You’re thinking about applying for jobs at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs): colleges that focus on teaching, with less emphasis on research than the big research university you’re probably at now. You may be wondering, “What’s are PUIs like? Will I fit in there? Will I enjoy the work atmosphere?” Chances are you didn’t go to a PUI yourself as an undergrad, so you may have limited exposure to them.
The best way to figure out what a PUI is like is to visit one, of course. Ideally, you’d visit a PUI where you know somebody who can show you around and answer your questions. In the meantime, here are some of the salient differences between PUIs and R01s that I have encountered:
Life in smallville
When it comes to overall atmosphere, small colleges differ from big universities in much the same way that small towns differ from big cities. At a PUI, it’s relatively quiet and peaceful, the pace of life is slower (not necessarily slow, but slower), and most of the faces you see as you walk about campus are friendly, familiar ones. You don’t walk in a sea of strangers as you would at a big university.
Research: let’s be blunt
At PUIs, cutting edge research is usually quite dull. If you have very ambitious research goals, you might be better off trying to score them elsewhere. You will likely find the research environment to be rather desolate compared to the vibrant department from which your Ph.D. was granted.
For one thing, the labs typically are populated only by undergrads, maybe Masters’ students if you are at an institution that grants them. You won’t usually find Ph.D. students and postdocs here. Without high level personnel, it’s tough to do high level science.
Then again, even if you did have some strong scientists in your lab, you might not have time to manage them. Course loads at PUIs are much higher than they are at R01s, and you cannot give your classes short shrift. PUI faculty are also expected to pull more weight in terms of service to the college, providing academic advising for students, for example.
There is also less infrastructure for research. Don’t expect to be housed in state of the art labs. There may be limited (or nonexistent) animal facilities, greenhouses, shared major instrumentation centers, and the like. This can be a barrier to getting grants. If your institution doesn’t have the necessary infrastructure to support your projects, your grant won’t be funded.
Probably the most difficult difference to deal with for most new faculty is intellectual isolation. In a small department, the overlap between your research interests and those of your colleagues is usually minimal, and you will have little opportunity to bounce ideas off anyone. Gone too, will be the days when you have an expert in most anything you can think of available for consultation down the hall or in the next building. There will not be a regular schedule of seminars given by leaders in the field. You’ll be part of a much smaller community, and it will be a community that does not revolve around research.
Teaching: your new lifeblood
Hopefully you came to a PUI with a desire to teach, more so than to pump out Nature papers. Teaching at a PUI is also a different game in some ways than teaching at an R01.
Certainly, a major difference is that your new community is focused on teaching, and on the undergraduate experience. Water cooler conversations will gravitate toward pedagogy and students will expect you to invest yourself in the class.
Furthermore, I’ve found those students to be overall a somewhat different breed than R01 students, especially in their enhanced level of diversity. I think small colleges, where students receive more individual attention, tend to reinforce a sense of individuality in the students, while the anonymity imposed on students at large universities tends to reinforce conformity. What this means for you as a professor is that you will probably hear a greater diversity of voices, and encounter a greater diversity of learning styles. Couple this with smaller classes and you would do well to avoid a dogmatic, domineering pedagogical approach and adopt one that is more flexible, interactive, and inclusive.
Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD has a BS from Carlow University and a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh on the kinetics of Kinesin motor proteins. In her Postdoc at Penn State University, she examined the kinetics of DNA polymerases. She has since formed her own company in scientific and medical writing services. Dr. Hoverman’s largest long-term Client is the Microsoft Health Solutions Group where she serves as one of three Senior Grant and Proposal Specialists as part of the Business Desk in Sales.
Copyright Lisa Sproul Hoverman, PhD
Published with permission