In this episode of Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Kathleen Howard, a professor in physical chemistry at Swarthmore College; and Dr. Mark Bardgett, a professor of psychological science at Northern Kentucky University, share the day-to-day life of a professor at a primarily undergraduate institution, or PUI. They also discuss the joys and challenges of doing research in a PUI setting, and how to be a competitive applicant for a PUI faculty position.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on June 30, 2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Ming Lei. A Q&A session with webinar attendees followed Dr. Howard and Dr. Bardgett’s talk.
Recorded on June 30, 2020
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Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Ming Lei:
Good afternoon, and if some of you are on the West Coast or in Alaska or Hawaii, good morning. Welcome to today’s webinar. My name is Ming Lei. I am the Director of the Research Capacity Building Division at the NIGMS, and I will be your moderator for today’s webinar.
First of all, I hope that you all are staying safe, and more importantly, have managed to remain productive and positive. NIGMS developed this webinar series during this difficult time to provide our trainee community the opportunity to meet with and engage in conversations with leaders and role models. We have had more than a dozen of these webinars. They have been very popular; all very well-received.
So I want to let you know that all those webinars are recorded and posted on the NIGMS website. So if you have missed some of those previous webinars, please log on the NIGMS website to take a look. I’m sure you will enjoy them. The format of today’s webinar is that we will have brief presentations by our speakers, and after that, we have an extended Q&A session.
So with that, I would like to introduce our two fantastic speakers today, Dr. Kathleen Howard of Swarthmore College, and Dr. Mark Bardgett of Northern Kentucky University.
Dr. Howard is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Swarthmore College. She got her undergraduate degree from Princeton and earned a Ph.D. from Yale. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the Swarthmore faculty in 1997. Among her many remarkable achievements, she has mentored approximately 40 student researchers in her career, and a majority of the students went on to become Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and J.D.s. She has also been continuously funded by NIH and other agencies during these 20-plus years, and she has served as department chair three times.
Dr. Mark Bardgett is the Regents Professor of Psychology at Northern Kentucky University. He earned his undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees from University of Missouri at Saint Louis. He conducted his postdoctoral training at Washington University School of Medicine at Saint Louis and joined the faculty of Northern Kentucky University in 2000. He has mentored more than 20 students in their honor thesis research. He has been awarded multiple NIH grants, including IDeA INBRE award support, and this year he has received the Carol Swarts Milburn Outstanding Professor Award from Northern Kentucky University.
So now I will turn the virtual floor to Kathleen for the first presentation. Kathleen, please.
Dr. Kathleen Howard:
Thank you for that introduction and for the invitation to participate. I’d also really like to thank the NIGMS for this webinar series. It shows a commitment not just to great science but to great scientists by giving them ideas about what career might be a good fit for them and then helping them to thrive once they get into that position.
So primarily undergraduate institutions come in different flavors, and my charge today is to give you a taste for what it’s been like for me to be a faculty member at a small liberal arts college. So my plan is to first start off with telling you about Swarthmore College, where I work. And then I’m going to tell you about my department and how the Swarthmore model of a teacher scholar works and some things about our teaching load and the students that we serve. And then I’ve been asked also to say a little bit about what it’s like to run an undergraduate research lab.
And I’m going to finish up with some reflections on how to get a job at a liberal arts college. So Swarthmore College is a private residential college located about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia. It was founded in 1854 by Quakers and has been coeducational since the very beginning.
There’s about 400 students per class year, and we have about 200 faculty. It’s a very highly selective institution, and we get really fabulous students. The college actively recruits students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and because of a healthy endowment, over half the students receive financial aid.
There’s an interesting role that liberal arts colleges play in the scientific workforce. Only about less than 1 percent of all college graduates in the U.S. have gone to a liberal arts college, yet they account for about 20 percent of the Ph.D.s in physical and life sciences. Another thing to note is that among the great leaders in science today, quite a few of them have degrees from liberal arts colleges.
Just two examples from Swarthmore. The current Director of NIGMS, Jon Lorsch, is a Swarthmore grad. Also, the current Deputy Director of the CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat, is also a Swarthmore grad. I work in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, and the college, as well as my department, think of the faculty as teacher scholars.
And I very intentionally didn’t make a separate slide called “teaching” because the model is that our teaching informs our research and our research informs our teaching. And occasionally some of that is very deliberate. We might organize an advanced lab course where we do course-based research with the students, or perhaps an advanced seminar for our seniors that are primary literature-based, and sometimes that literature overlaps with a faculty’s research area. Other times, it’s just very organic, where things we learn in our teaching give us inspiration for our research and vice versa.
My department has 8 1/2 tenure lines. That half comes from somebody with a joint appointment in both chemistry and environmental studies. Our teaching load is five assignments per year. So how that translates for me is in the fall I teach a physical chemistry lecture and the two associated labs. In the spring, I teach two things. And that changes year to year, but it’s commonly a senior seminar in biophysical chemistry and either a lab section for biochemistry or a non-majors course that anybody can take.
One great thing that helps support us to be teacher scholars is every fourth year all Swarthmore faculty members are eligible for a full-time research sabbatical, where we can get into the lab and be like grad students. Our department has some wonderful support staff. We have four people whose primary job is to help us run the undergraduate teaching labs, making all of the materials and tuning up all the instruments. And whenever we teach a lab, there is always a professor there, an instructional staff person, as well as a student T.A.
We have a lot of instrumentation, and we have a full-time instrument specialist to help us maintain that instrumentation. We’re lucky that Swarthmore has some great institutional support. We get generous startup funds. There is yearly money to update the instrumentation in the department. There is conference travel money for faculty and students. And we have a grants office that encourages us and helps us apply for external funding.
So what kind of students does my department serve? We offer a major in chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical physics. And we also have a minor in chemistry. This year, class of 2020 had 20 graduates from our department. In addition to those majors and minors, we have a substantial service teaching role at the college. A lot of that is for premeds who take four semesters of chemistry, and also biology majors, physics majors, engineering majors who take chemistry as part of their major requirements.
So one statistic about that is about 25 percent of our graduates have taken at least one semester of chemistry before they graduate. Showing pictures of four members of the class of 2020 up on the screen. And I picked these because these students are great models of student scholars. All these four pictures were taken in a teaching lab, but they could just as well have been taken during their independent research time. All four of these students completed an undergraduate research thesis. All of them presented research at a conference. Two of them are already published co-authors. And out of the four of these, three of them are going to Ph.D. programs next year and one is going on to medical school.
Just to give you a little taste of what it’s like to run an undergraduate research lab, I thought what I have on the left would be a good way to illustrate it. This was the acknowledgement slide from an invited 50-minute seminar I gave at another school last year. The talk was focused on the work of Alice Herneisen (she’s highlighted in red). However, you might notice there’s a big long list of other undergraduates in addition to Alice, and that reflects the pace of work that we do.
So each undergraduate in my lab works for approximately 2 1/2 years. They are part time during the school year; they have a lot of other commitments. And during the summer, for 10 weeks, they’re pretty intensive. But that’s in contrast to a graduate lab where you have Ph.D. students working full time for at least five years and postdocs. So we can do great research and publish it, but we just take more time.
And how do we do great research? We have collaborators. A couple of them are listed on this slide. We have a long-term collaboration with the DeGrado group at UCSF. We do most of our spectroscopic data collection here at Swarthmore. We have instrumentation to do that, thanks to NIH and NSF. But we do take advantage of resources with high-level instrumentation, and that’s been a lot of fun. And finally, with support from the college, we get external funding. NIH has been very generous. We have NSF grants. In addition, University of Pennsylvania is only a 25-minute train ride from Swarthmore, and I’m an adjunct professor of biochemistry and biophysics at Penn, so I take the train over with my undergrads.
That’s where we collect our protein mass spec. My students and I go to seminars over there, and I’ve had the chance to be on a number of different Ph.D. committees and get to know the grad students there. My final slide. Just in case you were interested in applying for a liberal arts college position—they are a great place to work—I think the very first thing you need to think about is what balance of teaching and research you’re looking for. And then find an institution that provides infrastructure for achieving that balance.
A common pitfall is somebody who really should be or wants to be a professor at an R1 research university and then just applies to liberal arts colleges as a backup or safety school. That doesn’t work. Or somebody who is super committed to teaching but really being in the lab is not right for them. They don’t like doing hands-on research.
At a school like Swarthmore, we are in there all the time. There are not postdocs or grad students to train the undergrads, so we are hands on. When I tried to reflect on what it takes to get a job today, I looked at our three most recent hires at Swarthmore—Kathryn Riley, Daniela Fera, and Chris Graves—and if you want to get an idea of what sort of backgrounds they have and what sort of research programs they have, I really encourage you to look at their websites. They are phenomenal candidates and have brought a lot to Swarthmore. Some generalizations that were true for all three of these and other candidates is a good application starts with an outstanding cover letter.
And what makes that cover letter outstanding is that the candidate has done their research. They know what Swarthmore is about and why they’re a good fit. And they take the time to make an argument about why their research and their teaching is a good fit. And also know something about the values of the college and how they can contribute. Swarthmore has a big emphasis on civic responsibility and social justice, and you mention those sorts of things or other things you know about the college and how you can contribute is a big plus.
The research seminar is super important. We ask our candidates to give a 45-minute seminar to undergrads and faculty members where the faculty members aren’t in their field. And if the candidate can stay on time and keep everybody engaged, and it’s intelligible, that is huge. And when those seminars are pitched right, there are lots of great questions from the audience afterwards, and if the candidate can answer those questions well on their feet, that’s also a great indication that they’re going to be great in front of a class. When they speak to the faculty during the interview, we really look for people that can communicate clearly the significance, the scope, and the resources needed for their research program. Is it a good fit for an undergraduate institution in terms of time and the cost of their instrumentation?
We are particularly committed to looking for people who have been very research-productive in both their Ph.D. and their postdoc, and the reason for that is it’s challenging to run an undergraduate research lab at a place like Swarthmore, where the expectations for publications and grants are high. And if a person has been productive in their graduate work and postdoc, where the resources are high, we hope that they can translate it then to Swarthmore. But if they weren’t able to be productive and had problems in a situation where they had all the time and resources, that could indicate that they might struggle at a liberal arts college.
And finally, my last point perhaps should have been higher up, but it’s a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching and research. And I’m going to emphasize demonstrated, because you can’t just say, “I love to teach.” There has to be evidence that you took advantage of the teaching pedagogy workshops and all the things that your university had during your graduate and your postdoctoral work.
There are lots of those going on right now. And if you’ve taken advantage to teach where there are opportunities. And the other thing is, have you volunteered to supervise an undergraduate during your Ph.D. or your postdoc? Because if you’ve done that, that shows, first, interest in working with young students and also shows that you have some idea of what it’s like to work with a student who’s beginning and hasn’t had a research experience before. So that’s all I have for now, and I look forward to answering questions after Mark gives his presentation.
Thank you, Kathleen. Mark?
Dr. Mark Bardgett:
I just wanted to explain a little bit about what research is like at a comprehensive regional university.
The university I’m at is Northern Kentucky University. You can see it there in the foreground. If I were coming to you from my office, I’d be behind the tree there on the bottom left-hand corner in that building there. And if you see off in the distance, that’s downtown Cincinnati.
So again, I’m going to use the acronym NKU, is a comprehensive regional state university, so in terms of its scope it’s probably quite unlike Swarthmore, but I think a lot of what Dr. Howard just mentioned overlaps a lot with what I’m going to talk about as well.
The good part about being a state university is that you do get funding from the state. So the building down there on the left that’s red and black is a $97 million extension that we just opened a couple of years ago. The bad news is that you’re beholden to state budgetary issues, like pensions and possible cuts to salaries and so forth.
And being a regional state university means that we’re kind of in a geographical pocket, so to speak, of the state, so we come up with creative names in Kentucky like Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, Eastern Kentucky. There’s Morehead and Murray. As opposed to larger flagships like University of Kentucky and University of Louisville.
In terms of the faculty at NKU… And I guess the point I want to make here, before I forget, is that working with a number of different regional state universities, I feel like what I’m going to present here probably is a good template for what you might encounter at least at other Midwestern regional universities like my own, and probably extends out to the coast and so forth.
So in terms of the number of faculty we have, we have quite a few faculty at NKU. We have 560 full-time faculty, 504 part-time faculty. Of those full time, 63 percent are on the tenure track or tenured. So that means that the majority of our students are actually receiving instruction from nontenured faculty, and they’re receiving just as good instruction by those folks. But nonetheless, it’s a smaller pocket of faculty that are actually on tenure track here.
In my own department, psychological science, we have 14 tenured faculty members. We have four non-tenure track full-time faculty, and we have 12 part-time faculty. So a breadth of different roles there in terms of the faculty.
And then we have a fairly large institution compared to probably some liberal arts-type universities and colleges. We have 12,000 undergraduates, and since we’re a comprehensive university, we do have some graduate programs. For the most part, these are master’s programs. So for instance, in psychology we have a master’s in industrial/organizational psychology.
We do have a law school at NKU, which I’m proud to say one of my sons just graduated from there this past May. The undergraduates we have, the population we have is probably much different from Swarthmore. We have a 90 percent acceptance rate and those students who don’t get accepted can do developmental coursework in order to get into the university and be accepted there. About 20 percent of our students live on campus; 80 percent do not.
So in the background there behind some of those larger buildings are some of our dormitories. We have a growing on-campus population, but still pretty small compared to some other universities. And one of the challenges we have is that because we have typically commuter students, they tend to stick their toes in the water a little bit, is that our graduation rates are down around 44 percent in terms of six-year graduation rates.
So we have some students that may not be as committed to the college experience. But on the other hand, we have students that are incredibly committed to the college experience, and I’ll try to give you a sense of how committed they are as I go through this. I thought I’d take just a minute to give you my career path, because I think there are some tie-ins here to what you may be looking for as well. I started out as a graduate student at the University of Missouri Saint Louis. And the reason I bring that up is because UM Saint Louis, which probably isn’t considered now a regional comprehensive university, back when I went there kind of had that feel.
And so being at an institution like that reminds me a lot of where I’m at right now. And probably a lot of you, when you were an undergraduate, may have looked at a professor and said, “I want to be like that person. I want to have that job,” and so forth. And so I think I had that same impression when I was studying as an undergraduate at UM Saint Louis and later as a graduate student. So it gave me an appreciation for that approach to education and made me want to seek that out later on.
As a postdoc, I made the very long journey all the way 20 minutes across town in Saint Louis to Washington University. I started as an NIH postdoctoral trainee, so I’m assuming some of the folks that are watching are in that same boat or wear those same shoes. I did that for about three years, and then I was very fortunate that I received a development award from the NIH, a scientist development award, and I joined the research faulty at Washington University School of Medicine.
And so one of the things that I really tried to emphasize in my time there, both at Wash U and even at UM Saint Louis, was that I tried to teach classes. So at UM Saint Louis I started teaching Introduction to Psychology classes. At Washington University, even though my full-time job was to be a postdoc and also to be a research faculty, I carved out some time to teach a biopsychology course in the fall, a psychopharmacology course in the spring, so that helped me out in terms of did I like teaching? And at first it was a struggle, but then I figured it out.
And it also introduced me to a lot of undergraduates. So while I worked as a postdoctoral trainee and as research faculty, because I didn’t really have access to graduate students, I went down a different path and had access to undergraduates. So I have a picture of two of the awesome students that I had, of the many awesome students, I should say. One is Henry Yin, who is now a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Duke University. And Henry and I published a paper, Henry was the first author on it, back around 2000 or so.
And Pam Vanderzalm, who is now a developmental biologist, who works at a primarily undergraduate institution, John Carroll University in Cleveland. And Pam, again, does developmental biology, and we published a paper, as well, together. So I think that helped me out a lot in terms of setting me up to get my job at NKU. The grant experience I had at Wash University and the type of research that went on there opened my eyes to the many possibilities and many collaborations that I could engage in, in terms of research, and helped me carry that forward. I’ll talk about how I transferred this to a place like Northern. But it helped me realize I could set that shop up at Northern.
So what’s my day to day like at a place like NKU? As Dr. Howard says, teaching comes first. And in our neck of the woods, we focus a little bit more on teaching. But I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m so happy she mentioned that teaching and research go together. They work together, and I think really some of our best teachers at NKU are the folks that really engage in scholarship.
You can tell stories. It just makes it more real for the students, so I think that’s important. But nonetheless, in order to succeed at a place like NKU, you have to do well at teaching. You can get all the publications and all the grant money you can get, but really you need to be able to teach well to your students.
We have a four course per semester assignment, and that’s a pretty large load. But for the past 18 years—I’ve been there since 2000—I’ve been able to work on a 50 percent reassignment because of my grants, because of my publications, and because I can make the case that I can teach students just as well in the lab as I can in the classroom.
Because of my larger department, I am not sure in comparison to Dr. Howard, but I get to teach general courses every once in a while. I mainly teach specialty courses in neuroscience and neuroscience lab (that’s the picture that’s being shown here). And there’s a bigger push at these regional state universities to teach online, so I think you need to prepare yourself for that, if you’re interested in this type of faculty position.
Your research, obviously, must involve students. You can’t just go off to the lab and put your students behind. I need to keep students involved with my research, and I want to do that, so I don’t see that as an issue. Usually I have two to four students per semester. Those students stay in my lab for a couple of years or so. They come to me either by taking course credit, where they earn course credits for being in the research lab, or through an honors thesis.
One of the issues I have is because I have commuter students they are not going to be in the lab or be as accessible to the lab as maybe at a place like Swarthmore where they’re on campus a little bit more or live nearby. But it’s a manageable situation and certainly possible. There is some support internally at NKU, and certainly if I mention the word student, the student will learn something through this research experience, then the coffers open up.
If I say, “I just need this for my own research,” I will not get much money in that regard. I do have to apply, nonetheless, for internal support and external support to keep the lab going. The expectations on publications are probably a little bit lighter at NKU, but nonetheless, I’m expected to probably publish a publication a year, if not more. And especially for tenure-track folks.
We also have service commitments, advising commitments as well. So advising can be a big thing or a little thing. I’m fortunate that we have an advising center that does a lot of it, and my students are probably fortunate as well, because I am a terrible adviser. Not that I don’t like it, but I’m just not very good at it. I’m involved with committee work. So one thing I have here is a brochure for our neuroscience program. So I worked on a curriculum committee and then started developing my own neuroscience minor program, along with other faculty.
So these are the types of things that can bubble up out of your teaching and research. And then I also do some outreach. So back when I was at Wash U, I started doing something called Hands-On Neuroscience, going to local grade schools. I still do that to this day, and I get wonderful letters or cards from fourth-graders who I meet with who are going to be brilliant scientists someday. What’s research like at NKU?
Dr. Lei asked me to talk about the joys and challenges. I like to start off with the bad news first and then the good news after that. And this really isn’t bad news; I think challenge is the better word. At a place like NKU, certainly the course load is going to be difficult.
But again, if you can get some type of research support, you can show that you’re having a real impact on students in the lab, then your course load will be lightened as a consequence. Another thing is, again, working with commuter students who are really dedicated to being in the lab, but they also need to take care of families. They might have kids. They might have to work and so forth. And so I typically don’t have something like a weekly lab meeting.
I have to work with these guys when they’re on campus, and it seems to be manageable in that regard. Some of the students that come into the lab or that want to be in the lab might be somewhat less prepared. But for the most part, I would say our best students at NKU—and Dr. Howard, don’t take this personally—are probably as good as the best students at Swarthmore or back at Wash U and so forth. They’re dedicated, they’re smart. They may not have the test scores that you see in other institutions, but they are doggedly determined. They are very knowledgeable about their coursework and so forth. And so those are some challenges to deal with, but again, it’s certainly manageable and I find it easy to work with.
The type of research you’re going to do at a place like NKU is probably on a smaller scale than what you would have at, say, a Washington University or Harvard, Stanford, and so forth. And being from a regional state university might not get you the respect that you want. So when I apply to private organizations for grants, I have to make a pretty clear statement that NKU has a strong infrastructure, just as strong as University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Stanford, and so forth, because I’m still competing against those folks.
In terms of losing connections, it’s just that I’m isolated a little bit at NKU, but I try to reach out in terms of collaborations. I’ll talk about that in terms of the joys. So the biggest joy, and this joy outweighs all the minuses up on the top there, is that I get to see myself in these students who are coming from backgrounds a little bit like mine or even more divergent than that. And I’m providing them with opportunities to discover things in the lab, to engage in research experiences that they probably would not have an opportunity to do, and then to go on to bigger and brighter careers in biomedical science.
Not all of them get Ph.D.s, not all of them have letters after their names when they’re done, going beyond grad school, but nonetheless they’re very successful. I’ve just picked out four students here that have gone on to faculty positions just as an example. So for instance, Jessica Schniter is at the University of Redlands. She was a working mom when she was in my lab. Her name is on a paper with me.
Jordan and Rachel both came from local high schools. They were very smart students, but in high schools that would not be considered elite high schools in the area and have gone on to faculty positions at different smaller universities and private universities and so forth. And then Katherine Baum actually became a clinical psychologist. She worked in my lab and is now working at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia. She’s on faculty there. All of these folks, Jordan and Rachel both wrote first-author papers in my lab. Jessica and Katherine are on papers as co-authors.
The other thing when I mention smaller-scale research, less recognition or connections, I’ve worked around that by reaching out. So as Dr. Lei mentioned, I am part of the INBRE program that’s sponsored by NIGMS. And Dr. Lei can probably explain this better than I can, but the INBRE program serves states that traditionally do not do so well in terms of NIH funding. And because of that, Congress and the NIH have decided to devote a little bit more investment into those states and bring the boats up.
I have been so fortunate to be a part of that program. It’s based at the University of Louisville, but that allows me to get funding for my research involving undergraduates, and then it has had such an amazing affect on my lab, my research, and my infrastructure, to the point where I now am able to apply for funding. And the primary source of funding I go for is what’s known as an AREA R15 grant through the NIH. I’ve been fortunate to have three of those. They’re intended to not only support good research, but also support undergraduates in research. They are often given to institutions that support predominantly undergraduate research. So again, those last two points go hand in hand, and I’m very fortunate for NIH support in that regard.
So how do you get a job at a place like NKU? Probably nine-tenths of this is the same as what Dr. Howard just mentioned, so I will make this fast. But I would just say before you apply—so right now whether you’re a graduate student or possibly a postdoc, I would try to teach. I would try to find a place to teach. Maybe it’s not at your institution, maybe it’s a local institution. About two or three of the most recent hires we’ve had have taught at NKU while they worked as a postdoc or graduate student somewhere else.
The other thing, as Dr. Howard mentioned, make sure that you get undergraduates involved with your research. In terms of grant productivity at NKU, it’s not so much that you get grants. I think what we want to see is that you can somehow demonstrate that you can get some kind of support. So you don’t need an R01, you don’t need a program project grant or something like that. Any kind of small grant that you can get shows that you’re game for applying for grants and that you can catch them every once in a while.
The last point is, I don’t mean this to be superficial in the least, but a lot of the applications and a lot of the review process now will look at diversity and will look at how you contribute to diversity at your institution. So as someone who sits on these committees, I go through a checklist, and I don’t want to make this sound superficial that I’m checking off boxes, but I need to look at that on your application. So you want to try to build that in too. Try to work on initiatives that are related to diversity not just because you want a job, but because it’s the right thing to do. But nonetheless, that’s going to make a difference.
I would say at Northern maybe a couple things that might be slightly different is—I don’t know if it’s really different, but let me just put it a different way—I would focus your application on students. When you come in for an interview with us, you’re going to teach a class, and all those 30 students are going to get a survey where they will indicate whether you did a good job or not. And we’re going to take that data, and we’re going to incorporate that pretty significantly into our calculations about whether to hire somebody. So you really need to send your application on students.
In terms of teaching, don’t just say, “I’m going to teach course one, two, and three.” You have to indicate that you’re going to be creative about how you instruct students. Use some evidence-based ways in how you instruct students. Again, at NKU that might involve some online instruction.
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, you want to make sure that you tailor your application so it looks like you’re a good fit for NKU. What is it that you like about NKU? Why are you a good fit? And how is NKU a good fit for you?
And then finally, in terms of the scale, how will you scale your research to our level? It doesn’t necessarily need to be down, but definitely how will you scale that research so you can get undergraduates involved? So I think I’ve probably gone over my time, but hopefully that information is helpful, so I’ll stop at this point and take some questions along with Dr. Howard and Dr. Lei.
Thank you. Thank you very much, Mark and Kathleen. I’ll start with the first question to both of you.
We do have many outstanding trainees, postdocs. They are highly productive. They are attractive candidates to research-intensive universities. But they are also very interested in teaching, so they are attracted to PUIs as well. So I’m pretty confident in the audience today one of them looks good to both U Penn and to Swarthmore. Another one looks very good to University of Kentucky and NKU. But here your dean has sent out each of you to be the ambassador for the university, so what would you pitch to that candidate to try to get them to consider your school? Brag a little bit. That’s what I’m asking.
Well, Kathleen, I’ll go first if you don’t mind.
This is going to sound a little small, but I think in terms of University of Kentucky versus NKU, we’re in a metropolitan area, so that’s one perk. I think the other thing is that even though our research scale might be smaller, because of the help of places like NIGMS, you can do a lot of collaborative work.
You can go across the river to the University of Cincinnati. You can go down to UK. So if you’re really interested in teaching undergraduates and doing good research, I think that can be accomplished at a place like NKU. If really what you want to do is have a little bit of teaching, but you want to get away into your lab and work with graduate students and postdocs, then I think University of Kentucky is probably the place for you.
OK, Swarthmore. It’s a pretty fabulous place. So I think the infrastructure and the institutional support is excellent. The expectations are high, but they give you the tools you need to do the work.
Mark mentioned geography. We are only 10 minutes from the Philadelphia Airport. We’re located on the East Coast—actually, that was one of the things that was attractive to me when I got a job. I’m actually married to another Ph.D., and there are a lot of opportunities for scientists and two-body problems because we’re halfway between New York and D.C. So that is attractive for a lot of our faculty.
And one thing about faculty is they tend to stay here. So the most recent retirees were here anywhere between 30 and 45 years. So once faculty get here, it’s hard to find another place among our cohort of liberal arts colleges that provide the support and the students to do the kind of work that’s expected.
Really quickly can I add one more thing, Dr. Lei? I think, to me, part of it is the pace. At an R1 university it’s a really stressful pace. I worked at Wash U. Kathleen’s worked at U Penn. And in terms of collegiality, sometimes that gets a little lost because of the pace at those universities. Whereas at NKU, like Swarthmore, we have people that stay there for a long time. And I’m able to go home on the weekends and coach soccer. I hate to say it, but I don’t really work many nights. So I’m able to manage my time very well and do some other things with my life that I think at a larger R1 I’d have a hard time managing all those balls.
Thank you. Fantastic.
One more thing, Ming, I forgot. I can’t believe I didn’t say this earlier. Swarthmore is a liberal arts college, and a lot of our students, as well as our faculty, take advantage of that. I was thinking of recent advisees I had that were a double major in chemistry and religion, one in chemistry and philosophy.
I had a chemistry and classics, a chemistry and theater. So a lot of the students here are interested in a wide range of stuff, and you’ll see that’s true of faculty. So every Wednesday we have faculty lunches and I’m usually sitting with someone from economics or somebody from English. So if you’re interested in engaging with a wide range of disciplines, this is the place for you. In big universities you might only see people in your department or other science departments all day long, but we really see a wide range of people. It’s inspiring.
Thank you. I guess you can remind her that U Penn hasn’t produced an NIGMS director yet, right?
No, exactly! Go Jon Lorsch!
OK, next question. Many PUI jobs are looking for diversity statements. Other PUI jobs are looking for teaching evaluations. Are either of those considered priorities for Swarthmore?
Swarthmore is deeply committed to diversifying its faculty. There is no one right answer. We don’t require a different statement. It’s usually addressed in the cover letter. What was the second thing? Diversity statements and…
We don’t ask for teaching evaluations. Often we look for that to come across in the reference letters. And another thing is successful applicants have communicated with their reference letter writers what kind of job they’re interested in. And sometimes it’s clear that they haven’t communicated with their mentors about what kind of jobs they’re applying for, so the letters don’t speak to their ability to communicate and their ability to teach. So often we get that great information from the letters of people that know them.
Thank you. The next question is to both of you and related to the first one. Can we discuss the expectations for tenure and promotion at places like NKU and Swarthmore? Mark, you want to go first?
Sure, so I’ll be very practical about this, and it’s probably the wrong way to put this. I would say in terms of getting tenure at NKU, number one, you need to be a good teacher, a great teacher. If you have really poor rapport with students and you fumble around and so forth, that’s going to be an issue or real challenge for you getting tenure. With that said, you are surrounded by people who are great teachers, so you just go knock on doors or try to look at others as templates or models to do that.
In terms of research, I would say again I don’t think the expectations at Northern are very high in terms of publications, but we truly do want you to involve students with your research. So whatever type of scholarship you’re doing, you need to have students that are presenting. You need to take them to meetings. Their names need to be on posters and papers, and they need to be appreciative of that particular experience. So those are the two main things in terms of tenure.
I’m probably forgetting some things, and hopefully my dean is not sitting on here throwing stuff at the screen. There are service expectations as well, but again for us, the teaching is really key. And just very quickly again to go back to Kathleen’s point, if you can put teaching and research together, which you should be able to do, that’s golden.
OK, tenure at Swarthmore. So we try to hire only people we think are tenurable. So that’s a big, key thing. We try to be very careful in our hiring. And then once you get here, we have a third-year review which follows the same format as the tenure review, so you have an idea three years in how you’re doing. The way we look at teaching is that we actually ask for long-form letters from students. We don’t do regular course evaluations, so we ask them to write a letter. So there is usually 30 to maybe 50 letters written by students.
And we ask for the faculty member up for review suggest half the letters and then the chair and the rest of the tenure faculty members pick the other half of letters. And they are meant to be for gender balance, people who got A’s, people who got C’s, and so you’re supposed to be able to teach to both the best students and the ones that struggle. We ask for external letters from at least six to eight people, at not just undergraduate institutions but R1 institutions as well. We have letters from every member of the department, plus several faculty members outside the department. So we’re looking for people who are good colleagues and contribute to the college as well.
So in terms of research productivity, there is no one-size-fits-all. We have a computational chemist in our department who publishes lots and lots of papers in the top journals all the time, so that’s different than the expectations for, say, a biophysical or biochemist where it might take two or three years to actually get a pure enough sample to actually do analysis. So they don’t say X number of publications, X number of grant money. It really is more general than that.
Anything else you’d like me to address?
That’s great. I think you’ll love the next question. “As a senior undergrad who is interested in teaching, how can I make that part of my goals in my graduate application? What should I look at in terms of graduate school to help me build my skills as a teacher?”
We do a lot of mentoring of our undergrads when they start looking for graduate programs, and we emphasize looking for a good mentor, maybe not just one. So one thing about R1 universities, at least in our experience, is you might find someone you’ve read papers, you think they’re super, super great, and then you go to that university and that person gets bought by Stanford or Harvard and they move around. So we suggest our students go to a place where there is a critical mass of people in a field that you’re interested in. And then once you get there, you talk to the students in the labs and find out what sort of environment. Is it a nurturing environment?
Some graduate advisors are much better than others in letting their students teach or participate in career development. I think that’s mostly it—and also to engage in the larger community. Make sure you go to meetings, go to seminars, and be really active. Don’t just be passive and sit in your lab alone but become a good communicator.
Thank you. Mark?
Yes, the only thing I would really add would be that I have a colleague who came from the University of Kentucky, straight from graduate school into NKU, who did a couple things as a graduate student. Number one, he taught for us. I don’t know how, what 25th hour in the day he found to be both a graduate student who published a lot and was able to drive an hour and a half both ways to teach for us. So maybe that sounds like a lot, but (Justin Yates is his name) what he also did was University of Kentucky had a teaching certificate, and so I would maybe suggest looking at universities that offer these. I’m blanking on, I think there’s actually some pedagogical institutions or centers that sponsor these certificates, but nonetheless with that in hand, that kind of gave him a stamp that said this guy’s a really good teacher who’s invested in teaching, so take him seriously.
I’d like to expound on that, Mark, because I think you made a great point.
It’s never too early to develop yourself as a teacher. We don’t have grad students here at Swarthmore, but we have a lot of teaching assistants. And our teaching assistants are students who took the course the year before and are eager to help the younger students. And not just get in the lab. We give them a lot of direction. We have a peer mentoring training program running from somebody from our teaching and learning committee.
Students get in there and they teach, they run problem sessions, they’re in the labs, they do grading, and it’s pretty common for our graduates to apply for NSF grad fellowships. And a big part of those fellowship applications is larger interests, showing not just you’re good at research, but you want to have a larger impact. So actually a lot of these students have done outreach as well. We have several different scientific outreach programs here at Swarthmore that students can engage in—and that just starts to give them a taste for do they like talking or are they a good communicator?
All right. The next question asks not only your wisdom but probably requires you to dip into your bag of tricks. “What are some tips or tricks to successfully conducting long-term research projects with several six- to eight-month honors thesis projects and summer projects? I find the turnover tricky to manage. Obviously, you already manage very successfully. What are your tricks?”
Do you want me to jump in here, Mark? Because it took me years to figure out, and now that I have protocols. I have a Google Drive, and students, whenever they complete or learn how to use an instrumentation, we keep up-to-date standard operating procedures for pretty much everything. Because the key is reproducibility if things are turning over. So usually the very first thing I have when a student comes into lab is to reproduce the last measurement that the previous student did. And we constantly update those protocols. We date them.
And they’re really specific. They’ve gotten as specific as, “You have to add this salt. It has a red bottle that’s on this shelf.” Because a lot of that common hands-on stuff gets lost, and I don’t always see it. So protocols. I take their lab notebooks really seriously and every week they send me a weekly report (it’s a running Google Doc) where it says, “What I did this week. What I’m doing next week. What I need.” And those are records for students as well. So documentation and organization. Those are two huge things to keep an undergraduate lab, at least in my experience, going.
So I need to work in Dr. Howard’s lab then. It’s the same thing.
Unfortunately, I’m a little bit looser about the protocols, but it is so important. I have a Google Drive with all the protocols, and we constantly are updating those and making sure they work. Sometimes I even go in and have to tweak them and see if they’re working or not.
The other thing—and hopefully I’m not misunderstanding the question—in terms of transitions into honor students or how you keep a long-running project going, especially in terms of honor students, the majority of my honor students have been in a lab for about a year before they started the project. And it started on something small or easy to do. I handed them that.
Most of the projects come out of my NIH R15 grants that I have, so I don’t have students that come in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.” Sometimes they do, and I try to corral that into something that fits with my grants. But, again, going back to the transition with the honor students, they are working the lab to begin with. When they start their honors project, oh my gosh, these guys are like seasoned veterans. They’re better than I am at the research project, and I can usually let them go and do their own thing with some supervision, but they’re really good at it.
Thank you. The next question is specific to you, Mark. Is there any visa requirement for teaching at NKU? Is a postdoc holding a J-1 visa eligible to teach?
I wish I knew the answer to that, and I am not very well versed in human resources. My impression is that a person is, but I would have to check on that. So if the person wants to contact me personally about that to see what a regional state university can do, I would be happy to look into that.
OK, next question. “I have six years of lab teaching experience during my Ph.D. where I taught the lab—did all the prep, ordered materials, and updated and rewrote the lab handbook. And one semester of lab teaching experience at the Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as experience teaching several undergrad and master’s students in the lab I have worked in. How important is it to have actual classroom teaching experience?”
So Kathleen, since this is from Bellarmine, I want to take this one. Congratulations, and it’s a really good university. I’ve been down there before. In terms of NKU, that’s a big plus. So even though you may not have a longstanding lecture course that you’ve given or overseen before, if I understand the question correctly, the fact that you’re teaching a lab section or teaching labs at Bellarmine or other institutions, that’s going to be a big plus compared to someone who has not taught a lab before, which we do see applications like that from people who have really strong research credentials but really don’t have much in the teaching credentials.
That’s going to be a big knock if they don’t have any experience. So you just kind of play that up and try to pull out what you’ve learned from that and how you can apply some teaching or instructional principles from even that lab experience to maybe some other classes.
Thank you. The next question presented an interesting case and question. The question is, “Any suggestions for graduate students or postdocs to build teaching experience beyond T.A.? Postdocs are often not allowed by their supervisors to teach classes.” That is the question part, but I want to share with the audience about the story. I think it’s interesting.
“I was lucky in the sense that my postdoc contract was terminated due to a lack of lab funds. And I have found a teaching position for a semester at a small college as a visiting instructor, which actually helped a lot with my faculty job offer. That experience turned out to be great preparation for current teaching class. Otherwise, I would not have had a chance at all to teach classes.”
So that’s the story experience. Now back to the question. Any suggestions for graduate students or postdocs to build teaching experience beyond T.A.? Kathleen?
Sure. There is no one path to showing that. And I was just thinking of our three most recent hires. They all showed their ability and interest in teaching in different ways. And a lot of it was, again, even if you’re not allowed to teach, if you went and did a teaching pedagogy workshop or you did a visiting lecture, so it’s not that uncommon.
So Penn, where I spend a lot of time, the postdocs will give sections of lectures for one of the seminar courses. Doing volunteer. You can moonlight and do adjunct stuff. One of the recent hires we had already had a faculty position at a liberal arts college, so we knew he knew it. One of them, actually as an undergraduate, got a teaching certificate for secondary school chemistry and had taken every opportunity to do a ton of outreach at all different levels before they got there.
So I don’t think there’s one special way; it’s just to look for ways to show that you can communicate and be in front of a class.
Anything to add, Mark?
I would just say the idea of… I mean, I moonlighted a lot as a postdoc. I don’t know if there are some rules that prohibit that nowadays. If nothing else, learn about pedagogy. Learn about what the best practices are for teaching and at least incorporate that into your teaching statement. Be clear that you’re aware of what the current state of the art is in terms of testing and instructional delivery and so forth. That probably is not going to get you the job completely, but it’s certainly is not going to hurt to put that in there.
Thank you. We have about two minutes left. I’m going to try to squeeze two questions in because they are both very, very important. One is how secure teaching positions are at teaching universities compared to professorships at research universities?
At least at NKU they’re pretty secure. I hate to say this, but today I just got an email that said my salary had been cut by 2 percent. But I don’t think I’ll ever lose my salary or lose my position. And it’s because of all the budgetary issues, not because I’m a bad professor—at least they didn’t tell me that. So I feel very secure, but then I’ve been here for 20 years. I do worry a little bit about newer faculty, but again I think once you’re in the door, your colleagues are going to do as much as you can to make sure you stay there.
Thank you. Kathleen?
I’d echo that from Mark as well. If you’re in the tenure-line faculty, at least Swarthmore is very committed to you. I know there are other places that have visitors or adjuncts that the funding lines aren’t always there for those positions, but if you’re in a tenure line, I think you have a pretty good shot at staying.
OK, the last question. I’m sure you’re ready for it. How do you think the job market will be after the pandemic?
Uncertain. But I would stay hopeful because you never know exactly what’s going to happen, and you always prepare yourself because there’s lots of things… I’ve been constantly thinking lately about seeing a silver lining in what’s going on. So we can’t do a lot of things we did before, but you can develop your online teaching, which could be very important for the ongoing job market. Keep doing the best research and teaching you can possibly do. So there’s currently a lot of job freezes, but you’ve got to stay hopeful and just look for opportunities.
Amen to that.
All right. Well, I would add to that by sharing an observation. Just like the stock market, what goes down always goes up. I think the job market after freeze there will be a day to be unfrozen. So with that, I would like to thank both of our outstanding speakers and thank all of you who participated. I hope the discussion was very enlightening and very useful to you. Have a great day.
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8/9/2021 11:40 AM
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