Today as part of the Conviron Scholars program we had a panel discussion about careers in academia, and I thought I’d share my experiences as a PUI (Primarily Undergraduate Institution) prof, and encourage you to consider this as a possible career option.

First, there are many “flavors” of PUIs. Some are small and private, some are large and public. Some have very little expectation for faculty engagement in research, and for some it is a crucial part of the job.

From 1995 – 2009, I was a professor at Harvey Mudd College (HMC), a small, private liberal arts college (currently ranked 12th in the US News Rankings). Liberal arts colleges are amazing places to be a student or a professor (and they’re not cheap – current tuitions are more than $50,000 per year). There are two strong benefits to being a student at a liberal arts college – small classes, and faculty whose primary role is to teach.

I know many professors at small liberal arts colleges and most agree that it is a fantastic career, provided that you enjoy teaching and find it rewarding. I’ve also known some who felt frustrated by the challenges of doing research at a small liberal arts college and left.

Teaching at a PUI

The teaching loads vary considerably from place to place. At Harvey Mudd (and many of the more selective liberal arts colleges), faculty research is valued, so the teaching loads are high but not onerous. It’s not uncommon for a R1 professor (R1 is a designation for the most productive research universities- Berkeley and the University of Illinois for example) to give only a handful of lectures per year, whereas if you are at a PUI you can teach 3 – 6 (or more) courses per year. My typical course load was about 10 – 12 contact hours per week, which doesn’t sound like a lot except for the fact that in addition to the classroom time there is course preparation time, time spent outside of the classroom meeting with students, and time spent on assessment and feedback.

Small liberal arts colleges have fewer faculty members than big research universities, meaning that any one professor has to teach a broader range of topics. Many years ago we did a survey at an ASPB PUI breakfast and found that most PUI faculty spend less than half their time teaching about plants; the remainder was teaching cell/molecular biology or ecology/environmental biology (depending on the research interests of the scientist).

In my time at Harvey Mudd, I taught half of an Integrative Physiology course every year, a Plant Development course every other year, and the rest of my teaching was spent on various courses including Introductory Biology, Cell Biology, Biochemistry or Molecular Biology.

What’s nice about teaching at a liberal arts college is that the courses tend to be small, and the quality of the interaction between instructor and student tends to be high. Few courses are taught strictly through lecturing – the dominant mode of teaching is through the instructor facilitating students engaged in active learning activities (also known as “flipped teaching”). You don’t already have to be an expert teacher to apply for a job at a PUI, but it helps to have some familiarity with this style of teaching. There is also support for professional development including  opportunities to attend workshops and seminars that help you develop your skills as a teacher, and mentoring programs.

Research at a PUI

Again, there is plenty of variation in the research expectations at PUIs. Some expect you to bring in grant money to support your research and publish in reasonably high-impact journals, others don’t. Fortunately, the NSF is very supportive of research at undergraduate institutions and has special awards set aside for faculty at PUIs. Through support from the NSF I was able to fund dozens of undergraduate researchers to engage in summer research projects, buy equipment and supplies, travel to conferences and bring students to conferences.

Some PUIs have Master’s degree students, and some faculty at PUIs have postdoctoral fellows working with them, often through combined research / teaching fellowships. Nevertheless, much of the actual research gets done by the faculty member and undergraduates. Therefore, the methods used have to be fairly easy-to-master (for students) and easy to fit in around teaching duties (for the professor). Genetic screens and basic molecular or bioinformatics methods can take you a long way though. Many professors at PUIs collaborate with university scientists, taking on a small, accessible chunk of the work to do with their skill-limited students and limited resources. For many years I worked on a multi-disciplinary "Optical Coherence Microscopy" project with faculty from the HMC Physics and Engineering Departments which was exceptionally rewarding and helped me appreciate the value of interdisciplinary teams and how to manage them. 

It helps to realize that research at a PUI is an extension of teaching. Students at many PUIs are required to carry out a research project under the supervision of a professor, so mentoring undergraduate researchers is considered a form of one-on-one teaching. It also helps if research skills are an integral part of the curriculum. For example, first or second year students can read research articles as part of a course, and design experiments to test simple hypotheses in their lab courses.  It’s also possible for a faculty member’s research to form the basis of a teaching lab; for example, students could contribute to a chemical genetics screen to look at the effects of uncharacterized compounds on Arabidopsis growth.

Benefits and limitations of working at a PUI

If you find teaching rewarding and feel that you can get satisfaction from helping college students learn and discover their passion for science, you might enjoy a career at a PUI. People who don’t particularly like teaching, don’t particularly like students, or feel resentful that their teaching duties crowd out their research time are not happy at PUIs. Very few PUI faculty get the external recognition and validation that their peers at R1 institutions can receive – you’re less likely to give a keynote address at a conference, you probably won’t become a member of the National Academy of Science, and you almost certainly won’t win a Nobel Prize. But, if you are good at your job, you’ll make a significant positive impact on hundreds or thousands of young, impressionable learners, enjoy the collegiality of working at a teaching-focused institution, and find colleagues who are similarly passionate about teaching plant science.

When I started at HMC in 1995 I was advised to start attending the ASPB Plant Biology meetings regularly, which is where I found a vibrant and engaged community of PUI plant biology faculty with whom to share joys and challenges. Every Plant Biology meeting features a PUI networking session which is open to the “just curious”, so if this career path sounds at all intriguing I urge you to attend. There is also a PUI network on the Plantae site. 

I’m sure others at PUIs have their own insights and contributions to share, and I and others would be happy to answer any questions about a career at a PUI.