My first year as a professor at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (PUI)

Feier Hou

It was a day in mid-September, a bit cold but sunny, which is much appreciated in the Pacific Northwest. A bunch of other professors from my division and I had just been to the President’s address for the new academic year and were going to lunch, and one of them turned to me and said: “how was your first year?”

And just like that, my second year at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution) started.

Before I started, I was given lots of information from many different people about what it is like being a professor. Most of those came from previous mentors and are much appreciated, however, I would say that despite those helpful advice, there were definitely things that I was not prepared for and could not be prepared for until I started working at a PUI myself, and I would be glad to share with everyone.

Let me preface this by saying that PUIs can differ drastically from one to another, so perhaps I should give a bit background about my institution: I work at Western Oregon University, which is a public university with a bit over 5000 students and about 400 faculty members. It is located in Monmouth, Oregon, in the mid-Willamette valley about 60 miles south of Portland, OR. The chemistry department, which is where I work, has 4 tenured or tenure-track faculty (including myself), 4 non-tenure track faculty, and one lab preparer. Our department offer majors and minors in traditional chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and forensic chemistry, and the highest degree we offer is Bachelor of Science. So, without further ado, here are things that I learned in my first year working at my institution.

The teaching load is much heavier than a research institution. In a typical quarter, I teach two lecture classes and two labs, which is a total of 12 contact hours per week. That doesn’t sound too bad? Well, when you count the time for test writing, grading, and also class preparation, it can be quite time consuming. Especially in your first year, you likely will have to prepare all the classes from scratch, and preparing for classes usually takes much longer than you’d expect. In my first year, it can take up to 8 hours to prepare for a one-hour lecture, then another couple hours grading homework, and if there is an exam or quiz that week, I would need to work for even more hours. Personally, I really like teaching, so I actually enjoy doing all that, but that is certainly different from most of my colleagues at R1s.

High quality research is definitely possible at a PUI! I can’t believe how many times I was told “it’s just a teaching job” when I told people I work at a PUI. Not only do I find it dismissive towards all the hard work that we as educators put into teaching, it is also simply not true. It is true that at least at some PUIs, you may not have access to all the fancy equipment that are typically available at research institutions; you may have less research funding, and your students are all undergrads, so they may not be as experienced and/or may not be able to spend as much time in the lab as grad students, but that does not mean you cannot do high quality research at a PUI. If anything, that means you will become more resourceful, for example, you may find nearby research institutions that allow you to use their equipment for a fee, or sometimes even collaborators at nearby research institutions that will allow you to use their equipment for free. Also, as is the case in my department, you do not have your own lab; instead, the whole department share one research lab and all the equipment, so even though your research funding may be less, you also do not need to buy as much equipment. You will likely also become better at time management to maximize the use of equipment and the limited amount of time you and your students can spend on research during the school year, and summer is the perfect time for you and your students to do the experiments that require more hands-on time. So despite the factors that may limit the scope of your research, it is definitely possible to do high quality research at a PUI.

You will be expected to be independent and do hands-on work since your first day. For a lot of PUIs, due to their smaller sizes and limited budget, they typically do not hire someone new unless they need to replace one of their current faculty members. Often, it happens when a faculty member retires and they need to find someone to replace that person, so if that is how you get the job at a PUI, basically you will perform most of the job duties of that retired faculty member, who is often a well-established full professor that has worked at the institution for many years and taken on many responsibilities over the years. Even if that is not how you are hired, due to the small sizes of departments at a PUI, you will likely still be expected to do your fair share of work like everyone else in the department. That being said, most PUIs are reasonable and will allow you time to adjust in your first year; for example, my institution allowed me to teach one fewer course in my first semester/quarter, and they allowed me to perform less institutional service in my first year. However, especially when it comes to teaching, you will have to learn how to do your job while doing it; for example, there will not be a period of time during which you do not have classes and can just sit in someone else’s class to learn to teach – you will have to figure out teaching strategies that work for you and your students while you teach.

You will get to know everyone pretty quickly. Due to their smaller sizes, most PUIs are close-knit communities where everyone interacts with everyone else. I was shocked how many people already knew me (likely from my interview) on my first day of the job, and during my first year, I frequently participated in communications that involve the whole natural science division and sometimes the dean and/or the provost. Also, due to the smaller class sizes, I know every one of my student by name, and I got to talk to every one of them one-on-one. Those personal interactions are actually something I really like about working at a PUI: I know that if I need help, I can always count on my colleagues who are supportive and make me feel like part of the family; I can provide specific teaching and guidance for each individual student, and I have built strong bonds with both my colleagues and my students. For the same reason, though, if you are interviewing for a position at a PUI, it is a good idea to make sure that you get along with everyone, because once you start working there, you will likely have to interact with everyone at some point and likely cannot avoid someone that you just do not get along with.

It is very, very important to maintain a work-life balance. As the famous Professor Jen Heemstra said: “you cannot pour from an empty bottle.” Your job will be demanding, and you will need to devote a lot of your time and energy to your students and your job, however, you cannot do that without taking time for yourself to relax and recharge. It has nothing to do with if you are passionate about your job – you can love your job to death and still get exhausted after a long day of work, because you just run out of energy (Remember first law of thermodynamics? Energy cannot be created!). If you actually want to be dedicated to your job, you will need to take breaks and rest, in order to work more efficiently and do your best at your job.

So, those are some things that I learned in my first year working at a PUI that I could not have learned before that. I hope those will be useful to whoever is reading this. In general, working at a PUI, just like working at any other places, can be demanding and require a lot of your time and energy, and you may also be told by some people dismissively that you “end up just teaching” as if you somehow sacrificed part of your career. However, when you go through moments when you are able to help students understand a complex concept; when your students come to thank you and tell you they enjoyed your teaching; when you get to work with supportive colleagues who actually care about you and help you out when you need, and when look back and see how much you have grown both in your career and in person, you will know: it is all worth it.

Dr. Feier Hou is an assistant professor of chemistry at Western Oregon University

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