The education / effort trade-off

So last night's #pubscience discussion was focused on decisions about undergraduate education. Specifically, how our panelists saw the pros and cons of undergraduate education at different types of universities and colleges. These are questions I face regularly at University open houses and in one-on-one conversations with families considering sending their child to the place of my employment.

"What can you offer that comparable universities can't?", "What will my student's job prospects be when they graduate?", "What types of student support are there here?"

Parents and students, alike, are trying to measure their chances of success at a particular place, and importantly, the value of an education there. Price point is increasingly becoming one of the most important criteria when students are selecting a school, IME.

Okay, but what does that mean for me as a professor? Whereas I don't teach as much as some of my colleagues at other institutions (and I teach more than others), I see my share of undergraduate faces every year. As a pretenure prof, balancing the amount of effort I put into teaching is important.

Why? Because teaching won't get you tenure. At least not here. I'm not saying that's right or just or The Way It Should Be, only that it is reality. Without significant* research output, the odds of one passing into the ranks of the tenured are dramatically lessened. This leads us to the great pretenure balancing act - do the best job at teaching that you can without taking too much away from your research effort.

As a specific example, let's take labs. I teach a class that has a lab. The class meets twice a week (1.25hrs ea) and the lab meets twice a week (3hrs ea), but the class is split so that each student only goes to one lab per week. Therefore, I have to prepare roughly 2.5 hrs of material for class per week and 3 hrs for lab. I teach all the class periods unless I am traveling or there is a daycare crisis, but I have a graduate student TA to teach the lab. We meet weekly and I have designed the labs to fit the class, but I am not there to teach the material and go over concepts.

From an undergraduate perspective, this is probably less than ideal. Unless the TA is excellent it would probably be better to have the person who designed the lab exercise and who is teaching the classroom portion to be instructing the lab as well. There's more opportunities to reiterate concepts from class and chances to push students on the core concepts when you have a single person handling all aspects of the course. I know I benefited from this as an undergraduate and I'm sure the students in my class would too.


There's only so many hours in a day and I have been asked to focus more on other parts of my job than on teaching the lab portions of classes. Reinforcing this is the fact the my college pays a graduate student to alleviate me from those duties. I know it would be a better educational experience if I was in the course lab, but my interests and motivation are elsewhere. And so we knowingly sacrifice on the quality of undergraduate education in the name of research and graduate student training (teaching experience).

It's a trade off, and like any compromise, no one is 100% happy with it. But it's the reality of a university that holds it's professors to a research-centric advancement metric.

But before you think I'm leaving you on an anti-bigU down note, one of the most critical points of last night's discussion was that every one of the panelists who went on to careers in science did so because they got into a lab and did actual science. It wasn't their classes that inspired them to head to grad school, it was getting their hands dirty in a research lab. So, while the majority of my students would be better off if I were in the course lab, the 5-7 undergraduates who work in my research lab per year have been afforded an opportunity they would not get if research wasn't thriving here. For those students who end up in science careers, their time in the lab was like a deciding factor.

*"Significant" is purposefully vague to allow for waffle room. Not Waffle House. Mmmm, train wreck omelet....

15 responses so far

  • MTomasson says:

    Proflike, Thanks for adding your thoughts and taking the PSS discussion further. One of the things I love about the community we have going is to see and hear the experiences of insightful colleagues. Research experiences are key, and I'm happy that you highlighted that. Keep up the good work.

  • RP says:

    I think the grad student as a lab TA can go either way. From years of reading your blog, I think it is likely that you are a decent educator. In comparison, your TA may not be as good. (Perhaps just due to inexperience)

    However, there are situations where the lecture course instructor is not good. They may not take time to respond to students' questions effectively, or may be ineffective instructors. In this case, the lab TA may be able to really help the students. Since labs typically compliment the lecture material, hearing the topic presented a different way, or having an opportunity to have questions addressed may be greatly beneficial to the students.

    If both the lecture and lab instructor are good, then the students really benefit from the reinforcement of the material. If both are bad...

  • New Ass. Prof. says:

    Another solid option is to seek out a SLAC with geographic proximity to (and a good relationship with) larger research endeavors - think NIH, pharma/biotech hubs - that actively encourages its students to do internships outside the school. This route was a fabulous fit for me and I don't regret it for a minute - it was the best of both worlds. My college lab experiences were relevant (DNA gels and such as a freshman), so I started independent study on a small marine ecology project for one of my professors as a sophomore. While I think every experiment was fraught with failure and that experience instilled in me a passionate hatred of cleaning glassware in an acid bath, I gained the bench skills needed to get an internship at a biotech company my junior year. There, I got to work on my PI's side project that he brought along from his postdoc and had some protected time to pursue. That turned into a paid job in the summer and after graduation, still on the discovery side rather than the service side.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Truth. Send your kids to a SLAC w/o research pretension, parents. They can find "lab experiences" in the summer.

  • zb says:

    We had good TA's in lab, back in the 80's, in a major league R1. But, I fear that those TA's are now experiencing the same crunch to spend time in their own PhD labs and not on their TA work in ways that may diminish the undergraduate experience of TA-led labs.

    I think you're expressing the reasonable incentives you face. The question is, what should the undergraduate student do in the circumstance you describe. I think the answer might depend on what kind of student you are -- i.e. if you don't care about classes, and are a self-motivated autodidact, go to the big R1 where teaching won't be valued, but you have access to labs (assuming you have access -- at some R1's -- UCLA, as a rumor--, I'm hearing that undergrads are not necessarily getting good access to labs -- though that might be field dependent, because the profs don't want to spend time teaching them, even in the lab). Otherwise, think about what you need from your teachers and where you will get it.

    I went to a major league science R1, and there were gems of classes, but they were taught by stable tenured professors (and, at a school where teaching probably wasn't high value, but there was enough of a culture among the tenured profs to teach). At the time, I suspect they kept the undergraduate teaching requirements for non-tenured profs to a minimum (but that required a willingness of the tenured to teach, which may or may not be the case any more).

  • zb says:

    In other words, I think one of the trends that changes the landscape now is that the pressures and incentives that used to apply to non-tenured, junior professors who are starting up their research programs at R1s now apply to everyone (grad students & tenured profs, too). So, the change is that there's no one left to teach.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think the grad student as a lab TA can go either way.

    And there's the rub....

  • FSGrad says:

    Major yes to summer research experiences. BUT I was really lucky in that for a variety of reasons (some merit-based, many privileged) it was not necessary for me to work a full-time job over the summer. Not everyone has that choice.

  • New Ass. Prof. says:

    And one final note re. summer lab experiences, about which I agree 100% with drugmonkey. Please, parents reading this, do not finagle your high schoolers into these summer lab experiences - this happens at my R1, and we're not just talking about faculty kids. They are NOT ready and have no business in the lab, full stop.

  • Mac says:

    Not all teaching schools are the same and I think it's pretty critical to know the differences between them in weighing these options, particularly if price is important. SLACs are typically wonderful for undergrads (I did my undergrad at one and loved it) but they're expensive and not an option for lots of students.
    I've been faculty at two institutions, one a regional comprehensive with more modest research expectations and a very heavy teaching load, and the second an R1 and all that entails. I'm junior faculty and absolutely have to prioritize research but I'd still say my teaching at the R1 is better. The teaching load at the regional comprehensive was brutal (16-20 contact hours/week and you do all the grading for those classes) but you're still advising research students and expected to do some publishable research. So even if you're not interested in research and want to focus on teaching only, that's not really an option. That much teaching does not lead to better teaching, you have to cut corners or you will never sleep, see your family, or possibly even find time to go to the bathroom. At the R1 while I still have to cut some corners with lecturing etc I can have better assignments, because I'm not the only one doing all the grading, and there's a synergy between research and teaching that was essentially impossible with the heavier teaching load. The undergrads in my lab now are working on real projects, no one has an easy 'make work' project cobbled together because we can't afford the real materials for the project. There are faculty at many regional comprehensives that do an outstanding job - I worked with many of them - but it's a challenging middle ground and has many of the negatives of an R1 in terms of faculty time but few of the benefits. The school was relatively cheap to attend but not much different than the R1s in the state and in most cases I think not as good an experience for the undergrads.

  • Claus Wilke says:

    I agree with the comment on TAs. TAs can be really helpful for a class. Not that infrequently, the TA is a better instructor than the professor. And the students can usually connect much better with a TA than with a professor.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Trust me, I'm not anti-TA. I've had some excellent ones that have improved the class experience for the students and myself. It's just not always the case and sometimes a TA's inexperience with teaching can really become apparent.

    And Mac, I hear you on middle ground. I have friends trying to juggle that and I don't know how they do it. And you're right, because I can focus on a single class it means I have more attention for that one task even while balancing the research. I have had periods where I was teaching two courses at the same time and it was debilitating.

  • Michelle Elekonich says:

    In my experience, undergrads not having access to labs to work in was not necessarily about PIs not wanting to take the time to teach them in their labs but often about the relative number of faculty to students - I found that as a faculty person I could only handle so many undergrads in the lab at a time, more if I had a postdoc who could also work with them, but there was definitely an upper limit. If there are 22 faculty in the dept and 1500 majors (this really does happen) there are far fewer slots than students who want them...and faculty can be selective then in who they choose

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was at a regional start up university, where there was considerable teaching to be done. The teaching was scheduled, but finding time for research was up to me. Some of my colleagues never managed it. People got tenured without publications in the early days. Now I understand it takes a reasonable amount of research success in terms of publications and grants to become tenured.

  • bashir says:

    I 2nd the point about student-facutly ratio. I was in a medium school but a tiny major with a 3:1 student to faculty ratio. I got tons of lab experience. I never even had to apply and was hired on the spot several times.

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