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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

TMM: A Few Thoughts On Research at the Small College Level

I thought  would have more time to write now that I am finished with graduate school. Not a lot more, mind you, but at least a little more. It turns out that being a new professor is a lot of work, even when your main responsibilities are just teaching classes. Or maybe I put a little too much effort into preparing my lecture notes: I seem to be the only one who regularly stays here until 7, 8, or even 9 at night (and I am usually here before 8 in it morning): everybody else goes home by 5. Of course, "everybody else" has tenure.

I look forward to that day, if it comes. I have a plan and a path to get there, but no assurance that it will ultimately work out. And they demand research, a minimum of three peer-reviewed publications (a bit of a challenge in my experience). This will ultimately require that I switch fields at least a little, because they don't have anything like enough money to buy the laser and other equipment I would need to stay in my own field. Ouch.

Many of the member of the tenure and promotion committee are people who did not themselves every have this research requirement (though many of them did do research). They got tenure, they got promoted, then they changed the rules to make those things more difficult to get. These are not necessarily complaints, only observations--I actually am really enjoying my job so far.

The nearest to a complaint that I have to offer is that this seems to be a national trend. I specifically targeted smaller "liberal arts"-type colleges because I did not want research to be a requirement of the job--and I am not alone in this desire to leave rigorous research behind. Not everybody wants to do the whole publish-or-perish thing: I'd wager that if not an outright majority, then at least a large minority do not want to have that hanging over their heads. There are quite a few people coming out of the big R1 universities who want to go to a smaller college without graduate students because they want to focus on teaching and teaching well, with research as a sort of side-gig or hobby. Research without pressure to publish immediately won't likely lead to cutting edge results. It may well lead to a return to "doing good science," that is, being more thorough and systematic in obtaining results.

It may be that soon there will be no such teaching positions available, outside of the community colleges and adjunct positions. And on a related note, "publish or perish" has been steadily pushing the scientific field to look for "flashy results" and not necessarily good science. Often the one can lead to the other, though much of the "good science" which comes in the wake of the "flashy results" never really makes it to publication. And at the other extreme, often the flashy results are not good science at all, are not the beginnings of good science--but they get published, so the more cynical scientists will pass them off as "good science" for as long as they can wring publications out of them. That truly is a tragedy.

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