What They Don't Teach You in Grad School: Part II

By David E. Drew and Paul Gray
Inside Higher Ed
December 8, 2005

In our first list of tips for an academic career, we covered finishing the dissertation and finding a first job. In this article our topics are teaching and service, research, and grants. Subsequent articles will offer tips for later stages and parts of academic careers.

I. Teaching and Service

1. All faculty members, whether at a teaching or a research institution, spend a considerable portion of their life in the classroom and involved in service that helps govern the institution. Teaching is a necessary condition for staying in academe. Furthermore, you may find that teaching and mentoring provide some of your most rewarding professional experiences. You have the opportunity to have a positive impact on your students careers and lives.

2. Teaching is a great personal satisfaction and an important public good that you perform. However, publications are your only form of portable wealth.

3. Some people want to be professors, love to teach, and believe that research is a necessary evil to get their ticket punched. Without publishing, it is impossible to receive tenure in most colleges, particularly research universities. Happily, however, the pendulum has swung. There are now many colleges, and even some universities, where teaching is valued and rewarded on its own merit. But, better be a super teacher.

4. Teaching is a learned art. As such it follows a learning curve. Your first effort will not be as good as your second and your second, in turn, not as good as your third. However there is a limit as to how good you will get. In other words, your teaching ratings will peak out and then remain essentially constant. Eventually, you will be bored by the course and your teaching ratings will go down. Don't despair. It is a natural phenomenon. Often it is a result of aging; faculty over 40 relate less and less each year to 18-year-old freshmen if they don't have kids at home. Decreasing teaching ratings are a signal that it is time for you to teach a different course or students at a different level. You may have to strong arm your department chair, but change you must.

5. Improving your teaching requires a) that you determine and acknowledge the areas where you need to improve, and b) that you then follow through and actually change your teaching. First, see what you can learn from student evaluations of your courses (Most universities allow you to read the evaluations, while protecting the anonymity of the student reviewers.) Don't be defensive. Read the evaluations with a thick skin and see what you can learn from them. Then try to use this knowledge to become a more effective instructor. Remove your ego from the process and focus your teaching on one goal: You want each student to learn as much as possible.Go to Toastmasters if you need tips on how to be both entertaining and informative in front of a group of students. We have seen it work in many cases. Ignore the fact that Toastmasters attracts mostly business people. The environment gives you privacy.

6. Meeting classes is paramount. Don't cancel classes because it is inconvenient for you to meet them. If, for example, you are out of town attending a national scholarly meeting on a class day, arrange for a colleague to cover for you or arrange a makeup time with the class. If you know far enough in advance when you will be out of town, you can arrange an examination to fall on that day. Be sure it is proctored properly. You gain more ill will from students for missing classes than for anything else. If you miss a lot of classes, even if they are covered by someone else, they will resent you. Students assume that they are taking the class from you, not from a collection of substitutes. They will take it out on you on your class ratings. They will complain to the department chair and your colleagues. You will pile up debts to colleagues that you will have to repay by covering their classes for them. If you have to repay a lot of such debts, you will lose valuable time from your research and hence from your tenure clock.

7. Distance learning is a blessing. Distance learning is a threat. It is a blessing because you can reach students who would otherwise not have the opportunity to learn from you or to savor the beauties of your field. It is a threat because one possible scenario is that colleges and universities will learn that it is cheaper to buy the infrastructure for distance learning than building new buildings or hiring new professors. With distance learning you can instruct (some would say distract) hundreds simultaneously, not just 10 or 30 in your classroom. Also, if you are not a super teacher on video or the Internet, there may be little future market for your services even if you are a great researcher.

8. The death rate among aunts and grandmothers of college-age students is phenomenal, far beyond anything actuarial. It is biased toward exam time. A death in the family is the standard excuse for missing classes and examinations. Although some students are remarkably inventive in concocting stories, most are not. Faced with such an excuse, be aware that the student may be working you. These things are also cyclical. If one student gets away with it, others follow and you have a veritable epidemic among your students relatives.

9. Believe it or not, cheating is widespread at some undergraduate institutions. It you give tests, prepare alternative forms and interweave them. Thus, each student who gets Form A is bracketed by two people who receive Form B. Reproduce A and B on different color paper, since students have been known to switch exams. If you are color-blind, make sure the copying staff does not use red and green paper.

10. Teaching can be a dangerous profession. It doesn't happen very often, but a student can come into your office or your building and shoot at you or do other physical harm. The cases are sufficiently rare that they are remembered individually. Usually, these incidents are associated with a student failure or grievance. A San Diego State University engineering student who was failed by a three-person committee shot and killed all of them. These rare incidents introduce workplace risk into the academic profession. As a faculty member you are a public person. Your actions affect the lives of real people. Students are prone to the same mental disturbances as the society as a whole. A few will be sufficiently unbalanced that they will take harmful action.

11. Avoid serving on a committee on which you have technical expertise. If you know something about libraries, don't serve on the library committee. If you do, you will be put on the subgroup (or, worse, become the subgroup) to make recommendations or solve the mess in your area of expertise. Such service will eat up enormous amounts of your time with little visible result and even less personal gain for you.

12. Of the people who receive a Ph.D., the mode of the number of articles published is 0 followed closely by 1. That is, if you count how many articles people actually publish, more publish 0 or 1 than any other number. The research also shows that if you publish something while in graduate school, you are much more likely to keep publishing after you finish. If you are a researcher, be thankful for this statistic. It reduces the competition for the limited number of papers that a journal can publish in an issue. If you are a teacher, take solace in these modal values because they show that there are many people like you who value the art of teaching over research.

II. Research

1. Whether you go to a research or a teaching institution, you will want to keep up your research. As we said in the section above, teaching is a great personal satisfaction but research productivity is your prime form of portable wealth.

2. If you want a research career, make sure that the position you are offered allows you to actually do research. If at all possible, negotiate in advance with your future department chair and dean about your conditions of work. Ask for reduced teaching loads and committee assignments in your first years, seed money for research expenses until you get your grants, equipment (particularly computing equipment), graduate assistants, and more. In particular, obtain a guarantee that you will teach the same courses for the first few years. Your teaching ratings will be better and you will not divert your energies from research by preparing new courses. Since many of these items soak up scarce resources, get them written into your offer letter. If you come in without them it is highly unlikely you will get them later. Even in a tough job market, these goodies can be obtained. Once you have been selected, especially if you are the first choice, the department is just as hot for you as you are for them.

3. Understand that you have a trade-off between teaching load and research opportunities. The terms themselves speak volumes about the priorities in many leading universities where, unfortunately, low status is accorded to committed and effective teaching. If you do little research, you will not be tenured in a research (i.e., publish or perish) institution. If you do even a little research in some teaching institutions, it may be held against you; certainly, if you do a lot of research it will not be considered a good thing by some. You can tell what kind of institution you are dealing with by examining the teaching load. A slate of four or five 3-unit classes every semester leaves most people so exhausted they do not have the energy to do research on any reasonable time scale. In a research institution, teaching is typically two or three courses a semester. Faculty members are encouraged to obtain outside funding to support their research activities and to reduce their teaching load. (Note that if you use research funds to reduce teaching time, you will not see a penny of it. The money goes to the institution.) If you intend to do research, seek research opportunities.

III. Grantsmanship

1. Doing research is a lot easier if you have a grant, either from outside or from inside the institution. Unfortunately, most novice faculty have no idea how to obtain grants.

2. Learn grantsmanship. It is a skill like any other. If necessary, attend special workshops. Educate yourself about who funds your type of research. Don't be snobbish! You may feel deep down that you did not train yourself for a life of the mind in order to become a peddler of slick prose to federal and foundation bureaucrats. But an ability to raise money can have a seismic effect on your career. Simply imagine yourself as one of two finalists for the plum academic position you always dreamed about. Your competitor has a $300,000 grant and you don't. What are the odds in your favor?

3. When writing a grant proposal:

Don't be modest. Present the potential contribution of your proposal in the best possible light.

Keep the budget modest, or at least reasonable. Remember that funding agencies like sure things, not risks. They'll give a little money to an unknown. For a large amount they'll want the involvement of a recognized name as a security blanket.

Provide more details about the procedures you will follow than you think is necessary. Your friends and colleagues know that you are skilled at routine procedures such as questionnaire surveys or statistical analysis, but a skeptical reviewer who has never heard of you needs to be reassured.

4. If your brilliant grant proposal is declined (they never use the word rejected), protest! Tell the agency that you understand their shortage of funds but articulate why the research would have been valuable. It will not change the decision. However, it may pave the way for you to resubmit the idea in the next fiscal year or for you to get favorable treatment on the next one.

5. If your proposal is declined, ask whether you can obtain a copy of the reviews. Of course, this requires a thick skin. But, you may learn how you can strengthen the proposal for the next time around.

6. When you prepare a grant proposal, build in an advisory panel of nationally respected experts. (Major think tanks, for example, maintain rosters of such experts, including Nobel Prize winners, who agree to be available for such proposed panels.) Your proposal is a little more likely to be funded. If it is, you will benefit from the advice of the experts and you will expand your network among the top people in the field. Be careful, however. If a national leader agrees to be listed in three or more of your proposals that are declined, he or she may conclude you are a loser. Shuffle the panels from proposal to proposal. Alternatively, once funded, invite some of the leading people in your field to participate in your advisory panel. Often they will consult in this way for free or for modest stipends, certainly much less than their outside consulting fee.

7. Don't count on a grant or contract until you receive the signed letter of approval. (Some people say wait until you've cashed the first check.) Some government and foundation officials enthusiastically encourage ideas they later decline. They will blame the change, sometimes appropriately, on their external reviewers or on their advisory committee. Remember, things change. Don't believe them until they sign even if they guarantee funding for the project.

David Drew and Paul Gray are professors, respectively, of education and information science at Claremont Graduate University.