Research at a Liberal Arts College: Make Sure You have a Net for Your High Wire Act

In this post, Dr. Mark Marshall provides keen insight on how to balance the demands of research with undergraduates at a small, liberal arts college which demands excellence in teaching and research. 


As a spectroscopist who has spent an entire career and achieved some measure of success at a small, liberal arts college, I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges presented by such institutions and approaches, some of them my own and some used by others, in meeting them.

At many of these institutions, the key defining issue is the insistence on excellence in both teaching and research.  This is not to say that different places with a greater focus on one of these two devalue the other, but rather that at many liberal arts colleges, excellence in one aspect cannot be used to compensate for the other, particularly when considering tenure or promotion.  Yet, different colleges may have different ideas of what outstanding research means.  For example, some schools insist that undergraduates be an integral part of all research activities undertaken by a professor, or that undergraduate participation is given more weight in evaluating the work than the quality of the science.  Others will place primary emphasis on the quality of the research, as long as significant opportunities are provided on-site for student involvement.  In our own five-college consortium some years ago, one school specifically told assistant professors that collaborative projects would not be included in the tenure dossier.  However, another viewed collaboration as an essential part of developing a high-quality research program, as long as the intellectual contribution of the assistant professor could be clearly identified in the work and sufficient activity took place on campus to provide student research experiences.  It is essential that such expectations be clearly communicated to and understood by a young professor.

“…the key defining issue is the insistence on excellence in both teaching and research.”

Many of the challenges to building a successful research program at a liberal arts college are things that happen outside the lab.   Even the most generous start-up packages are still only a fraction of the typical university amount, and science buildings are not likely to be state-of-the-art facilities.  Temperature and humidity control may be difficult to achieve, and even getting enough electricity can be a challenge.  It may be necessary to educate facilities management personnel, some of whom have said, “Why do you need air conditioning in the summer?  Nothing happens on campus when classes aren’t in session.”

Muhlenberg College: Summer Research - 2013 &emdash; KeriColabroy-0258

Additionally, the focus on excellence in teaching, while a rewarding part of the profession, is a challenge to balance with research.  Liberal arts colleges view student-faculty contact as one of their chief selling points, but the easily quantifiable metric for this is scheduled classroom contact hours.  I have enjoyed a generous 2-2 teaching load (many schools have a 2-3 load or higher), but that can still mean 3 hours of lecturing, 2 hours of discussion section, and 6 to 8 hours in the teaching laboratory each week in addition to office hours and grading.  Although some schools, particularly those with heavier required teaching loads, offer course release for supervising undergraduate research students, many do not.  Finally, the governance structure at many liberal arts colleges makes heavy use of faculty committees and fewer administrators.  While the latter may be viewed as a benefit, it does come at the cost of time spent in meetings, reading, and writing reports.

The challenges continue once you actually find time to get into the lab.  With smaller faculties and fewer research labs, colleges find it difficult to provide the machine shop and electronic shop services found in larger institutions.  Perhaps the biggest challenge is maintaining continuity in the research program.  Unlike graduate students who spend every day for several years in the lab, undergraduates may work one summer or an afternoon or two during one academic year.  It always seems that just when they get enough experience to work independently, they’re gone, and always before the next student starts.  Some colleagues have tried to address this situation with a “research pipeline” that seeks to engage students in laboratory research early in their years at college with an expectation that they will continue on in the same lab receiving mentoring from those ahead of them and mentoring in turn those behind.  Recently, I have been finding some success with this method.  On the other hand, the undergraduate years are appropriately a time of exploration, trying new things, and finding one’s own identity.  Students may find that they fall in love (or out of love) with spectroscopy after a few years, or only discover materials science as a junior, and they must be given the opportunity to do that.

Muhlenberg College: Summer Research - 2013 &emdash; Summer Research - Marten Edwards

All this seems like a pretty grim picture.  Fortunately, there are strategies for meeting these challenges.  Because faculty time in the lab is limited, it is important to find a research question that doesn’t require constant attention or the need to stay ahead of competitors, but is still valuable and significant.  Likewise, students cannot be expected to maintain equipment, so for reasons of time, skill, and experience, be sure to choose an instrument that is easy to keep running.  Use your own time to organize projects that can quickly engage a student without the need for extensive training or a steep learning curve.  Finally, there are opportunities and advantages at liberal arts colleges as well as challenges.  Make sure you use them!

“…students cannot be expected to maintain equipment, so for reasons of time, skill, and experience, be sure to choose an instrument that is easy to keep running.”

One of the hardest lessons for me to learn was that sometimes the best strategy is to throw money at a problem.  I came from a graduate group that prided itself on building our own equipment.  (“Unless you make the instrument yourself, you’ll never know how the experiment works or how to do it right,” was a common refrain of my Ph.D. supervisor.)  I know I cautioned in a previous paragraph that funding was likely to be limited, but in a small college environment, faculty time for research is even more limited, perhaps even the most precious resource of all.  A little extra money spent can free up significant time for research tasks that require faculty attention.  Furthermore, at a small institution, the necessary expertise is not likely to be found in-house, and a commercial solution is probably better and certainly quicker.  Finally, recall that the biggest chunk of your Ph.D. supervisor’s grant budget went to supporting you and your fellow graduate students!  Undergraduate students simply do not cost as much.

LaurenWarningRyanFerrie-5299

Another advantage of a liberal arts college is that at many of them, sabbaticals are easier to come by than at larger institutions.  Indeed, at some, taking a sabbatical is seen as evidence of an active research program.  Sabbaticals provide a perfect opportunity to spend long, uninterrupted hours engaged in research.  There are two approaches:  (1) Go and hide in your own laboratory, so that your experiments get attention from someone who really knows what is going on – you!  (2) Go and hide in someone else’s laboratory, focusing your attention on work with another expert.  I have had very good experience in choosing the latter, but a long-time collaborator and colleague at Amherst has found better success with the former.

Success in research at a liberal arts college requires balancing strong, competing demands on faculty time and resources.

I had only been at Amherst College a few weeks when it struck me that I had come from a post-doctoral position where I was one of a group of dozens of spectroscopists to an institution where I was the spectroscopist.  There was literally no one to talk to in detail about my science.  Thus, it has been essential to forge effective collaborations, and I am fortunate to have worked with many colleagues over the years.  In fact, these would be my strongest words of advice.  Success in research at a liberal arts college requires balancing strong, competing demands on faculty time and resources.  It truly is a high wire act, and unlike Nik Wallenda, you will want a safety net.  The strands of mine are formed of colleagues and friends in the molecular spectroscopy community.  We are fortunate to have the opportunity to have those strands strengthened and renewed every year at the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy, now in its 70th year.  Indeed, many liberal arts colleges now pair young faculty with research and teaching mentors from different institutions, often larger, with whom the young person can discuss strategy, reflect on accomplishments, and obtain guidance.  If your field, like the spectroscopists figured out how to do that long ago, take advantage of the opportunity.  If not, participate in your institution’s mentoring program, or work with your department or administration to develop one if it doesn’t exist. At the very least, seek out regular occasions to spend time with someone who can provide professional guidance, keep you from falling too far, and help you bounce back up when you do.

 

Introducing Don Randel is Amherst College Professor Mark D. Marshall, the Class of 1959 Professor of Chemistry.//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

~ Mark D. Marshall, PhD is the Class of 1959 Professor of Chemistry at Amherst College and a Henry Dreyfus Teacher Scholar.

 

 

 

 

 

One comment

  1. many liberal arts colleges now pair young faculty with research and teaching mentors from different institutions, often larger, with whom the young person can discuss strategy, reflect on accomplishments, and obtain guidance. Only Literature section needs an improvement.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s