by Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, Ph.D.
A little over a year ago I graduated from a doctoral program in chemistry education research. It was a long road filled with challenges and triumphs. Of course, it is easy to generically call them “challenges and triumphs” when one is looking back on an already completed goal; but when one is living it, going through the daily trials, the process might seem more arduous than what was anticipated. In order to keep my motivation up, I found it extremely helpful to keep my eye on the prize, to constantly remind myself why I had decided to embark on the journey through graduate school. In my case, I wanted to be a college professor. I wanted to be able to teach chemistry to society’s future scientists, physicians, pharmacists, and any other professional who might go on to have a positive impact in the world. I wanted to impact students in an encouraging and supportive way; me being a minority twice over (Latino and gay), I particularly wished to mentor and inspire students from underrepresented groups in STEM. The desire to teach and mentor became my driving force, and that lead me to the decision that I would focus on “instructor positions” as I planned my next step after graduation.
The jargon in academia can sometimes be confusing, so let me tell you what I mean by “instructor positions”. By that I mean positions in academia that focus on teaching and service, not so much on research. Don’t get me wrong, I think research is cool and I enjoyed doing research during my graduate school years, but it is honestly not something I can envision doing every day for the rest of my life. I wanted to be in the classroom as much as possible, I wanted to interact with undergraduates and help them as much as I could, and I realized that an instructor position would permit me to fully dedicate myself to these endeavors. So after many applications and interviews, I ended up accepting an instructor position at the University of South Florida, and I am extremely happy with my decision.
So what has it been like so far? Most of my time is spent teaching, designing course curricula, helping students in office hours, and training/mentoring my graduate teaching assistants (T.A.s). It has definitely been challenging, but when you are doing something you love, you do not mind the hard work. This semester I have around 650 undergraduate students spread across all my sections, and most of them are first-year students. Since most of them are new to college life, I have found that it is my job not only to teach them chemistry, but also to teach them how college works. I am constantly answering questions like: What exactly are office hours? How does the online homework system work? How should I prepare for the exam? And so on and so forth. It takes a huge amount of patience and dedication. Nobody tells you that “working with people” really means “having to repeat the same thing at least ten times within a single hour”. But that’s ok, you know why? Because it is precisely those students with questions who need the most help, and helping them is my job! Having a positive experience during the first year of college can make the difference between a student finishing a STEM degree or not finishing it, or even finishing any degree for that matter. So I try to see it as a privilege. I teach a gatekeeper course, and I have to open that gate as far as I can, so that all students can pass through and achieve their goals.
If you are thinking about applying for instructor positions, you need to get as much teaching experience as you can. This can most commonly be achieved through teaching assistantships, which are fairly common among graduate programs in chemistry. Contribute as much as you can: volunteer for implementing relevant curricular reforms, volunteer to design new laboratory experiences, volunteer to be the “head T.A.” for a course, try serving both as a laboratory T.A. and a lecture T.A. Do a good job so that your faculty supervisor can write you a good letter of recommendation when the moment arrives. When you prepare your CV, include all of these things under “Teaching Experience”, offer details of all your responsibilities and duties. I think it is better to include too much information than too little information, so be specific about your skills, contributions, and achieved goals within each course for which you are a T.A. (or instructor).
Another important aspect of applying for instructor positions is having a solid teaching philosophy statement. Your teaching philosophy should reflect the underlying assumptions and strategies that inform your daily practice as an educator. It should have some sort of a theoretical framework as the foundation, but make sure you include tangible ways in which that theoretical framework informs your practice. Be as inspiring as you can be but stay grounded in reality, and include a couple of references within it for good measure.
Announcements for instructor positions can be found in online academic jobs sites (e.g. higheredjobs.com) or on academic periodicals (e.g. Chemical & Engineering News). In the end, just focus on being yourself and being sincere. People can tell when you are really passionate about something, and they often respond positively to passion and genuine interest.
Even though instructor positions (typically) earn a little less money than tenure-track positions, I am happy because I am doing exactly what I always wanted to do. I certainly do not discard the option of getting involved with research down the road, but for now I am happy and fulfilled where I am. I feel like I am making a positive difference in the world, and that is the best feeling ever!
So go ahead, follow your dream, remind yourself of it on a daily basis if you must, but keep at it because there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is shiny and beautiful!!
Do not hesitate to e-mail me to firstname.lastname@example.org if I can be of assistance to you in any way.
Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano is a permanent instructor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. He earned a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico – Río Piedras Campus and a Ph.D. in chemistry, specializing in chemistry education research, from Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.