Home is Where Your CER Is: Pursuing CER at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution

by Jessica VandenPlas, PhD, Grand Valley State University

When I accepted my first tenure track job teaching at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI), I assumed it would be a temporary stop—a stepping stone to the coveted R1 position for which I had been groomed in graduate school.  This was a path I had seen many of my well-respected senior colleagues in the field of chemistry education research (CER) take, and I assumed my path would be no different.  I graduated at a time when there were still very few post docs in CER, and even fewer R1 institutions willing to hire a newly minted grad student without a proven track record, such as myself.  Most of the chemistry education researchers I saw being successful at R1s at the time had started out at PUIs themselves, building up that track record, before moving into these elusive R1 positions.  My plan was to use my time at a PUI to build a similar track record, and then move on to the position I thought (at the time) I truly wanted.  However, as is the case with many temporary stops, this one has become my home. Some 10 years later, although freshly-graduated-Jessie would have rolled her eyes at this, it is a position I have grown to love, and honestly cannot see myself leaving.

From Surviving to Thriving

So, what changed?  My perspective, mostly!  Like many graduate students, I had a hard time visualizing what a position at an institution without a graduate program would even look like.  I knew what the program I was in looked like, and I knew what the programs of my fellow CER grad students looked like (mostly!), but I had never attended a PUI, and certainly didn’t know any faculty teaching at that type of institution.  Because of this blind-spot, taking that first PUI job was a little bit of a leap of faith—I didn’t totally know what I was getting into, but I assumed I could survive it a few years until I could move into a position in more familiar territory.  Once I had the job, though, I realized it had all of the pieces of academia that I loved, without many of what I perceived to be the drawbacks of positions at PhD-granting institutions.  My focus became less about surviving this scary place, and more about thriving in it.  For those of you who might have the same blind-spot that I did, here is what I have learned (and learned to love!) about doing CER work at a PUI: the good, the bad, and the somewhat terrifying!

Rough Start

My first tenure-track job was teaching at a small University in the Northern part of Arizona (wink wink!).  I was excited to accept this offer—the chemistry department already had a faculty member doing CER work, the department chair was incredibly supportive of CER as a sub-discipline, and the teaching load seemed reasonable.  Because this was actually a Masters-granting institution, it came with what seemed like an absurdly generous start-up offer, and the possibility that I may someday get to work with a graduate student or two.  However, one drawback to being at a smaller university is that the department you are in will also likely be small—and this means that even one person who doesn’t respect CER, or thinks you are “wasting” a position that could have gone to a “real chemist” (actual quotes!) can make for a very inhospitable environment.  My undergraduate research assistants were regularly approached about leaving my group to do “real chemistry” research, and I struggled to get a research program off the ground. It was an incredibly isolating experience and taught me the importance of environment—whether you are at an R1 or a PUI or anything in between, the fit of the department can make all the difference in the world. 

Another concern I had not anticipated when I accepted this position was the type of research the department expected from me.  My application materials and interview responses were very clear about the focus of my research—studying how students learn.  However, as a small department, many people were unclear on what, exactly, constituted chemistry education research, and many unfortunately assumed they were hiring someone who would do a large amount of curriculum development and course coordination to benefit the department.  While I know many talented folks who do just this, I am not one of them, and this mismatch in expectations also contributed to some of the difficulties I faced in my time in Arizona.  I learned from this that I needed to ask more questions of a new department, and to ensure we were both envisioning my role in the same way.

When a position opened up at Grand Valley State University, an institution I knew to be very supportive of chemical education researchers, and home to many people I greatly admired, I knew I had to apply.  Although I had only been in Arizona three years at the time, I doubted my ability to get tenure in a department that would never be impressed with my work, regardless of how many grants or publications or awards I accrued.  Interviewing at GVSU was therefore a disorienting experience!  There were already 5 CER faculty in the department when I interviewed, and they had nothing but good things to say about the support they received from the department, and the mutual respect they had for their colleagues.  And talking to the other chemists in the department, I was pleasantly surprised by how much they already knew about CER, and the quality of questions they asked about both teaching and research.  When I was lucky enough to be offered the position, I took it without hesitation.  Having now been at GVSU for seven years, I feel I can offer some perspective on what this particular PUI has been like for me.

Teaching: More Classes, Less Students

One large difference between being at a PUI and being at a larger institution is the type of teaching the faculty are expected to do—both in terms of teaching load, and the types of courses one may be asked to teach.  My teaching load is much higher than that of the R1 colleagues I talk to, and regularly includes 2-3 lecture courses per semester, as well as a small number of labs.  With no graduate students, all teaching (and grading!) is done by faculty members, meaning my teaching load extends beyond the classroom quite a bit.  I choose to embrace this higher teaching load—for one, I came to CER as a discipline because I enjoy teaching, and helping students achieve their goals!  The research part of my brain also appreciates the almost too-good-to-be true set-up of having paired lecture sections completely under my control, that allow me to try out the occasional teaching intervention for data collection. 

Another difference in teaching at a PUI is course size.  I have never in my career had to teach a 300+ student lecture, which I know is a de rigueur experience at larger institutions.  While I still occasionally teach a large course (the largest courses in our chemistry department span about 130 students), I also frequently teach courses in the 20-80 student range.  I enjoy the experience of actually getting to know my students, rather than looking out at what I assume is an absolutely terrifying mass of unknown faces in a huge lecture hall! I am able to identify students who are struggling and reach out to help them get through the course, or to identify students that are excelling, and help them find experiences to complement their skills.  While I have no doubt this is possible at a larger institution, I feel more connected to a greater number of students in my little corner of the world, and am grateful for this opportunity to watch them grow through their time here. 

Scholarship: Embracing the Journey

For someone who comes to CER not just because they love teaching, but also because they love research, one of the main challenges of being at a PUI is, of course, the lack of graduate students.  While there are certainly advantages to not having a cadre of grad students to manage (no dissertations to read or defenses to nervously sit through!), working with undergraduate research assistants brings its own challenges.  The first is that these students do not have a background in chemistry education research, and I am not allowed to send them off to take a few years of graduate courses to get them up to speed.  Instead, they require more training than grad students, and there are some aspects of the research that the majority of them will not be able to do, like higher order statistical analyses.  At the same time, my undergraduate researchers have proven far more capable than I initially would have given them credit for.  While they may not have a background in qualitative or quantitative methods, they very quickly pick up skills like interviewing, conducting eye-tracking studies, or building studies in complicated programs like ePrime.  While this requires more of my time up front than graduate students might, all of my research students have risen to the occasion, and all have taken extreme pride and ownership of their projects.

The larger problem of working with undergraduate students only is a matter of timescale.  Where graduate students can dedicate their entire waking life (and much of their non-waking life as well!) to their research, undergraduate students are carrying full course loads, many are working full time, and almost all are busy applying to various graduate programs, professional schools, and actual real-life jobs.  On average, they may have 5-10 hours per week to dedicate to research.  This, coupled with the already slow nature of CER work, means that studies that I could conceivably complete in a semester at an R1 with a dedicated grad student or two may take me years to complete at a PUI.  This can be frustrating, particularly when the research is exciting and I would like to get it out before better staffed (and better funded!) labs beat me to the punch, so it has required a slight adjustment of my expectations.  Research at a PUI is very much summarized by the thought “it’s not the destination that matters, it is the journey that counts!”  Getting publications or grants is considered a bonus in my department—we celebrate each and every publication or grant that our colleagues get, but what we truly value is giving our undergraduates this invaluable research experience.   I am not constantly under pressure to bring in a particular dollar amount pre-tenure, or to reach a certain publication record in order to keep my job.  Instead, I am encouraged to take as many undergraduate researchers as I feel I can thoughtfully mentor, and to give them an authentic research experience where they are doing more than washing dishes.  Taking them to professional meetings to give a poster presentation is seen as being at least as prestigious as giving a talk myself, and in many cases, is even more respected.  Getting a publication is certainly commended, but publishing with a student co-author is one of the most valued activities I can engage in.

While I am sometimes disappointed when I look at my research productivity compared to that of my CER colleagues who have gone a different route, I never feel under pressure to spend my time writing grants or pursuing projects that aren’t interesting to me but may be more “fundable” than what I want to do.  I can still go into my research space and get my hands dirty, and I have the time and space to do that.  Most often, I find this time and space during the summer months.  Because of the higher teaching load at a PUI, it is difficult to maintain research momentum during the academic year, and research often gets pushed to the side until summer.  However, because of this, the department comes alive in the summer, and there are undergraduate research students everywhere, creating an amazing and inspiring sense of community.

Because pursuing funding is considered a really nice bonus thing to do rather than a baseline expectation, my department and my university both have pots of internal money I can go after if I need to get a new project off the ground, so I never stress about making sure my students are supported or that I have the funds to keep the lights on in the lab.  This does mean that funding can be tight, and that I am not always able to wrangle a summer salary for myself, but the support for my students (not just salary, but supplies and travel as well) more than makes up for this to me.  And if all of this means that I will not be a superstar publishing a dozen papers a year, I have made peace with that, because I am in a place that values the work that I do, exactly as I choose to do it.

Home is Where Your CER Is

While being at a PUI is not where I saw my career headed, it is where I see my career continuing for a very long time.  While no job is stress-free, the stresses at a PUI are different from the stresses at a larger institution in a way that really matches my priorities.  If a heavy teaching load and sometimes brutally slow research agenda would make you cranky, it is possible that you would be miserable at a PUI.  However, if you truly love teaching, love working one-on-one with undergraduate students, and are ok viewing research more as a teaching tool than a life goal, a PUI might be for you, too.

Jessica VandenPlas, PhD
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Grand Valley State University