Monday, July 2, 2018

Tips for Faculty Jobs in Higher Education at Public Regional Universities

Since I began as a faculty member at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, I have become an advocate for public regional universities. This didn’t happen overnight. After working and studying for seven years at a public research university, I spent my first year on the job underwhelmed by what my public regional university had to offer. Over time, I came to appreciate many things about my university and to recognize the significance of public regional universities in college opportunity. I also learned the many ways in which a faculty career in higher education/student affairs differs at a public regional university. In other words, I went through transition--one that was occasionally rocky.

Truth be told, I was clueless about faculty jobs in general and the unique characteristics of public regional universities in particular. My transition likely would have been smoother had I done a little research. Now that I frequently write about public regional universities, a few people have reached out to me for tips. What should someone pursuing or taking a faculty job in higher education/student affairs at a public regional university expect? Rather than continue to send long emails, I figured I would compile a few tips in this blog post. I’ll be drawing upon my own experience, as well as my research on public regional universities. Even so, I can’t guarantee these tips apply to all faculty jobs at public regional universities, so as intrepid job searchers reflect and prepare, I suggest they do a better job than I did at learning about the specific places to which they are applying.

Tip 1 - There is fantastic diversity within the public regional sector. The first thing to recognize is that “public regional” and “regional comprehensive” are umbrella categories for a group of institutions that can differ quite dramatically in terms of size, student demographics, mission, and so forth. You might come across articles talking about faculty jobs at “teaching institutions.” I encourage you to keep in mind that, even if an institution falls into one of these categories, it still has a distinct culture and organizational identity. Not everything you read about these institutions in the general will apply in the particular.

Tip 2 - Teaching is prioritized in multiple ways. This sounds like a bit of a “duh,” but there are a few nuances worth considering. You will frequently read that faculty members teach more at public regional universities. What does this mean in practice? Henderson (2007, 90) emphasized that public regional universities are “teaching institutions” because “faculty members teach terms of credit hours, teaching load, number of students, or a mixture of indicators.” In other words, faculty members at public regional universities often teach more courses, which means they also need to devote more time to preparing courses, responding to student concerns, and grading. But they also are expected to do significant advising of students and to demonstrate a commitment to improving as teachers by attending professional development and other activities. So, certainly consider the number of courses you will teach, but also realize there is much more to the value placed on teaching.

Tip 3 - Graduate education is relatively new to many public regionals. Most public regional universities focus on undergraduate education. The vast majority now offer graduate degrees, but these degrees are relatively new and are often at the master’s level. Because graduate enrollments are modest and undergraduate education remains the focus, you can expect less infrastructure for graduate education broadly. What do I mean by this? There are probably fewer services for graduate students and less financial support for graduate students. As an example, my university is still catching on to the idea of graduate assistantships, and most of our administrative graduate positions only offer a stipend--they do not cover tuition. My students have very few pots of money from which they can draw if they want to present at a conference. All of these factors can significantly influence graduate students’ experience. It sometimes means that faculty members who work with graduate students have to fill the gap in terms of services. Don’t expect that the infrastructure for graduate education you had as a doctoral student will exist at your new university.

Tip 4 - At many public regionals, teacher preparation is king. Many public regional universities began as normal schools to prepare teachers. So, it’s not uncommon for teacher preparation to still be very important at these institutions. This means that within colleges/schools of education at public regional universities, teacher preparation receives the most attention and support. In my experience, this means that graduate programs are shortchanged, and many people have little idea what the field of higher education/student affairs is. I have described elsewhere often feeling like my program, which only educates graduate students in a non-K-12 field, is like working on a small island in a teacher preparation sea. After coming from a university with departments dedicated to higher education, educational measurement, and education policy, it wasn’t well prepared for how important teacher preparation was and what this meant for non-teacher preparation programs in the college.

Tip 5 - Research still matters, but resources can be scarce. The nature of research as a faculty member at a public regional university could receive its own post. You can expect to do research at public regional universities and for research to be included in promotion processes. The extent of this inclusion will vary, and some public regionals conceive of research activities in broad ways. Research many not always mean empirical studies leading to publication. At my institution, we are expected to publish 1-2 research artifacts (which includes more than peer-reviewed journal articles) per year on average as we prepare for tenure. Many people choose to exceed this expectation. In general, research expectations at my university have increased, and I hear from many faculty members that the same is true at their institutions. This sometimes means that research expectations have increased while resources have remained constant. In general, you can anticipate fewer resources for research compared to peers at research universities. By resource, I’m talking about money, but also about that most important of resources: time. To give you a concrete example, I receive about $1,000 of guaranteed conference travel money per year. Now, there is always other money for which I can apply, and I’ve almost always been able to attend conferences. But applying for money to go to conferences takes time that could be spent doing other productive things. Our largest institutional research grant is $5,000. So, this gives you some sense of what I’m talking about. The positive is that I generally feel very little pressure to pursue external research grants. The negative is that, if I wanted to pursue external research grants, institutional support can leave much to be desired. 

Tip 6 - Advice for new faculty doesn't always apply well to public regionals. You will read many advice columns for new faculty and see many tweets about how to be successful. Much of this advice is written by more public-facing scholars, many of whom are at research universities. For example, there has recently been a great deal of advice about preparing for rejection and navigating imposter syndrome. One of the suggestions I read was to "aim high" with journal submissions, meaning submit your work to top journals, even if you are rejected multiple times. This isn't bad advice, but it can be challenging to implement at public regional universities. We have less time to dedicate to research and fewer research projects in the pipeline. Because we still have research expectations for tenure, we may not be able to afford having an article perpetually under review or being tied up with revisions just to land an article in a top journal. We have to be judicious about where we sound our work for publication because the risk of rejection is higher when you don't have a plethora of projects to soften the blow. My point isn't to ignore all advice coming from faculty at research universities, but rather to selectively apply what fits in your context and to seek out advice from others in a similar situation.

Tip 7 - Non-traditional program structures are common. As a graduate student, I didn’t take a single online course. Everybody was in the classroom, and we met throughout the day. By contrast, the program in which I teach is hybrid, so we meet every other week. Some of the students join via a distance education technology. And we always have classes in the evenings. All of our summer courses are entirely online. This means that I had to take many of the mental models I had of teaching and either alter them or toss them out the window. From what I have gathered, many higher education/student affairs programs at public regional universities are similar in that they are hybrid/online. You might want to think about your comfort with online teaching and be prepared to teaching during evenings, weekends, and so forth.

Tip 8 - Service is difficult to avoid. You often hear advice from senior faculty members or faculty members at research universities to be selective about service and even avoid it. I think this is good advice, even for faculty members at public regional universities. However, the realities of faculty life at public regional universities make this difficult to do in practice. Financial limitations and culture often mean that faculty members do a significant amount of departmental, college, and university service. Many are also involved in community-engaged research and/or teaching. Many public regional universities don’t have funding for administrative support personnel to lighten the administrative load for faculty members. I was protected from service in my first year, though I later learned this wasn’t common. And by my second year, the protections were gone. I tend to enjoy service, so it hasn’t been a big deal for me. Nevertheless, be prepared that, despite all of the advice, you may be dedicating more time than you realized to administration and service.

Tip 9 - You can have a fulfilling faculty career at public regionals. My last tip for now. Although my post may seem to take a negative view of public regional universities, I want to end by emphasizing that faculty careers at these institutions can be wonderful. They are not lesser alternatives to jobs at research universities. They are simply different, and you may experience a transition like I did. I have had a wonderful experience at my public regional, and I often think my job is preferable to the demands that prevail at research universities. I feel part of a supportive academic community, and only rarely do I feel envious of people working in the “big name” programs. So, you can expect to find rewarding, fulfilling work as a faculty member at a public regional university.

These are just a few tips, and I’ll likely think of a few more right after I hit “post.” If you have questions about faculty life in higher education/student affairs at a public regional university, please comment or tweet them to me @kevinrmcclure. I’ll try my best to update this list as I think of new tips. Below are a few resources to enhance your understanding of these institutions. I hope you find this information helpful and sincerely hope you consider faculty jobs at public regional universities!

Additional Resources
Finnegan, Dorothy E. 1991. “Opportunity Knocked: The Origins of Contemporary
Comprehensive Colleges and Universities.” Working Paper 6, New England Resource
Center for Higher Education.

Henderson, Bruce B. 2007. Teaching at the People’s University: An Introduction to the State Comprehensive University. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.

Ogren, Christine A. 2005. The American State Normal School: An Instrument of Great Good. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Orphan, Cecilia M. 2015. “‘Democracy’s Colleges’ Under Pressure: Examining the Effects of Neoliberal Public Policy on Regional Comprehensive Universities.” PhD diss.,
University of Pennsylvania.

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