Month: February 2016

Guest Post: Advice to People on the Academic Job Market for PUI Jobs

By psykadamnit

I’m a tenured faculty member in a physical science discipline at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI).  These means that my institution has very few graduate students, my department has no graduate students, and my primary duties are teaching undergraduate classes and conducting research that involves undergraduates.  That doesn’t mean we don’t do good research–I’ve published in prestigious journals and I have colleagues who have received very large and prestigious grants–but it does mean that we have to sometimes be a little more flexible and clever in how we approach certain things.

My department is wrapping up a tenure-track faculty search.  We had an amazingly talented and accomplished pool of people, and it was hard to select among them.  Most of the advice that you hear is correct:  In order to get a job at a PUI, you need to have a good record of publishing, at some point (either as a grad student or postdoc) you should mentor an undergraduate (preferably more than one) on a project, and you should teach a lot and teach well.  “A lot” is discipline-dependent.  If you’re in a discipline where everyone spends a lot of time as a TA, then you should also get (at some point) some experience solo-teaching a class as the instructor of record.  If you’re in a discipline where most people barely even TA, then a track record of doing more than the minimum of TA work, and getting some sort of accomplishment under your belt (e.g. TA of the Year award, or helping to rewrite part of the lab manual) might be enough.

Here’s one strange thing, though, that I haven’t seen anyone give as advice, but somehow many candidates have been doing it:  People are giving research talks that are primarily about their field in general rather than their specific contribution to it.  I don’t know why.  This has happened for a few searches in a row now.  We’ve searched in different subfields, we’ve had different search committee chairs (i.e. the candidates have interacted with different people when planning their interview and getting instructions for their job talk), and we’ve seen this problem in male and female candidates, US-born and foreign-born candidates, pale candidates and candidates of color.

In these problem talks, the vast majority of the time will be spent explaining the background to their project.  I’ll pick an example that isn’t related to any of our recent searches, so as to keep this anonymous.  Imagine that the candidate were talking about quantum dots, and they spent the entire time telling the audience what a quantum dot is, why quantum dots are important, and what the important questions are, but spent little or no time on what they themselves do in quantum dot research, and what contributions they have made and the techniques that they use.  That may be a great overview talk for a department colloquium if you are an established person and you’re just there to enlighten the audience.  Go do that…ten years from now.  Don’t do it now.  When you’re interviewing, you need to tell us what YOU do.  I wish I knew who was putting it out there that you need to give that talk now when you’re trying to get hired.  DON’T DO THAT!!!

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give a lot of general background, especially for an audience dominated by undergraduates.  However, if the department give you, say, 50 minutes for a talk and 10 minutes for questions (typical numbers, adjust accordingly if local custom is different), then you should spend maybe 20-25 minutes (give or take a few) explaining the basic concepts underlying quantum dots and demystifying some key abstract concepts that some of the undergrads are not familiar with.  Along the way, try to illustrate things with examples from your work.  “And here’s a picture of the Quantum Dot-Making Machine Thingie that I have used in my work”, not “Here’s a picture of somebody else’s Quantum Dot-Making Machine Thingie.”  After that, you should be telling us about specific things you’ve done and showing us your results.  You might have to simplify some of it for the students, and sometimes you might need to go over their heads a bit to reach the faculty, and that’s OK if done in moderation.  What’s important is that in the second half of the talk you hit the level of the students when you can but never at the cost of telling the faculty (i.e. the people deciding whether to hire you) what it is that you actually do.  We aren’t sitting in this talk to be persuaded that quantum dots are important.  We know that quantum dots are important; that’s why we decided to interview a quantum dot expert.  We want to know why your work on quantum dots is particularly important.

The other thing we want to know is if your research is feasible with undergrads. That often means it should be (comparatively) inexpensive, but not always.  (There are private undergraduate colleges with endowments that exceed the GDP of small island nations.)  What’s more important is that you need to make it clear that a lot of the work on your projects can be done by people who only need a short time to get up to speed on some key techniques.  Make that very explicit in your written research plan.  “Undergraduates could contribute to this project because the Quantum Dot Analysis Machine Thingie is easy to run if you’ve just had a year of chemistry and a physics class on optics.”  Or whatever.  The more explicit you make that the more likely it is that we’ll interview you.

(Way Over) 15-Min Improv Blogging

It’s that time in the evening when a) I have so much work to do, but I am b) too tired to work and c) it’s objectively a good time to go to sleep so tomorrow wouldn’t suck, yet d) I don’t want to go to work because I am very busy all the time and I start telling myself stupid $hit, like that I deserve to have a bit of time off to fart around on the web.

There is no deserve. There are many people doing crappier, more poorly paid jobs. They are the ones who deserve to rest, and eat comfort food, and enjoy whatever kind of entertainment they want.

N.B. If you want me to completely disregard your advice or ad for whatever, start it with “You deserve to [be allergy-free/thin/healthy/loved] [have time to relax].”


There is just way too much work to do and I am starting to feel helpless, because I don’t know how to pull it all off.

I have a large class and it’s taking up nearly 2.5 days of my week. Lectures, discussion, writing up HW and solutions, office hours, email, and of course there are the exams and grading.

I have grad students to meet with, and so many papers to write. I am hitting the limits of my stamina, in that I (shockingly!) cannot spend a whole day interacting with various undergrad and grad students, spend several hours in the evening driving kids around to activities and then putting them to bed, and then still have the energy for the intellectual heavy lifting. I can understand how people start taking seriously dangerous stimulants.

There are many work aspects that are a chore, so I procrastinate, yet they don’t go away.

Then there are things such as writing papers, that require me to have my wits about for more than 15 min at the time. It’s so unbelievably frustrating to have to fight so hard to be able to write papers. And why is so much work so deathly boring?


I have discovered that a few colleagues are unbelievably selfish, utterly self-centered egomaniacs. I feel a mixture of disgust and envy, because life would be much easier if I were comparably selfish.

On the other hand, it would not be, because I am female and I people expect me to be available and helpful, and get all pouty and huffy when I am not. When a student has a conflict with other classes, they always come to ask me to reschedule; somehow, I am supposed to be more flexible and more understanding than the dude teachers, I wonder why that is. I had a very weird email exchange with a foreign student, who started by asking me to discuss science with him and basically remotely advise him; I ignored him a couple of times, but he kept emailing, so I responded in the vein that I had no idea who or what he was, but that I guessed he was a student somewhere, that the local professors were the first resource for all things academic, that you can’t just ask unknown people to advise you, and that if he wanted something from someone he had to introduce himself, give a bit of background, send a CV, and then ask. Long story short, a few emails later, in which I informed him that I had intention to recruiting students and no time to advise people remotely, and after all of which he still hadn’t sent me a CV or any info on what the heck his background was, the dude scolded me for being selfish and not giving students like him a chance. Can you believe it?  Because he thinks he’s entitled to (he deserves) my time and attention, and thus fuckin’ demands it.

There are a number of young women in my class. With a few, I have established a nice rapport. Others are giving me weird looks. *sigh* This brings back thoughts of honorary dudeness.

I wonder if being a woman academic will ever result in me getting actual respect, automatically, like the dudes do, instead of having to metaphorically beat it out of every single person, male or female.

Speaking of beating stuff, I am back at kickboxing — oh, how I’ve missed it! I love it so much. I hope my shoulder lets me continue.