way of your responsibilities as a teacher.” I believe the most telling part of all of this visit was the schedule and which day they wanted me to visit.

Here, the professor asked me to come on a day that consisted of teaching. I met him at 8am on the way to his first class. The class sizes were relatively small (under ten students) and the first class was student-led. The students presented proofs and the professor helped them correct or beef up their arguments. This was one of the first places students experience writing proofs at this university. The second class of the day was more teacher-focused, but still with intermittent class participation. After class, we went back to the professor’s office and he explained that he spends the rest of the day planning for things coming up on the horizon, and then heads home.

Since teaching is the main focus at this school, there is little to no research aspect. There is one professor (out of four) that attends the occasional conference, but beyond that they primarily focus on their students. Also, professors tend to teach the same classes every year with minor adjustments based on students’ needs. In general, the department is very flexible and listens to their students closely. If someone wishes to take a class that is not offered, the department tries their best to accommodate those wishes.

One thing that I learned over the course of these visits was that a 4:4 schedule is not conducive to research. I forget exactly where I heard this, but I learned that even if new faculty come in wanting to do research, a 4:4 teaching load makes this extremely difficult. Not to say they wouldn’t feel fulfilled – teaching is a highly rewarding profession, and if you find yourself in a department filled with respect and common goals, work can be quite delightful.

As close to center as possible?

Next, I was interested in finding a school that emphasized both teaching and research equally. After asking multiple people for input, it seemed to me that they best option would be Macalester College. So, off to St. Paul, Minnesota I went. In my pre-correspondence with the professor I shadowed, she expressed that it would be great if I could come over the course of two days. One more teaching-focused day, and one more research-focused. I ended participating in a multitude of activities – I observed several classes, watched the students practice their capstone presentations, sat in on a Skype research meeting, and observed an independent study in the professor’s office. To be honest, I didn’t know I was on a time change until the end of day two, when I needed to make it to the airport on time. So, you could say they kept me pretty busy! I will try to highlight the parts that I found most illuminating.

I must put a disclaimer here before continuing (as many people gave me the same when I said that I visited). Macalester is a top-tier private school, which means that to get a job there right out of graduate school is fairly uncommon. It is more natural to have gone through a post-doc before hand; more on that later.

All the courses I sat in on at Macalester had one thing in common – student engagement. In every class, there was a chunk of time where the students were working in groups and asking each other questions. The professors walked around and spoke with each group in order to clear up confusion and gain feedback on where the class should go next. Since the class sizes averaged about twenty students, this was a manageable task. Because the environment was very much about the students, when the professor was presenting new material, there was little hesitation by students to ask questions and be active learners.

The professor that I shadowed also had a strong research agenda. She Skyped with collaborators every week and was planning on speaking at several conferences in the near future. One thing that I learned was how important it is to respect your research time. Especially when you want to do right by your students, it is easy to let your research time be overtaken by teaching duties. As in mathematics, while teaching you always feel like you could be doing more. But unlike mathematics, the deadline to accomplish teaching goals has an almost immediate turnaround. As soon as a class is over, you might already be preparing for the next one, with a deadline of less than two days away! So, put research time in your schedule, tell others you are busy, shut your door, and enjoy your time with math.

Sitting in on the research meeting was quite eye-opening. The professor I shadowed was a junior faculty, and all the junior faculty participating in her collaboration decided to meet for an extra hour before their actual meeting. During this first hour, the conversation was not unlike the meetings that I have with my fellow graduate students. Their energy was high and curious. Each of the participants was shouting out questions and pointing to places that didn’t make sense. The group worked together in a quick and cohesive way to try and provide insight on the confusion, often reaching a point where the whole group stopped to ponder. After a quick bit of silence they vowed to look at things again before next week and moved on to the next question. As the first hour came to a close, the conversation was relieved of the high energy and they talked about upcoming conferences until the senior faculty joined.

In comparison, the second hour was much calmer. Each person took on their respective roles, and one by one they moved through the to-do list. During this meeting, they were making revisions to a paper that they submitted. They moved as one elegant research team all the way through the hour. At the end, they created new goals for the next week and finished by talking about upcoming conferences. It was nice to realize that what we do as graduate students is not so different to what professors do with collaborators.

Another important cultural aspect of Macalester was its community. The department fosters a supportive environment and believes in creating life-long learners, both within their students and their faculty. While walking around the hallways, the professor I shadowed would stop to talk to students and other professors from many departments. For example, when we went to lunch as a department, they provided thoughtful advice to a first-year professor. And, when professors would talk in the hallway, they shared tricks of the trade. Everyone respected each other and the experiences that they shared.

Postdoc – on your way to a research institute

We are now at the other end of the scale – research institutes. Since going this route typically involves getting a postdoc and since I already attend a research institute, I felt like it might be of more interest to shadow a postdoc. To do so, I shimmied my way over to Michigan State University. The postdoc I shadowed asked me to come on a day in which he had no teaching duties. We started the day in his office, where he explained the research project he is working on. This took about an hour and a half and he moved from explanation to working on the problem rather seamlessly. Then he paused, looked at the time and said, “I guess I should answer emails.” While answering emails another postdoc stopped by to say good morning. We spoke and I learned that doing a postdoc is not solidifying your life into a research path. Some postdocs begin to realize that they really like teaching and working more closely with students and the department is supportive of these ventures. They both expressed how they like the freedom to do math all day and have relatively desirable departmental responsibilities.

The plan for the day included research time, meeting with his advisor, attending departmental tea, and going to a seminar talk. As it turned out we really only went to tea and did research since the other activities were canceled. His advisor asked if he should come in, but the postdoc I shadowed explained that it wasn’t really necessary to meet. The research is more independent and really it is just to check in. It frequently happens that they cancel their meeting, especially when the weather is not the best. So, we ended up doing research all morning, going to lunch, research until tea, and then research after tea. During that time an undergraduate stopped by and had a conversation with the postdoc about a question he was thinking about. Later, the postdoc I shadowed explained that saw his role as being a mentor to the graduate and undergraduate students. We ended the day around six. He explained to me that as a postdoc it is easy to allow yourself to feel that you should be putting in many extra hours and working really hard because you are trying to build a research agenda, but it is really important to find a work-life balance. And while his postdoc experience began with long nights, he would not recommend it and really tries to respect his home life.

I am truly grateful for all of people that allowed me to shadow them for the day and to the departments for being so welcoming. I learned more than I could have expected both about the departments and also about what questions are important to me. I would say the message that was consistent about all of these visits was the importance in finding a department that is right for you and your style. Once you get there, identify your primary goal and responsibility and put your efforts towards achieving it. But, more importantly, identify your secondary goals and responsibilities and work hard to keep them in balance with your primary one. This will not only increase your ability to be a strong part of your community, but also create deep and lasting respect for your own time.




About Julianne Vega

I am entering my fifth and final year at the University of Kentucky, studying topological combinatorics. Prior to studying at UK, I was a middle school math teacher at a progressive, independent school in Alexandria, VA.
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