Teaching Is a Powerful Credential

In a recent essay published at Science Careers, Fatma Kaplan, a well-published scientist and adjunct lecturer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, explains what she has learned in applying for 150 tenure-track faculty positions since earning her doctorate in 2004. Kaplan draws the conclusion that emphasizing her ability to garner federal research grants is likely to make her more successful in her search for a faculty position.

Right or wrong, Kaplan’s essay—and her willingness to share her experience—is welcome and useful. Such first-person reflections are likely to be valuable to job seekers.

Altogether, the number of institutions of higher learning in the United States approaches 4000, including more than 3000 nonprofit institutions. That’s a much bigger pool of potential jobs than those offered at 200 or so research universities.

And she may well be right. A strong publication record is certainly a key to getting hired, and anything you can do to convince an institution that you can attract outside funding is likely to increase your odds of winning an offer for a tenure-track post.

But there’s another huge facet of what professors do that Kaplan mentions only in passing: teaching. Since 2006, I have applied for 35 tenure-track faculty positions, worked as a professor at two institutions—both primarily undergraduate institutions—and served on numerous faculty search committees. In the cases I’ve been involved in, teaching is often the factor that causes job applicants to rise to the top of the stack.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching lists 108 U.S. universities in its Research University/Very High Research Activity category, and another 99 in the Research University/High Research Activity category. At institutions like these—especially the first group—scholarship trumps teaching in tenure evaluations and, usually, in hiring. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about teaching, but if your sole focus is on working at one of these institutions, keep publishing in top journals, and keep working hard to show that you can get funding. Best of luck.

But the foundation lists an additional 1623 institutions that grant bachelor’s degrees, not counting institutions with a “special focus” on areas such as engineering, music, or health professions—including 52 medical schools where doctor training is the main objective. Another 1920 institutions (including 752 for-profit institutions) offer only or mainly associate degrees.

Altogether, the number of institutions of higher learning in the United States approaches 4000, including more than 3000 nonprofit institutions. That’s a much bigger pool of potential jobs than those offered at 200 or so research universities. And for most of those jobs, another first-author Science paper, or a strong argument for your ability to attract R01 funding, isn’t the most important qualification.

Even at research universities, teaching is valued more than many applicants realize. And consider this: Almost all the serious candidates for a faculty job at a research university will be emphasizing research accomplishments. Yes, for such jobs you do need excellent research credentials, but if you want your application to stand out from the hundreds of others, maybe it makes sense to hone—and then sell—outstanding classroom skills.

There’s a bias implicit in doctoral training, arising from the fact that almost everyone earns their graduate degree, and does at least one postdoc, at a research university. There, graduate and postdoc advisers want you to focus on getting papers out and getting grants. It’s what you learn how to do, and it’s what you’re exposed to. Research-university faculty members also like the idea of moving their protégés into similar jobs, partly because they consider their work more valuable than other kinds of work and partly because it’s the only world they know.

Yet, search committees at the vast majority of colleges aren’t looking for a bunch of science papers or an R01 from the National Institutes of Health. We are looking for a partner to help us in our primary mission: educating undergraduate students. We’re mining your materials for evidence that you have made efforts to design and implement creative and dynamic approaches to pedagogy and mentoring. We want to know that you’re not just another member of the research-focused crowd.

For jobs like these, the best way to stand out among hundreds of applicants is to show that you know what kind of job you’re applying for and that it’s different from other kinds of jobs. Show us that you care about effective teaching. Provide evidence that you have participated in it meaningfully and intend to continue doing so.

Demonstrated teaching excellence is nearly as rare among applicants—perhaps rarer—than a real research grant from a government agency, and at most institutions it matters more. Few applicants go beyond the typical teaching statement to show real evidence of a passion for instruction and an ability to inspire students.

Through her hard work, Kaplan has established an outstanding record of research accomplishments. Having done so, perhaps she should focus on developing her teaching skills and credentials. To be fair, it does depend partly on her specific career ambitions. And she does briefly mention teaching in her essay: On a short list of questions one might use to assess one’s record following a round of multiple academic rejections, she includes, “Did I need more teaching experience?”

If you find yourself asking that question, then—unless your search is limited to those few institutions where research is the overwhelming focus—the answer is probably “yes.” Or maybe it’s not more experience you need. Maybe you just need to find a more effective way to communicate who you are and who you plan to become as a teacher. Accomplish that and there is a good chance we’ll be calling you to learn more.

Elsewhere in Science, 21 March 2014

Kids Posit the Darnedest Hypotheses