A Career as a College Science Teacher

When, sometime in the 1990s, Malcolm Campbell told his doctoral adviser at Johns Hopkins University that he planned to teach biology after his Ph.D., his adviser said, “don’t do it, you’ll go brain dead.” If you want a real career in science, his adviser told him, you should focus on research.

Advice like this is common, but it’s also wrong. Campbell is now a full professor at Davidson College, and he says he has had plenty of job satisfaction in his nearly 2 decade long career. He did not abandon research in his discipline, but these days he publishes mainly—not entirely—in pedagogy. His primary responsibility is teaching, which he reckons takes up 75% of his time.

“Many institutions now hire faculty in the sciences whose primary responsibility is teaching.”—Patricia Marsteller

It’s common to encounter Ph.D. students and recent graduates who want to focus solely on their students, on teaching and advising. They picture themselves in college faculty roles, but teaching is their first love.

Unfortunately for them, tenure-track faculty posts pretty much always come with research requirements, and that goes not only for large universities but also for primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs).

So Science Careers wanted to know: Are there positions out there where science Ph.D.s can earn a good, secure living by teaching? Are there teaching-focused positions that include a professional salary, benefits, reasonable working conditions, and the equanimity that can come from job security? Do positions like that exist?

Yes, there are teaching-only jobs

According to a paper published last year in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, the share of part-time faculty increased between 1995 and 2007 at both PUIs and research universities.  The number of tenure-track positions also fell. But there has been an increase in another category, too: full-time, nontenure-track faculty positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions. These positions are much different from—and generally much better than—temporary appointments. While some of these nontenure-track scholars are researchers, others are strictly—or mainly—teachers.

“Many institutions now hire faculty in the sciences whose primary responsibility is teaching. They have different titles and different contracts,” says Patricia Marsteller, who is the director of Emory College Center for Science Education at Emory University in Atlanta. Emory offers a lecture track: Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, and then Professor of Pedagogy, Practice, or Performance. Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University offer similar tracks. At Georgia Institute of Technology, teaching professors are called “academic professionals.” While the salaries of such faculty are lower than those of their tenure track counterparts, the pay is still pretty good, adds Marsteller, who is a Professor of Practice in Biology.

No dead wood here

There’s a common stereotype that is rarer in reality than in the popular imagination: Bored, tenured senior faculty that have lost interest in research and spend the years before early retirement gardening, bird watching, or in their basement wood shop—and teaching introductory courses. All administrators can do is watch, shake their heads, increase teaching loads, and offer them early retirement.

Temporary posts with renewable contracts may evoke anxiety in tenured professors, but let’s face it: Tenure is rare. Most employees must continue to prove their worth if they want to remain employed. In that respect, these teaching professionals are in the same boat as most other professionals. And those who occupy these teaching-track positions say that, barring budget cuts, there is job security for those who do their jobs well. Indeed the very purpose of these alternative tracks is to allow departments to retain dedicated and talented teachers and administrators.

Beyond a love of teaching, scientists who want to pursue this alternative path may have interests outside of academia. They may be geographically restricted as part of a dual-career couple. Science Careers spoke to two college-level science teachers in New England, one at a large research institute, and the other at a liberal arts college:

Instructor of biological engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

When Natalie Kuldell was a graduate student at Harvard Medical School (HMS), she did not want to be a teaching assistant. She makes no bones about her priorities during her Ph.D. days: Teaching, she recalls thinking, would have taken valuable time away from research. From 1994-97 she did a postdoc, again steering clear of teaching. But today she is a full-time instructor of biological engineering at MIT.

How did she end up in a teaching position? As she approached the end of her postdoc, Kuldell became a mother, and after the birth of her daughter she sought career options that didn’t require being bound to the lab bench. “I looked at curating a proteome database, writing for the [New England Journal of Medicine], and finally applied to this faculty post at Wellesley to do lab instruction,” she says. “My goals changed.” She taught at Wellesley College for 6 years before taking her current position at MIT, in 2003. Both positions were full time, with annual, renewable contracts.

While Kuldell has no formal training in teaching, her experience as a researcher means that she can teach students the practice of science, she says. She provides undergraduate students with what she calls authentic lab experiences. For her courses, she draws on the current literature in her field. She also publishes regularly in science education journals.

Starting in 2001, Kuldell spent 10 consecutive summers as a visiting scientist at an HMS lab, bringing back new ideas for her lab classes. In 2011, she started the nonprofit organization BioBuilder, which provides Web-based resources for teaching synthetic biology. This year she is on sabbatical, working in high school classrooms with teachers who will use this tool.

Lecturer in chemistry, Bowdoin College

Michael Danahy, who earned a Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton University in 2004, always knew he wanted to teach. When he graduated, his wife was in law school in Connecticut and he took a job as the chemistry teacher at a boarding school in nearby Wallingford. After 2 years, he sought college-level positions.

Danahy was visiting assistant professor of chemistry at his alma mater, Bates College, and later at Bowdoin College. Bowdoin offered him a lectureship in 2011, with a 5-year contract. His job involves teaching, scholarly activity, and service. He is not required to do research or publish papers. Besides developing courses and advising students, he gives guest lectures to professionals who can benefit from his expertise.

While still an undergraduate at Bates, Danahy lectured and assisted in a class for nonscience majors. While in graduate school, he was a research mentor for chemistry majors and served as a teaching assistant for many semesters. He drew inspiration from Jeffrey Schwartz, his thesis adviser, who “always seemed to have fun teaching,” and Maitland Jones, Jr., a renowned experimental chemist and author of chemistry textbooks. “I learned from the best,” he says. It didn’t hurt that his principal  investigator encouraged him to pursue his passion.

Last year, Danahy won the Karofsky Prize, which is given to “an outstanding Bowdoin teacher who demonstrates the ability to impart knowledge, inspire enthusiasm, and stimulate intellectual curiosity.” Recently he won external recognition as well: He was appointed mentor of the U.S. national team for the Chemistry Olympiad, a chemistry competition for high school students.   

How to get those jobs

Campbell wrote How To Get a Teaching Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution, published by The American Society for Cell Biology in 1996. The 2012 version of the primer is aimed at those seeking tenure-track jobs and faculty who conduct lab research with undergraduates. But much of the advice also applies to those seeking teaching positions with no research obligations.

People in charge of hiring for these teaching-only (or teaching-mainly) posts say that it is helpful if the candidate’s CV documents a commitment to teaching. Hence, it’s a good idea to “Find a way to get into the classroom while you are doing your Ph.D. This doesn’t only mean being a teaching assistant. Make yourself responsible for an entire course if possible,” says Robbie Berg, who is a physics professor and department chair at Wellesley College.

Another approach is simply to seek out teaching opportunities on or off your campus. Richard Gurney, chair of the chemistry department at Simmons College, says his department hires postdoctoral researchers from nearby universities—Harvard, MIT or Boston University—as part-time adjuncts.

An effective narrative

To get a good teaching-focused job, you need to make an effective pitch even if your true ambitions were always to win a Nobel Prize. “It will be helpful if you can come up with a story of how teaching is something you are running to, instead of making it seem like a refuge from things you are running away from,” Kuldell says.

And usually that’s true: Most people who go into teaching do it as a choice and not as a fallback. Contrary to what some might think, Marsteller says, most have freely chosen this pathway to scholarship, rather than winding up with it. What makes those who follow this nontenure path stand out, the Professor of Practice points out, is their willingness to choose the “road less traveled,” to seek out a meaningful profession that does not always fit into the typical box.

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