Getting a Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution

In my last post, I spoke about my transition from functioning primarily as a researcher to becoming a professor that has more teaching responsibility at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI). What’s different about life at a PUI? Well, the main focus is on undergraduate education. As we are scientists, much of our scholarship is still focused on performing impactful research. The difference? We are less dependent on soft money and integrate undergraduate students into our research whenever we can. I also integrate my research into the classes that I teach to get more students exposed to hematology and immunology. After all, it is a proven best practice for students learning science to actually do science! As you might imagine, it is a much different process getting a job at a PUI compared to obtaining a research position. Here are some tips for preparing and getting a job at a PUI.

Prepare for the career change. Think you want to teach? You should try it out! Some suggestions? Talk to your PI and see if they’ll let you teach a few classes for them as a guest lecturer- most are happy to do so. Even better? Try to teach a class on your own at your institution. If your PI doesn’t like that idea, see if they’ll let you teach a summer course; they are usually shorter and thus take you out of the laboratory less. What if your institution doesn’t have classes or if your PI is adamantly against you teaching at your institution? Shop around in your area- there is likely a community college that would love to have a Ph.D. level expert teaching a few classes. A bonus? These classes could be in the evening, online, or on weekends, so they won’t negatively affect your time in the lab (too much). And, you’ll get to supplement your income! Don’t worry, though; you’ll earn it. Teaching a class for the first time requires an immense amount of work.
Can’t teach an actual class? At least get experience mentoring students in the laboratory. That’s still teaching; it is just usually a more one-on-one experience. You can also look for classes and seminars that help you become a more effective instructor. I took a class like this at UCSD, and it helped immensely; it let me know about new technologies and techniques for teaching undergraduates that I never experienced as a student. Remember- there’s a research field that is dedicated to developing and testing effective strategies for teaching. As a scientist, you should check out the literature. What works? Integrate it into your teaching, as well as your application.

Put together a tailored cover letter. This is important, and takes a bit of time, because you need to research each position carefully. Who is on the faculty at the school you’re applying to? How does their research tie in with yours? What can you offer the institution? Remember- you are now going to be the expert at the institution in your specific field. Let the other faculty know how you can add to their expertise. List in the letter people that you could see collaborating with; this is helpful information- it shows that you are thinking about being a functional piece of the department. Do you bring an exciting new technique or tool? Highlight it!
Importantly, highlight your teaching. What have you taught? What specific classes could you teach? Look through their catalog and be specific! What classes could you add to their offerings? And, mention your mentoring- how many people have you mentored? What have they done? Are they a diverse group of people? These issues are all important when you become a professional that is dealing with students on a daily basis!

Put together a tailored CV. Are your manuscripts important? Yes! Are your grants important? Yes! But make sure you also focus on those classes you taught, the students you mentored (and what they achieved because of it), the classes you took to be a better instructor, and any awards associated with these things. It’ll make you stand out among other applicants.

Write a strong research and teaching statement. If you’ve written a grant, you’ve already got a good start on the research statement. It needs to have a good scientific background so people can understand your project, as well as achievable goals. It should also have information about grants that you will apply for. For a PUI, make your research directly tie in with student education. How will you integrate students into your research? What specific aims will be performed by students in your laboratory? Could you integrate some of the research into the classroom? How will this research also help develop students into being scientists of the future? While these are research issues you have likely not thought about, they are important at a PUI.
The teaching statement is a little different, and it really helps if you take one of those classes I mentioned earlier; they will help you become more accustomed to the language of scientific teaching and learning, making this easier to write. In essence, this is your chance to spell out your plans for how you will teach students effectively. Do you believe that science can only be taught in a hands-on manner? Talk about it! Do you want to integrate technology into the classroom? Talk about it! Are you interested (or better yet, have expertise) in teaching a diverse group of students? You get the idea. Also, feel free to talk to some colleagues- ask people for their applications so you can get a feel for effective statements. Most people are happy to help. Importantly, just like a grant, have people look it over and give you feedback. There’s nothing worse than submitting something that is unpolished and full of mistakes. Remember- there aren’t a ton of faculty jobs out there; make sure your application is perfect.

Next time, I’ll talk about what happens when you’re selected as a candidate. How do you give a solid phone interview? What’s different in the in-person visit compared to at a primarily research institution? Stay tuned!

David Stachura, PhD
ISEH Publications Committee Member
Assistant Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
California State University, Chico


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