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Interested in teaching at the University level

  1. Aug 9, 2015 #1
    Hello! Here's the deal: It seems for me, after researching through these and other forums, that one have two (and I'm strongly generalizing here, but you get the drill) career prospects as a teacher in Physics; either to teach at High School, or to teach AND RESEARCH at a Research University. I am worried about this mainly because my interest lies almost solely in teaching - although this may change when I try some research during Undergraduate School - but I can not find pleasure in teaching High School kids. Is there any prospect as a University (or college, I don't seem to understand how Americans differentiate those) teacher, without research?

    I know I don't have any idea still of how is real research - only knowledge found around the internet and mainstraeam media, so my opinion and desires may change completely during Undergrad. I just wanted to see if my possibilities are so limited. Thanks for any replies!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 9, 2015 #2
    Yes, it is possible to teach university without having to do research. But this greatly depends in which country you live and which university you go to. For example, in the US they have the system of community college. There you can get hired as a professor (although nowadays they seem to prefer hiring adjuncts) and you only have to teach. But be careful, teaching-only positions tend to be looked down upon. Not in the sense that people ridicule you. But rather in the sense that they won't be permanent positions (so no job security). And also in the sense that they won't let you teach advanced and more interesting classes. You'll be stuck with teaching simple calculus or high school stuff. At least, that's how it works here. I make no claims that this situation also occurs elsewhere.
  4. Aug 9, 2015 #3
    Alternately, professors at many small, liberal arts colleges primarily focus on teaching and can still get tenure. It seems that often, you have to have some kind of research program in order to provide students with opportunities to get research experience, but it's not weighed as heavily in terms of obtaining tenure. I believe these positions are just as competitive as research universities.

    Just know that if you want to teach physics at the university level, no matter what, you will have to do research in physics. No exceptions. A Ph.D is a degree that means you're capable of doing independent research.

    And it doesn't seem likely that someone can teach with only a master's degree (unless, maybe, it's an adjunct position, but adjuncts get paid terrible wages for a lot of work. Often times, they can get less than some grad students.)
  5. Aug 9, 2015 #4
    True. But the OP does not seem to be from the US, and I don't know if the idea of liberal arts colleges really have a counterpart in non-US countries. So perhaps the OP should start telling us which country he is interested in working in.
  6. Aug 9, 2015 #5
    My idea is mostly to stay in the US after Grad School - although it seems highly improbable, considering I'm Brazilian - or, preferably, go live in Canada. My first idea was indeed the LACs, and I was wondering how much Research weights on it, glad to hear that. I do not in any way "fear" or want to avoid research, I believe it is a necessary part of my future career, I cannot base my decisions only on Undergrad Research. It is just that I don't feel I am fitted for a career only in research. Going a little over CCs - from what I've read on the subject, which is not much in any way, it does not seem what I want - how does it work in a LAC? I mean, is it the same system of hiring and career-advancement of a Research University, with the shift of focus to teaching, or is it completely different?

    If anyone reading this is from Canada, or have knowledge about the country in this aspect: How do the opinions here expressed from the two repliers compare to Canada? And how difficult is for a foreigner to live as teacher in a College there? I've heard it is a country that accepts foreigners a LOT more than the US, but just to see some opinions about this matter specifically

    Thanks to any who replied and will :)
  7. Aug 9, 2015 #6
    Why do you feel this way?
  8. Aug 9, 2015 #7
    It is mainly a childish feel, I believe, as I've not even entered University yet. After everything I've read around about research, it just seems too selective. Meaning I either get a PhD in MIT, and be the best of the best, or I have no chance. That, besides all the struggle it seems for one to research AFTER getting into a university - advancing in the career, tenure, grants, etc. I just mean that, from the perspective of one looking to enter this life, it gives kind of a depressing feel. But again, I will not in ANY circunstance give up research before a PhD, unless something really serious happens. I believe the minimum I have to do is work hard and get to know my options deeply, before I choose something
    I don't want to diminish my options before I'm sure, just want to make sure I will have options, if I choose to not make research my main focus
  9. Aug 9, 2015 #8
    OK, so that is definitely false.

    But it is true that research can be quite competitive. There are a lot of bright people competing for one spot. So you need to be able to deal with stress and competition. It's certainly not a nice, relaxed job where you are assured that you can keep working there for years (unless you get tenure at a university). So yeah, that is probably a valid reason to have second thoughts about research.
  10. Aug 9, 2015 #9
    I don't want to be understood as a slacker here - I will work hard and do the best I can, and don't intend to sound as I would like something easy. The problem for me is that this level of competeitiveness brings much more than your hard work, talents and skills, it is a lot dependent on luck, and I don't find myself feeling secure with a career prospect that depends on luck

    Thank you for your help, micromass
  11. Aug 9, 2015 #10
    Don't worry: not willing to enter a very competitive environment with no guarantee on success will not make you sound like a slacker. There are many bright and hard-working people who don't want to deal with academia for very good reasons. It is better to know now the risks of being a professional researcher than to find out really later in the game.
  12. Aug 9, 2015 #11
    Thank you for comprehension :) I do indeed believe I fear academia more than research, although industrial research seems too product oriented for me. Again, opinion of someone highly uneducated in the matter

    If someone here has experience or knowledge on teaching in LACs, and could spare some of that, I would be very grateful :D
  13. Aug 9, 2015 #12


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    The tenure track is formally pretty much the same, although there are small variations at different schools. You normally start out as an assistant professor. Usually in your sixth year you apply for tenure and promotion to associate prof. If you don't get tenure, you have to leave at the end of the following (seventh) year. Then you spend a minimum of six or seven years as associate prof, and apply for promotion to full professor. There is usually some kind of intermediate pre-tenure review in the third year or so, and some sort of regular post-tenure review (every three years or so) which evaluates you for salary increases.

    The difference between research universities and LACs is in the relative weighting of teaching, research, and service (campus and community) in the evaluations. Even among LACs, the emphasis on research varies a lot between different schools. Elite LACs like Williams or Harvey Mudd expect a significant research program and regular publication (although not as much as at a research university). Lesser schools just want something that students can work on, and keeps you yourself from going "stale" and burning out. You can sometimes trade off research for campus service activities, like computing and network support at schools that don't have a large IT staff. (That's basically what I did.)

    A typical teaching schedule at a non-elite LAC is probably seven or eight courses per year (three or four per semester), with labs counting as some fraction of a lecture class. Here, one lab course is usually equivalent to 2/3 of a lecture course.
  14. Aug 9, 2015 #13
    I understand. It is indeed a long process, but if I'd be teaching throught it, guess it would be ok. Well, I do intend to earn a PhD (otherwise I guess I wouldn't even be hired by any college), so I don't believe a necessity to research will be a setback for me. Just hope it is not the focus

    Thank you for all your clarification! It seems like the job I'm looking for - do you have any suggestion on what specifically to do during undergrad and grad school to achieve this?
  15. Aug 11, 2015 #14
    You can also get teaching-only positions (with tenure) at small universities. At my school (a state university), most of the professors have tenure and only 6-7 (out of ~9) do research. We even have one professor with tenure with only a master's degree.
  16. Aug 11, 2015 #15

    George Jones

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    Of the tenured faculty not presently doing research, do yo know how many did research in the period leading to tenure?
  17. Aug 11, 2015 #16
    That is interesting Dishsoap! I find it encouraging. Do anyone who replied here have any recommendation as to actions taken during Undergrad and Grad School for a career plan as these? In schools more focused on teaching?
  18. Aug 11, 2015 #17


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    How old is he? He may be a holdover from an era of looser standards for T&P at that school. When I arrived at the college where I work, 30 years ago, there were a handful of tenured faculty with only master's degrees, in various departments. We still have one, who was already here when I arrived. However, we now require that all new tenure-track faculty have a terminal degree in their field, which usually means a Ph.D. Exceptions are mainly in fields like art and music, where the highest degree in performance is a master's.
  19. Aug 11, 2015 #18
    Good point, I believe all of them did.

    Interesting, never thought about that. I'd put him in his mid-50's.
  20. Aug 11, 2015 #19


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    During undergraduate, the best I can suggest is to tutor other students. If your university or department has a formal program to set up peer-to-peer tutoring sessions, take advantage of them. There may also be opportunities to work as a lab assistant, in setting up introductory labs and helping the lab instructor run them.

    In grad school in the US, most students have to teach as part of their financial aid package, at least during the first few years. Where I went to grad school (U of Michigan) this was mostly in introductory labs, but more advanced grad students often taught recitation sessions (where students go over homework problems and ask questions that they don't have a chance to do in the large lecture sessions that professors teach).

    I also taught a couple of classes outside the university, at a local community college, when I needed more money at one point. This turned out to be useful for references after I decided to go the LAC route.

    You almost certainly won't get a tenure-track position right after grad school. You'll probably have to take at least one temporary position first. When a professor at a LAC goes on sabbatical, the college has to hire someone to fill in for him. I started my career as a two-year "visiting assistant professor", filling in for two professors in a row. This was a full-time salaried position, with benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions, etc.). Then I got my tenure-track (eventually tenured) position at a different school. There are also adjunct positions which are usually part-time, paid per course and don't usually have benefits. These are less desirable, but you may have to make do with those for a while.

    Finally, I think one factor helped me at least a bit: that I had done my undergrad at a LAC, enjoyed it there and was familiar with that kind of environment. I made sure to point that out in my application letters. Coming from outside the US, you won't have that factor, but if you can get a visiting or adjunct position at a LAC to start with, that will give you some experience with them. LACs in the US are usually small (1000-2000 students), and many are located in small towns in rural areas in the Midwest (where I went to college) and the Southeast (where I am now). I happen to like small-town life, but I know a lot of people can't stand living in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest medium-sized city an hour's drive away, and the nearest "real city" like Chicago or Atlanta or New York being even further away.
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2015
  21. Aug 11, 2015 #20
    The state university I've been working at is moving away from adjuncts, and is instead hiring "lecturers". These are full-time teaching jobs: not tenured, but with opportunities for promotion and a moderate amount of job security. As we seem to be in the middle of a backlash against adjuncts, you might start seeing this sort of position appear in more places.

    That said: don't limit yourself too soon. Allow yourself to consider all sorts of career possibilities, from high school teacher through head researcher running a big lab, and maybe even paths you've never even heard of before. Academia is a hard career; you need all the open doors you can get.
  22. Aug 24, 2015 #21
    Thanks for you response jtbell! Sorry I took a long time, I didn't receive an email for some reason. Anyway, I will try to follow those suggestions. I intend to take my opportunity as a TA during Grad School seriously, and tutoring is one of the first things I will look for after my first semester or so on the university. I actually am applying to Universities in the US (and some LACs are strong options for me, like Harvey Mudd and Williams), so I will maybe be able to attest for what you mentioned. Do you know if there exists the opportunities of doing REU-style teaching positions in LACs during summer? Where one would help in labs and etc, like a TA, but during the summer, in a school one is not enrolled? It would seem like a great opportunity, but I'm not sure I've heard of it

    Scott, interesting point. I try not to limit myself, this post was just to look for the security I seemed to find lacking, would I not research. I do intend to try all paths possible, and keep open doors. Thanks :)
  23. Aug 24, 2015 #22
    Is there anyone here with experience/knowledge in/about LACs in Canada? Or LAC-like universities, I am not sure there exist exact correspondents on LACs there. Just curious because my main goal later in life would be to settle in Canada :P
  24. Aug 26, 2015 #23


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    I've never heard of those things, either. Smaller schools don't run very many classes during the summer, and any opportunities for lab assistants etc. go to their own students. They don't involve formal "teaching", but rather setting up and taking down equipment, and circulating among the students during the lab sessions to help them with the apparatus and answer questions. Professors normally do most or all of the lecturing at these schools, because there are no graduate students.

    Something I forgot to mention is that you will likely take some courses where you have to give a presentation to the other students in the class. Or when you do research, you often have to give a presentation about that at some point. That gives your professors a chance to comment about your teaching ability when appropriate in applications for grad school or jobs.
  25. Sep 1, 2015 #24
    I understand. I will apply myself in these presentations. Well, nothing is certain, but it is good to know that I have options outside (while not without) research. Thank you for your responses jtbell! Have a good one!
  26. Sep 1, 2015 #25
    Universities occasionally have lecturer positions as well. My university (very high research activity, fairly well respected, and in the US) has a handful of lecturers in the physics and math departments. They do no research - they only teach, and with the exception of 1 (who had a tenure track position but had a serious breach of conduct resulting in his demotion) they mostly stick to the intro classes - calc 1 through diff eq, intro linear algebra, mechanics, E&M, and modern physics. Some of these lecturers have master's degrees, and some have doctorates.
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