From time to time I am invited to talk to groups of graduate students and postdocs about academic-career issues from the point of view of a (female) science professor. A common question they ask is whether it is possible to be a science professor at a research university and have a sane and happy family life, or any family life at all. For me, the answer has always been a resounding yes. Many people (women in particular), however, seem to think that the only way to "have a life" is to take a nonacademic job or work at a teaching-focused college.
If your interests, passions, and talents are in teaching, that's great. But if you love research and only choose the teaching track because you think it will make for an easier and better life, you may be making a false assumption.
Over the course of my academic career I have been a student, a researcher, and/or a professor at institutions that range from small liberal-arts colleges to research universities of various sizes in different regions of the United States and in several other countries. I don't claim to have a comprehensive view of academe, but I have had enough variety to be able to discuss the range of options and to make some comparisons.
In graduate school, my career goal was to teach at a small liberal-arts college. I loved doing research, and I was good at it, but it didn't occur to me that I could ever be (or enjoy being) a professor at a research university.
I found that publicly stating my goal to teach at a small college was a very efficient way to lose the respect of the faculty and some of the other graduate students. Nevertheless, I was convinced that teaching at a small college was what I wanted to do. (I hope having that career goal is more respected today, but I suspect little has changed: In recent years I have heard some of my colleagues express regret that their graduate students are "wasting their talents" and "lacking ambition" by pursuing careers at small colleges. I don't agree with that point of view, but that's another subject.)
There weren't any tenure-track openings in my field when I first got my Ph.D., but I eventually got a visiting professorship at a small college. I was happy to get any job, even a temporary one, at exactly the type of institution that had long been my goal. I left a postdoc to take the job.
It was an interesting and useful experience. I worked hard at teaching and advising undergraduates. I met some nice faculty members and students. And I learned something important: I did not want to be a professor at a small liberal-arts college. I think it's a great job for those who can truly dedicate themselves entirely to teaching—and teaching a lot—but it wasn't the right job for me.
That realization came as a huge shock because I had been so certain that I wanted to teach at a small college. Perhaps I didn't have time to settle in and enjoy all that such a setting has to offer. Perhaps I would have had a better experience as a tenure-track faculty member rather than as a visiting professor. Perhaps I was at a college that was a poor fit for me and I would have had a more positive experience at a different one.
Perhaps. But any doubts about my career revelation were erased when I got a faculty position at a research university and loved my job there. I got to teach and do research, and that was the right balance for me. I realized that I had missed the excitement of working in a research group and doing research on a bigger scale.
Why had I initially been so sure? I loved the small-college environment (as a student), I wanted to teach, and there were many things about working at a large research university that I disliked as a graduate student and postdoc. In particular, my experiences at research universities had convinced me that I would have a hard time being taken seriously as a female science professor.
Those were pretty good reasons, but I also think that I lacked the confidence to see myself as a science professor at a large research university—managing a research group, writing (successful) grant proposals, and displaying the aggressive behavior that many of my fellow graduate students had perfected for interacting with faculty members and with each other. Furthermore, I didn't appreciate the teaching component of being a professor at a research university. I equated small colleges with teaching and big research universities with research, not realizing that you can do both at both places; it's just a matter of finding the right balance for your interests and skills.
Years later, as a moderately successful midcareer science professor at a research university, I manage a research group, write successful grant proposals, teach undergraduate and graduate students in classes ranging in size from immense to small, and have found effective ways to be assertive (which is not the same thing as being aggressive).
And I have a family, including a supportive spouse and a tween-age daughter who is a happy and intriguing person. Twenty years ago, I would never have predicted that any of those things would be part of my life and that I would be happy as a professor at an institution much like the ones where, as a student and a postdoc, I struggled to be respected.
In my entire academic career as a student—undergraduate or graduate—I never took a class from a female professor in my field of the physical sciences, and certainly never had a female adviser. Maybe having female role models and mentors (and fewer anti-mentors) would have made me realize sooner that my ideal job was as a science professor at a large university.
I think that would certainly have helped. But even in the absence of female role models, supportive male science professors can have a major positive impact on students by being more open-minded about who might have the ability to be a successful professor at a research university. In my case, despite serious doubts by all concerned, including me, a combination of luck and stubbornness kept me going and eventually led me to a job I love.
I don't regret the somewhat circuitous path I took. Spending a year as a visiting professor was a valuable experience that helped me when I became a tenure-track professor at a research university. It's challenging enough getting a research program off the ground, but if you also have to prepare and teach classes, it helps if you've already taught those classes (somewhere else).
I also don't regret that, as a graduate student, I made it clear that my goal was to teach at a small college, even if that goal turned out to be delusional. Faculty members and others at research institutions should be respectful of those whose career goal is to teach. And those who think they want to teach at a small college because research universities seem like unfriendly, intimidating places that value only grants and publications should think carefully before rejecting this career path.
My advice to young scientists contemplating their academic-career options: You may think you know what is involved in faculty jobs at different types of institutions, but be sure to take a close look before making a major decision. Professors at small colleges can do research, and faculty members at large research universities can care about teaching. You can have a family and a career at either type of institution. Think about what is the best balance for you (and your family), do what you need to do to maximize your career opportunities, pursue your goal, and don't be afraid to change your mind.