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Is teaching a viable field?

  1. Mar 29, 2012 #1
    I hear horror stories about the inability to find a tenure track position and that sort of thing. What I would like to know is whether teaching is a viable option. Nevermind tenure track research stuff, I want to a actually teach. I'm certain that I will learn whether this is truly my desire in grad school though.

    Is it even a viable goal at this point? I would even be satisfied teaching at a small liberal arts school, or a community college. What's the probability of finding such a job? Does all the hype over the "illusive tenure track job" apply to only those that want to actually work in physics, applied, theoretical, or otherwise? I know that universities aren't exactly looking for quality teachers in the first place, since, from what I gather, that's not what makes them any money, but what hope is there for me to find a job?

    To clarify, I am not interested in teaching highschool.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 30, 2012 #2


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    Most small liberal-arts schools nowadays expect faculty to do at least some publishable research. The expectations aren't as great as at research-oriented universities, and they do vary significantly from one school to another. Usually the emphasis is on research that undergraduates can participate in, because most of these schools are undergraduate-only.

    The rigor of the tenure/promotion process also varies from one school to another. At some schools, if you get along with the other faculty in your department, and the students like you, it's pretty hard not to get tenure. At others they look at your research seriously.

    I'm not as familiar with the community-college level, but my impression is that many faculty are part-timers. Also, those schools don't offer the upper-level courses that four-year schools do, so the teaching load is pretty much introductory physics, both algebra-based and calculus-based.

    I seem to remember statistics being posted here not too long ago that the total number of physics positions at undergraduate-only schools is in the same general ballpark as the number of positions at research-oriented schools, maybe somewhat fewer.
  4. Mar 30, 2012 #3
    What about outside of physics, are things better there? This document, shows where recent PhD alumni of the Stony Brook applied math program ended up at and I saw a surprisingly high number of people who moved directly into an assistant professor job, without passing via postdoc. Is that just a lucky coincidence or are there more faculty positions within applied mathematics?

    My apologies for hijacking the thread. :$
  5. Mar 30, 2012 #4

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    JTBell's is right: the AIP puts out statistics, and according to their latest numbers there are 9100 full time faculty positions, 5400 in PhD-granting departments. At my local community college, for the longest time they had one line faculty member, who was the department head: his job was to line up the part timers to teach the bulk of the classes. They now have a "pre-engineering" program in that department, and have hired a second line faculty member, presumably to line up the part-timers to teach classes in that program.

    Four-year schools get many applications for each position. One thing where applicants do themselves a disservice is when their packet looks like, "I wasn't able to get my dream job at Harvard, but I am willing to grace your college with my presence for a couple of years while I angle for a real position". The reaction that these applications get is predictable.

    Mépris, you have to be really, really careful about statistics in other fields, particularly mathematics. There are a good number of people who have an MS and are teaching at colleges at the "instructor" level, often for years, and are kept their by lack of a PhD. They get a PhD somewhere, and are promoted to assistant professor at the same place they have been teaching all along. At least one name on your list seems to fall into this category, but whether or not that is the case isn't the main point, which is different fields are different.
  6. Mar 30, 2012 #5


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    Yep. In my 27 years in a three-person department, we've conducted six faculty searches IIRC. We've always had at least 100 applicants. At least once it was over 200, even though we're not in the ranks of places like Williams, Middlebury, Reed, Oberlin, etc. In our first cut of screening applications, we always look for signs that the applicant seriously wants to put teaching first, and is not planning to jump "higher up the ladder" at the first opportunity.
  7. Mar 30, 2012 #6
    I know for a fact that the community colleges in my state want great educators and not credentials. I'm taking one class at a community college this semester and for a math position they got down to 10 or so applicants then they enter "teaching demos." They perform a 2 hour lecture in front of students and the department then they receive feedback from the watchers. I love this idea because I've seen many "intelligent" professors at my university that simply can not convey simple ideas and it's very frustrating.

    The best "professor" at my university isn't even a professor, she has a masters and her title is a Senior Lecturer. She breaks things down to a students level with intuitive concepts and analogies. I would gladly pay twice as much in tuition if she taught all my classes. This semester I'm stuck with some hotshot research chump that rambles on about in 1970's they had analog computers.. blah blah. Cool story bro.
  8. Mar 30, 2012 #7
    I taught myself multivariable calculus this winter in order to excel in Differential Equations this semester, which I am taking along side multivar calculus. Since at this point the concepts are well known to me, I have been leading a study session twice a week, in which I essentially re-teach the subject. It started off rather small, but now around 1/2 the class shows up! I also work as a mathematics tutor at a local community college, simply because I enjoy it (It's certainly not the pay).

    I want to pursue a PhD, because I want to pursue a PhD. It really has nothing to do with job prospects at this point, or salary. I'm just worried that I won't be able to find work, since apparently, everyone wants to work in academia, myself included, just not doing some groundbreaking research or whatever.

    A few professors at the community college are excellent. By comparison, all of my professors at the university I attend are horrible excuses for lecturers and are almost completely unapproachable since they are too busy doing some sort of research. My classes are almost entirely taught by the TA's!
  9. Mar 30, 2012 #8
    Over the last year, I applied at some liberal arts schools and was surprised to find in interviews I was asked as much or more about research than I was about teaching.

    In particular, every institution was concerned that HEP theory was inappropriate research to try and bring undergrads into. If I could do it again, I would have contacted liberal arts schools to find out what I should do to be effective at applying to their institutions and probably chosen a different sub-specialty. I recommend you do just that when you start grad school. Remember that your advisors in research institutions don't actually know much about liberal arts institutions and may give you awful advice.

    Now, at the community college level, its pretty hard to make a go of it, and I imagine it will only get harder as time goes by. None of the three community colleges in my area has a full time physics professor- one used to have a position, but he retired in the last few years and wasn't replaced. Instead they have an administrator who assigns classes to the adjuncts. The adjunct work pays $2k per class.

    You can find always find work, but there is a high probability you won't be able to find work where you do any physics/use the skills you spent so long developing. My cohort was probably hammered by the recession, but most of us have ok jobs, however very, very few of us are still doing physics in any capacity. Most of my cohort did one postdoc, and then was totally out of the field.
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2012
  10. Mar 30, 2012 #9
    Wow, both of the community colleges in my area have at least 3 full time physics professors. I went to one for all my math courses up to calculus II and I only once had an adjunct professor.

    Contacting some schools sounds like good advice Particlegirl, thanks.
  11. Mar 30, 2012 #10
    I think the relevant question is how long they had been there- I think at some point there was a culture shift from few full-time profs to several adjuncts. They won't fire the full-time profs (probably tenured) but they may replace them with adjuncts when they retire.

    It also might be my location- there are a number of research institutions nearby, so the number of grad students who wouldn't mind picking up an extra $2k is pretty high.
  12. Mar 30, 2012 #11
    Well, I'm not specifically looking to work at a liberal arts school or community college. More generally, I am interested in knowing the odds of finding a well paying job, that has some emphasis on teaching to begin with. I might actually enjoy research, and a university might be a good fit for me, however unlikely the position availability is.

    I can only speak for the cc I work at, but one physics professor retired and was replaced by another full time. There are zero adjunct physics professors there. I know practically everyone in the math department, and I can only think of one or two adjunct mathematics professors, and those few mainly teach online courses or hybrid courses.

    I am also near a huge research university, so I would think they would have no shortage of applicants for any adjunct positions they had. I have spoken to some of the professors there about sensitive topics such as salary, and have came to the conclusion that they make around 60-80k annually, though I do not know how that income corresponds to the amount of courses they teach.
  13. Mar 30, 2012 #12
    I know at my community college we have 3 full time physics professors and 2 adjuncts. 1 of the full timers and 1 adjunct teach the physics for non-science majors, and the full timer spends his other classes teaching astronomy. One teaches physics for bio majors and E&M for physics majors, while the other two teach Mechanics for physics majors. One adjunct left and they didn't replace him this semester.
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