In this episode of
Expert Insights for the Research Training Community, Dr. Kathleen
Howard, a professor in physical chemistry at Swarthmore College; and Dr.
Mark Bardgett, a professor of psychological science at Northern Kentucky
University, share the day-to-day life of a professor at a primarily
undergraduate institution, or PUI. They also discuss the joys and
challenges of doing research in a PUI setting, and how to be a competitive
applicant for a PUI faculty position.
The original recording of this episode took place as a webinar on June 30,
2020, with NIGMS host Dr. Ming Lei. A Q&A session with webinar
attendees followed Dr. Howard and Dr. Bardgett’s talk.
Recorded on June 30, 2020
Download Recording [MP3]
Welcome to Expert Insights for the Research Training Community—A podcast
from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Adapted from
our webinar series, this is where the biomedical research community can
connect with fellow scientists to gain valuable insights.
Dr. Ming Lei:
Good afternoon, and if some of you are on the West Coast or in Alaska or
Hawaii, good morning. Welcome to today’s webinar. My name is Ming Lei. I
am the Director of the Research Capacity Building Division at the NIGMS,
and I will be your moderator for today’s webinar.
First of all, I hope that you all are staying safe, and more
importantly, have managed to remain productive and positive. NIGMS
developed this webinar series during this difficult time to provide our
trainee community the opportunity to meet with and engage in
conversations with leaders and role models. We have had more than a
dozen of these webinars. They have been very popular; all very
So I want to let you know that all those webinars are recorded and
posted on the NIGMS website. So if you have missed some of those
previous webinars, please log on the NIGMS website to take a look. I’m
sure you will enjoy them. The format of today’s webinar is that we will
have brief presentations by our speakers, and after that, we have an
extended Q&A session.
So with that, I would like to introduce our two fantastic speakers
today, Dr. Kathleen Howard of Swarthmore College, and Dr. Mark Bardgett
of Northern Kentucky University.
Dr. Howard is a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Swarthmore
College. She got her undergraduate degree from Princeton and earned a
Ph.D. from Yale. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of
Pennsylvania before joining the Swarthmore faculty in 1997. Among her
many remarkable achievements, she has mentored approximately 40 student
researchers in her career, and a majority of the students went on to
become Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and J.D.s. She has also been continuously funded
by NIH and other agencies during these 20-plus years, and she has served
as department chair three times.
Dr. Mark Bardgett is the Regents Professor of Psychology at Northern
Kentucky University. He earned his undergraduate, master’s, and Ph.D.
degrees from University of Missouri at Saint Louis. He conducted his
postdoctoral training at Washington University School of Medicine at
Saint Louis and joined the faculty of Northern Kentucky University in
2000. He has mentored more than 20 students in their honor thesis
research. He has been awarded multiple NIH grants, including IDeA INBRE
award support, and this year he has received the Carol Swarts Milburn
Outstanding Professor Award from Northern Kentucky University.
So now I will turn the virtual floor to Kathleen for the first
presentation. Kathleen, please.
Dr. Kathleen Howard:
Thank you for that introduction and for the invitation to participate.
I’d also really like to thank the NIGMS for this webinar series. It
shows a commitment not just to great science but to great scientists by
giving them ideas about what career might be a good fit for them and
then helping them to thrive once they get into that position.
So primarily undergraduate institutions come in different flavors, and
my charge today is to give you a taste for what it’s been like for me to
be a faculty member at a small liberal arts college. So my plan is to
first start off with telling you about Swarthmore College, where I work.
And then I’m going to tell you about my department and how the
Swarthmore model of a teacher scholar works and some things about our
teaching load and the students that we serve. And then I’ve been asked
also to say a little bit about what it’s like to run an undergraduate
And I’m going to finish up with some reflections on how to get a job at
a liberal arts college. So Swarthmore College is a private residential
college located about 10 miles outside of Philadelphia. It was founded
in 1854 by Quakers and has been coeducational since the very beginning.
There’s about 400 students per class year, and we have about 200
faculty. It’s a very highly selective institution, and we get really
fabulous students. The college actively recruits students from a wide
range of socioeconomic backgrounds, and because of a healthy endowment,
over half the students receive financial aid.
There’s an interesting role that liberal arts colleges play in the
scientific workforce. Only about less than 1 percent of all college
graduates in the U.S. have gone to a liberal arts college, yet they
account for about 20 percent of the Ph.D.s in physical and life
sciences. Another thing to note is that among the great leaders in
science today, quite a few of them have degrees from liberal arts
Just two examples from Swarthmore. The current Director of NIGMS, Jon
Lorsch, is a Swarthmore grad. Also, the current Deputy Director of the
CDC, Dr. Anne Schuchat, is also a Swarthmore grad. I work in the
department of chemistry and biochemistry, and the college, as well as my
department, think of the faculty as teacher scholars.
And I very intentionally didn’t make a separate slide called “teaching”
because the model is that our teaching informs our research and our
research informs our teaching. And occasionally some of that is very
deliberate. We might organize an advanced lab course where we do
course-based research with the students, or perhaps an advanced seminar
for our seniors that are primary literature-based, and sometimes that
literature overlaps with a faculty’s research area. Other times, it’s
just very organic, where things we learn in our teaching give us
inspiration for our research and vice versa.
My department has 8 1/2 tenure lines. That half comes from somebody with
a joint appointment in both chemistry and environmental studies. Our
teaching load is five assignments per year. So how that translates for
me is in the fall I teach a physical chemistry lecture and the two
associated labs. In the spring, I teach two things. And that changes
year to year, but it’s commonly a senior seminar in biophysical
chemistry and either a lab section for biochemistry or a non-majors
course that anybody can take.
One great thing that helps support us to be teacher scholars is every
fourth year all Swarthmore faculty members are eligible for a full-time
research sabbatical, where we can get into the lab and be like grad
students. Our department has some wonderful support staff. We have four
people whose primary job is to help us run the undergraduate teaching
labs, making all of the materials and tuning up all the instruments. And
whenever we teach a lab, there is always a professor there, an
instructional staff person, as well as a student T.A.
We have a lot of instrumentation, and we have a full-time instrument
specialist to help us maintain that instrumentation. We’re lucky that
Swarthmore has some great institutional support. We get generous startup
funds. There is yearly money to update the instrumentation in the
department. There is conference travel money for faculty and students.
And we have a grants office that encourages us and helps us apply for
So what kind of students does my department serve? We offer a major in
chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical physics. And we also have a minor
in chemistry. This year, class of 2020 had 20 graduates from our
department. In addition to those majors and minors, we have a
substantial service teaching role at the college. A lot of that is for
premeds who take four semesters of chemistry, and also biology majors,
physics majors, engineering majors who take chemistry as part of their
So one statistic about that is about 25 percent of our graduates have
taken at least one semester of chemistry before they graduate. Showing
pictures of four members of the class of 2020 up on the screen. And I
picked these because these students are great models of student
scholars. All these four pictures were taken in a teaching lab, but they
could just as well have been taken during their independent research
time. All four of these students completed an undergraduate research
thesis. All of them presented research at a conference. Two of them are
already published co-authors. And out of the four of these, three of
them are going to Ph.D. programs next year and one is going on to
Just to give you a little taste of what it’s like to run an
undergraduate research lab, I thought what I have on the left would be a
good way to illustrate it. This was the acknowledgement slide from an
invited 50-minute seminar I gave at another school last year. The talk
was focused on the work of Alice Herneisen (she’s highlighted in red).
However, you might notice there’s a big long list of other
undergraduates in addition to Alice, and that reflects the pace of work
that we do.
So each undergraduate in my lab works for approximately 2 1/2 years.
They are part time during the school year; they have a lot of other
commitments. And during the summer, for 10 weeks, they’re pretty
intensive. But that’s in contrast to a graduate lab where you have Ph.D.
students working full time for at least five years and postdocs. So we
can do great research and publish it, but we just take more time.
And how do we do great research? We have collaborators. A couple of them
are listed on this slide. We have a long-term collaboration with the
DeGrado group at UCSF. We do most of our spectroscopic data collection
here at Swarthmore. We have instrumentation to do that, thanks to NIH
and NSF. But we do take advantage of resources with high-level
instrumentation, and that’s been a lot of fun. And finally, with support
from the college, we get external funding. NIH has been very generous.
We have NSF grants. In addition, University of Pennsylvania is only a
25-minute train ride from Swarthmore, and I’m an adjunct professor of
biochemistry and biophysics at Penn, so I take the train over with my
That’s where we collect our protein mass spec. My students and I go to
seminars over there, and I’ve had the chance to be on a number of
different Ph.D. committees and get to know the grad students there. My
final slide. Just in case you were interested in applying for a liberal
arts college position—they are a great place to work—I think the very
first thing you need to think about is what balance of teaching and
research you’re looking for. And then find an institution that provides
infrastructure for achieving that balance.
A common pitfall is somebody who really should be or wants to be a
professor at an R1 research university and then just applies to liberal
arts colleges as a backup or safety school. That doesn’t work. Or
somebody who is super committed to teaching but really being in the lab
is not right for them. They don’t like doing hands-on research.
At a school like Swarthmore, we are in there all the time. There are not
postdocs or grad students to train the undergrads, so we are hands on.
When I tried to reflect on what it takes to get a job today, I looked at
our three most recent hires at Swarthmore—Kathryn Riley, Daniela Fera,
and Chris Graves—and if you want to get an idea of what sort of
backgrounds they have and what sort of research programs they have, I
really encourage you to look at their websites. They are phenomenal
candidates and have brought a lot to Swarthmore. Some generalizations
that were true for all three of these and other candidates is a good
application starts with an outstanding cover letter.
And what makes that cover letter outstanding is that the candidate has
done their research. They know what Swarthmore is about and why they’re
a good fit. And they take the time to make an argument about why their
research and their teaching is a good fit. And also know something about
the values of the college and how they can contribute. Swarthmore has a
big emphasis on civic responsibility and social justice, and you mention
those sorts of things or other things you know about the college and how
you can contribute is a big plus.
The research seminar is super important. We ask our candidates to give a
45-minute seminar to undergrads and faculty members where the faculty
members aren’t in their field. And if the candidate can stay on time and
keep everybody engaged, and it’s intelligible, that is huge. And when
those seminars are pitched right, there are lots of great questions from
the audience afterwards, and if the candidate can answer those questions
well on their feet, that’s also a great indication that they’re going to
be great in front of a class. When they speak to the faculty during the
interview, we really look for people that can communicate clearly the
significance, the scope, and the resources needed for their research
program. Is it a good fit for an undergraduate institution in terms of
time and the cost of their instrumentation?
We are particularly committed to looking for people who have been very
research-productive in both their Ph.D. and their postdoc, and the
reason for that is it’s challenging to run an undergraduate research lab
at a place like Swarthmore, where the expectations for publications and
grants are high. And if a person has been productive in their graduate
work and postdoc, where the resources are high, we hope that they can
translate it then to Swarthmore. But if they weren’t able to be
productive and had problems in a situation where they had all the time
and resources, that could indicate that they might struggle at a liberal
And finally, my last point perhaps should have been higher up, but it’s
a demonstrated commitment to undergraduate teaching and research. And
I’m going to emphasize demonstrated, because you can’t just say, “I love
to teach.” There has to be evidence that you took advantage of the
teaching pedagogy workshops and all the things that your university had
during your graduate and your postdoctoral work.
There are lots of those going on right now. And if you’ve taken
advantage to teach where there are opportunities. And the other thing
is, have you volunteered to supervise an undergraduate during your Ph.D.
or your postdoc? Because if you’ve done that, that shows, first,
interest in working with young students and also shows that you have
some idea of what it’s like to work with a student who’s beginning and
hasn’t had a research experience before. So that’s all I have for now,
and I look forward to answering questions after Mark gives his
Thank you, Kathleen. Mark?
Dr. Mark Bardgett:
I just wanted to explain a little bit about what research is like at a
comprehensive regional university.
The university I’m at is Northern Kentucky University. You can see it
there in the foreground. If I were coming to you from my office, I’d be
behind the tree there on the bottom left-hand corner in that building
there. And if you see off in the distance, that’s downtown Cincinnati.
So again, I’m going to use the acronym NKU, is a comprehensive regional
state university, so in terms of its scope it’s probably quite unlike
Swarthmore, but I think a lot of what Dr. Howard just mentioned overlaps
a lot with what I’m going to talk about as well.
The good part about being a state university is that you do get funding
from the state. So the building down there on the left that’s red and
black is a $97 million extension that we just opened a couple of years
ago. The bad news is that you’re beholden to state budgetary issues,
like pensions and possible cuts to salaries and so forth.
And being a regional state university means that we’re kind of in a
geographical pocket, so to speak, of the state, so we come up with
creative names in Kentucky like Northern Kentucky University, Western
Kentucky University, Eastern Kentucky. There’s Morehead and Murray. As
opposed to larger flagships like University of Kentucky and University
In terms of the faculty at NKU… And I guess the point I want to make
here, before I forget, is that working with a number of different
regional state universities, I feel like what I’m going to present here
probably is a good template for what you might encounter at least at
other Midwestern regional universities like my own, and probably extends
out to the coast and so forth.
So in terms of the number of faculty we have, we have quite a few
faculty at NKU. We have 560 full-time faculty, 504 part-time faculty. Of
those full time, 63 percent are on the tenure track or tenured. So that
means that the majority of our students are actually receiving
instruction from nontenured faculty, and they’re receiving just as good
instruction by those folks. But nonetheless, it’s a smaller pocket of
faculty that are actually on tenure track here.
In my own department, psychological science, we have 14 tenured faculty
members. We have four non-tenure track full-time faculty, and we have 12
part-time faculty. So a breadth of different roles there in terms of the
And then we have a fairly large institution compared to probably some
liberal arts-type universities and colleges. We have 12,000
undergraduates, and since we’re a comprehensive university, we do have
some graduate programs. For the most part, these are master’s programs.
So for instance, in psychology we have a master’s in
We do have a law school at NKU, which I’m proud to say one of my sons
just graduated from there this past May. The undergraduates we have, the
population we have is probably much different from Swarthmore. We have a
90 percent acceptance rate and those students who don’t get accepted can
do developmental coursework in order to get into the university and be
accepted there. About 20 percent of our students live on campus; 80
percent do not.
So in the background there behind some of those larger buildings are
some of our dormitories. We have a growing on-campus population, but
still pretty small compared to some other universities. And one of the
challenges we have is that because we have typically commuter students,
they tend to stick their toes in the water a little bit, is that our
graduation rates are down around 44 percent in terms of six-year
So we have some students that may not be as committed to the college
experience. But on the other hand, we have students that are incredibly
committed to the college experience, and I’ll try to give you a sense of
how committed they are as I go through this. I thought I’d take just a
minute to give you my career path, because I think there are some
tie-ins here to what you may be looking for as well. I started out as a
graduate student at the University of Missouri Saint Louis. And the
reason I bring that up is because UM Saint Louis, which probably isn’t
considered now a regional comprehensive university, back when I went
there kind of had that feel.
And so being at an institution like that reminds me a lot of where I’m
at right now. And probably a lot of you, when you were an undergraduate,
may have looked at a professor and said, “I want to be like that person.
I want to have that job,” and so forth. And so I think I had that same
impression when I was studying as an undergraduate at UM Saint Louis and
later as a graduate student. So it gave me an appreciation for that
approach to education and made me want to seek that out later on.
As a postdoc, I made the very long journey all the way 20 minutes across
town in Saint Louis to Washington University. I started as an NIH
postdoctoral trainee, so I’m assuming some of the folks that are
watching are in that same boat or wear those same shoes. I did that for
about three years, and then I was very fortunate that I received a
development award from the NIH, a scientist development award, and I
joined the research faulty at Washington University School of Medicine.
And so one of the things that I really tried to emphasize in my time
there, both at Wash U and even at UM Saint Louis, was that I tried to
teach classes. So at UM Saint Louis I started teaching Introduction to
Psychology classes. At Washington University, even though my full-time
job was to be a postdoc and also to be a research faculty, I carved out
some time to teach a biopsychology course in the fall, a
psychopharmacology course in the spring, so that helped me out in terms
of did I like teaching? And at first it was a struggle, but then I
figured it out.
And it also introduced me to a lot of undergraduates. So while I worked
as a postdoctoral trainee and as research faculty, because I didn’t
really have access to graduate students, I went down a different path
and had access to undergraduates. So I have a picture of two of the
awesome students that I had, of the many awesome students, I should say.
One is Henry Yin, who is now a professor of neuroscience and psychology
at Duke University. And Henry and I published a paper, Henry was the
first author on it, back around 2000 or so.
And Pam Vanderzalm, who is now a developmental biologist, who works at a
primarily undergraduate institution, John Carroll University in
Cleveland. And Pam, again, does developmental biology, and we published
a paper, as well, together. So I think that helped me out a lot in terms
of setting me up to get my job at NKU. The grant experience I had at
Wash University and the type of research that went on there opened my
eyes to the many possibilities and many collaborations that I could
engage in, in terms of research, and helped me carry that forward. I’ll
talk about how I transferred this to a place like Northern. But it
helped me realize I could set that shop up at Northern.
So what’s my day to day like at a place like NKU? As Dr. Howard says,
teaching comes first. And in our neck of the woods, we focus a little
bit more on teaching. But I wholeheartedly agree, and I’m so happy she
mentioned that teaching and research go together. They work together,
and I think really some of our best teachers at NKU are the folks that
really engage in scholarship.
You can tell stories. It just makes it more real for the students, so I
think that’s important. But nonetheless, in order to succeed at a place
like NKU, you have to do well at teaching. You can get all the
publications and all the grant money you can get, but really you need to
be able to teach well to your students.
We have a four course per semester assignment, and that’s a pretty large
load. But for the past 18 years—I’ve been there since 2000—I’ve been
able to work on a 50 percent reassignment because of my grants, because
of my publications, and because I can make the case that I can teach
students just as well in the lab as I can in the classroom.
Because of my larger department, I am not sure in comparison to Dr.
Howard, but I get to teach general courses every once in a while. I
mainly teach specialty courses in neuroscience and neuroscience lab
(that’s the picture that’s being shown here). And there’s a bigger push
at these regional state universities to teach online, so I think you
need to prepare yourself for that, if you’re interested in this type of
Your research, obviously, must involve students. You can’t just go off
to the lab and put your students behind. I need to keep students
involved with my research, and I want to do that, so I don’t see that as
an issue. Usually I have two to four students per semester. Those
students stay in my lab for a couple of years or so. They come to me
either by taking course credit, where they earn course credits for being
in the research lab, or through an honors thesis.
One of the issues I have is because I have commuter students they are
not going to be in the lab or be as accessible to the lab as maybe at a
place like Swarthmore where they’re on campus a little bit more or live
nearby. But it’s a manageable situation and certainly possible. There is
some support internally at NKU, and certainly if I mention the word
student, the student will learn something through this research
experience, then the coffers open up.
If I say, “I just need this for my own research,” I will not get much
money in that regard. I do have to apply, nonetheless, for internal
support and external support to keep the lab going. The expectations on
publications are probably a little bit lighter at NKU, but nonetheless,
I’m expected to probably publish a publication a year, if not more. And
especially for tenure-track folks.
We also have service commitments, advising commitments as well. So
advising can be a big thing or a little thing. I’m fortunate that we
have an advising center that does a lot of it, and my students are
probably fortunate as well, because I am a terrible adviser. Not that I
don’t like it, but I’m just not very good at it. I’m involved with
committee work. So one thing I have here is a brochure for our
neuroscience program. So I worked on a curriculum committee and then
started developing my own neuroscience minor program, along with other
So these are the types of things that can bubble up out of your teaching
and research. And then I also do some outreach. So back when I was at
Wash U, I started doing something called Hands-On Neuroscience, going to
local grade schools. I still do that to this day, and I get wonderful
letters or cards from fourth-graders who I meet with who are going to be
brilliant scientists someday. What’s research like at NKU?
Dr. Lei asked me to talk about the joys and challenges. I like to start
off with the bad news first and then the good news after that. And this
really isn’t bad news; I think challenge is the better word. At a place
like NKU, certainly the course load is going to be difficult.
But again, if you can get some type of research support, you can show
that you’re having a real impact on students in the lab, then your
course load will be lightened as a consequence. Another thing is, again,
working with commuter students who are really dedicated to being in the
lab, but they also need to take care of families. They might have kids.
They might have to work and so forth. And so I typically don’t have
something like a weekly lab meeting.
I have to work with these guys when they’re on campus, and it seems to
be manageable in that regard. Some of the students that come into the
lab or that want to be in the lab might be somewhat less prepared. But
for the most part, I would say our best students at NKU—and Dr. Howard,
don’t take this personally—are probably as good as the best students at
Swarthmore or back at Wash U and so forth. They’re dedicated, they’re
smart. They may not have the test scores that you see in other
institutions, but they are doggedly determined. They are very
knowledgeable about their coursework and so forth. And so those are some
challenges to deal with, but again, it’s certainly manageable and I find
it easy to work with.
The type of research you’re going to do at a place like NKU is probably
on a smaller scale than what you would have at, say, a Washington
University or Harvard, Stanford, and so forth. And being from a regional
state university might not get you the respect that you want. So when I
apply to private organizations for grants, I have to make a pretty clear
statement that NKU has a strong infrastructure, just as strong as
University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, Stanford, and so
forth, because I’m still competing against those folks.
In terms of losing connections, it’s just that I’m isolated a little bit
at NKU, but I try to reach out in terms of collaborations. I’ll talk
about that in terms of the joys. So the biggest joy, and this joy
outweighs all the minuses up on the top there, is that I get to see
myself in these students who are coming from backgrounds a little bit
like mine or even more divergent than that. And I’m providing them with
opportunities to discover things in the lab, to engage in research
experiences that they probably would not have an opportunity to do, and
then to go on to bigger and brighter careers in biomedical science.
Not all of them get Ph.D.s, not all of them have letters after their
names when they’re done, going beyond grad school, but nonetheless
they’re very successful. I’ve just picked out four students here that
have gone on to faculty positions just as an example. So for instance,
Jessica Schniter is at the University of Redlands. She was a working mom
when she was in my lab. Her name is on a paper with me.
Jordan and Rachel both came from local high schools. They were very
smart students, but in high schools that would not be considered elite
high schools in the area and have gone on to faculty positions at
different smaller universities and private universities and so forth.
And then Katherine Baum actually became a clinical psychologist. She
worked in my lab and is now working at Children’s Hospital in
Philadelphia. She’s on faculty there. All of these folks, Jordan and
Rachel both wrote first-author papers in my lab. Jessica and Katherine
are on papers as co-authors.
The other thing when I mention smaller-scale research, less recognition
or connections, I’ve worked around that by reaching out. So as Dr. Lei
mentioned, I am part of the INBRE program that’s sponsored by NIGMS. And
Dr. Lei can probably explain this better than I can, but the INBRE
program serves states that traditionally do not do so well in terms of
NIH funding. And because of that, Congress and the NIH have decided to
devote a little bit more investment into those states and bring the
I have been so fortunate to be a part of that program. It’s based at the
University of Louisville, but that allows me to get funding for my
research involving undergraduates, and then it has had such an amazing
affect on my lab, my research, and my infrastructure, to the point where
I now am able to apply for funding. And the primary source of funding I
go for is what’s known as an AREA R15 grant through the NIH. I’ve been
fortunate to have three of those. They’re intended to not only support
good research, but also support undergraduates in research. They are
often given to institutions that support predominantly undergraduate
research. So again, those last two points go hand in hand, and I’m very
fortunate for NIH support in that regard.
So how do you get a job at a place like NKU? Probably nine-tenths of
this is the same as what Dr. Howard just mentioned, so I will make this
fast. But I would just say before you apply—so right now whether you’re
a graduate student or possibly a postdoc, I would try to teach. I would
try to find a place to teach. Maybe it’s not at your institution, maybe
it’s a local institution. About two or three of the most recent hires
we’ve had have taught at NKU while they worked as a postdoc or graduate
student somewhere else.
The other thing, as Dr. Howard mentioned, make sure that you get
undergraduates involved with your research. In terms of grant
productivity at NKU, it’s not so much that you get grants. I think what
we want to see is that you can somehow demonstrate that you can get some
kind of support. So you don’t need an R01, you don’t need a program
project grant or something like that. Any kind of small grant that you
can get shows that you’re game for applying for grants and that you can
catch them every once in a while.
The last point is, I don’t mean this to be superficial in the least, but
a lot of the applications and a lot of the review process now will look
at diversity and will look at how you contribute to diversity at your
institution. So as someone who sits on these committees, I go through a
checklist, and I don’t want to make this sound superficial that I’m
checking off boxes, but I need to look at that on your application. So
you want to try to build that in too. Try to work on initiatives that
are related to diversity not just because you want a job, but because
it’s the right thing to do. But nonetheless, that’s going to make a
I would say at Northern maybe a couple things that might be slightly
different is—I don’t know if it’s really different, but let me just put
it a different way—I would focus your application on students. When you
come in for an interview with us, you’re going to teach a class, and all
those 30 students are going to get a survey where they will indicate
whether you did a good job or not. And we’re going to take that data,
and we’re going to incorporate that pretty significantly into our
calculations about whether to hire somebody. So you really need to send
your application on students.
In terms of teaching, don’t just say, “I’m going to teach course one,
two, and three.” You have to indicate that you’re going to be creative
about how you instruct students. Use some evidence-based ways in how you
instruct students. Again, at NKU that might involve some online
Also, and I can’t stress this enough, you want to make sure that you
tailor your application so it looks like you’re a good fit for NKU. What
is it that you like about NKU? Why are you a good fit? And how is NKU a
good fit for you?
And then finally, in terms of the scale, how will you scale your
research to our level? It doesn’t necessarily need to be down, but
definitely how will you scale that research so you can get
undergraduates involved? So I think I’ve probably gone over my time, but
hopefully that information is helpful, so I’ll stop at this point and
take some questions along with Dr. Howard and Dr. Lei.
Thank you. Thank you very much, Mark and Kathleen. I’ll start with the
first question to both of you.
We do have many outstanding trainees, postdocs. They are highly
productive. They are attractive candidates to research-intensive
universities. But they are also very interested in teaching, so they are
attracted to PUIs as well. So I’m pretty confident in the audience today
one of them looks good to both U Penn and to Swarthmore. Another one
looks very good to University of Kentucky and NKU. But here your dean
has sent out each of you to be the ambassador for the university, so
what would you pitch to that candidate to try to get them to consider
your school? Brag a little bit. That’s what I’m asking.
Well, Kathleen, I’ll go first if you don’t mind.
This is going to sound a little small, but I think in terms of
University of Kentucky versus NKU, we’re in a metropolitan area, so
that’s one perk. I think the other thing is that even though our
research scale might be smaller, because of the help of places like
NIGMS, you can do a lot of collaborative work.
You can go across the river to the University of Cincinnati. You can go
down to UK. So if you’re really interested in teaching undergraduates
and doing good research, I think that can be accomplished at a place
like NKU. If really what you want to do is have a little bit of
teaching, but you want to get away into your lab and work with graduate
students and postdocs, then I think University of Kentucky is probably
the place for you.
OK, Swarthmore. It’s a pretty fabulous place. So I think the
infrastructure and the institutional support is excellent. The
expectations are high, but they give you the tools you need to do the
Mark mentioned geography. We are only 10 minutes from the Philadelphia
Airport. We’re located on the East Coast—actually, that was one of the
things that was attractive to me when I got a job. I’m actually married
to another Ph.D., and there are a lot of opportunities for scientists
and two-body problems because we’re halfway between New York and D.C. So
that is attractive for a lot of our faculty.
And one thing about faculty is they tend to stay here. So the most
recent retirees were here anywhere between 30 and 45 years. So once
faculty get here, it’s hard to find another place among our cohort of
liberal arts colleges that provide the support and the students to do
the kind of work that’s expected.
Really quickly can I add one more thing, Dr. Lei? I think, to me, part
of it is the pace. At an R1 university it’s a really stressful pace. I
worked at Wash U. Kathleen’s worked at U Penn. And in terms of
collegiality, sometimes that gets a little lost because of the pace at
those universities. Whereas at NKU, like Swarthmore, we have people that
stay there for a long time. And I’m able to go home on the weekends and
coach soccer. I hate to say it, but I don’t really work many nights. So
I’m able to manage my time very well and do some other things with my
life that I think at a larger R1 I’d have a hard time managing all those
Thank you. Fantastic.
One more thing, Ming, I forgot. I can’t believe I didn’t say this
earlier. Swarthmore is a liberal arts college, and a lot of our
students, as well as our faculty, take advantage of that. I was thinking
of recent advisees I had that were a double major in chemistry and
religion, one in chemistry and philosophy.
I had a chemistry and classics, a chemistry and theater. So a lot of the
students here are interested in a wide range of stuff, and you’ll see
that’s true of faculty. So every Wednesday we have faculty lunches and
I’m usually sitting with someone from economics or somebody from
English. So if you’re interested in engaging with a wide range of
disciplines, this is the place for you. In big universities you might
only see people in your department or other science departments all day
long, but we really see a wide range of people. It’s inspiring.
Thank you. I guess you can remind her that U Penn hasn’t produced an
NIGMS director yet, right?
No, exactly! Go Jon Lorsch!
OK, next question. Many PUI jobs are looking for diversity statements.
Other PUI jobs are looking for teaching evaluations. Are either of those
considered priorities for Swarthmore?
Swarthmore is deeply committed to diversifying its faculty. There is no
one right answer. We don’t require a different statement. It’s usually
addressed in the cover letter. What was the second thing? Diversity
We don’t ask for teaching evaluations. Often we look for that to come
across in the reference letters. And another thing is successful
applicants have communicated with their reference letter writers what
kind of job they’re interested in. And sometimes it’s clear that they
haven’t communicated with their mentors about what kind of jobs they’re
applying for, so the letters don’t speak to their ability to communicate
and their ability to teach. So often we get that great information from
the letters of people that know them.
Thank you. The next question is to both of you and related to the first
one. Can we discuss the expectations for tenure and promotion at places
like NKU and Swarthmore? Mark, you want to go first?
Sure, so I’ll be very practical about this, and it’s probably the wrong
way to put this. I would say in terms of getting tenure at NKU, number
one, you need to be a good teacher, a great teacher. If you have really
poor rapport with students and you fumble around and so forth, that’s
going to be an issue or real challenge for you getting tenure. With that
said, you are surrounded by people who are great teachers, so you just
go knock on doors or try to look at others as templates or models to do
In terms of research, I would say again I don’t think the expectations
at Northern are very high in terms of publications, but we truly do want
you to involve students with your research. So whatever type of
scholarship you’re doing, you need to have students that are presenting.
You need to take them to meetings. Their names need to be on posters and
papers, and they need to be appreciative of that particular experience.
So those are the two main things in terms of tenure.
I’m probably forgetting some things, and hopefully my dean is not
sitting on here throwing stuff at the screen. There are service
expectations as well, but again for us, the teaching is really key. And
just very quickly again to go back to Kathleen’s point, if you can put
teaching and research together, which you should be able to do, that’s
OK, tenure at Swarthmore. So we try to hire only people we think are
tenurable. So that’s a big, key thing. We try to be very careful in our
hiring. And then once you get here, we have a third-year review which
follows the same format as the tenure review, so you have an idea three
years in how you’re doing. The way we look at teaching is that we
actually ask for long-form letters from students. We don’t do regular
course evaluations, so we ask them to write a letter. So there is
usually 30 to maybe 50 letters written by students.
And we ask for the faculty member up for review suggest half the letters
and then the chair and the rest of the tenure faculty members pick the
other half of letters. And they are meant to be for gender balance,
people who got A’s, people who got C’s, and so you’re supposed to be
able to teach to both the best students and the ones that struggle. We
ask for external letters from at least six to eight people, at not just
undergraduate institutions but R1 institutions as well. We have letters
from every member of the department, plus several faculty members
outside the department. So we’re looking for people who are good
colleagues and contribute to the college as well.
So in terms of research productivity, there is no one-size-fits-all. We
have a computational chemist in our department who publishes lots and
lots of papers in the top journals all the time, so that’s different
than the expectations for, say, a biophysical or biochemist where it
might take two or three years to actually get a pure enough sample to
actually do analysis. So they don’t say X number of publications, X
number of grant money. It really is more general than that.
Anything else you’d like me to address?
That’s great. I think you’ll love the next question. “As a senior
undergrad who is interested in teaching, how can I make that part of my
goals in my graduate application? What should I look at in terms of
graduate school to help me build my skills as a teacher?”
We do a lot of mentoring of our undergrads when they start looking for
graduate programs, and we emphasize looking for a good mentor, maybe not
just one. So one thing about R1 universities, at least in our
experience, is you might find someone you’ve read papers, you think
they’re super, super great, and then you go to that university and that
person gets bought by Stanford or Harvard and they move around. So we
suggest our students go to a place where there is a critical mass of
people in a field that you’re interested in. And then once you get
there, you talk to the students in the labs and find out what sort of
environment. Is it a nurturing environment?
Some graduate advisors are much better than others in letting their
students teach or participate in career development. I think that’s
mostly it—and also to engage in the larger community. Make sure you go
to meetings, go to seminars, and be really active. Don’t just be passive
and sit in your lab alone but become a good communicator.
Thank you. Mark?
Yes, the only thing I would really add would be that I have a colleague
who came from the University of Kentucky, straight from graduate school
into NKU, who did a couple things as a graduate student. Number one, he
taught for us. I don’t know how, what 25th hour in the day he found to
be both a graduate student who published a lot and was able to drive an
hour and a half both ways to teach for us. So maybe that sounds like a
lot, but (Justin Yates is his name) what he also did was University of
Kentucky had a teaching certificate, and so I would maybe suggest
looking at universities that offer these. I’m blanking on, I think
there’s actually some pedagogical institutions or centers that sponsor
these certificates, but nonetheless with that in hand, that kind of gave
him a stamp that said this guy’s a really good teacher who’s invested in
teaching, so take him seriously.
I’d like to expound on that, Mark, because I think you made a great
It’s never too early to develop yourself as a teacher. We don’t have
grad students here at Swarthmore, but we have a lot of teaching
assistants. And our teaching assistants are students who took the course
the year before and are eager to help the younger students. And not just
get in the lab. We give them a lot of direction. We have a peer
mentoring training program running from somebody from our teaching and
Students get in there and they teach, they run problem sessions, they’re
in the labs, they do grading, and it’s pretty common for our graduates
to apply for NSF grad fellowships. And a big part of those fellowship
applications is larger interests, showing not just you’re good at
research, but you want to have a larger impact. So actually a lot of
these students have done outreach as well. We have several different
scientific outreach programs here at Swarthmore that students can engage
in—and that just starts to give them a taste for do they like talking or
are they a good communicator?
All right. The next question asks not only your wisdom but probably
requires you to dip into your bag of tricks. “What are some tips or
tricks to successfully conducting long-term research projects with
several six- to eight-month honors thesis projects and summer projects?
I find the turnover tricky to manage. Obviously, you already manage very
successfully. What are your tricks?”
Do you want me to jump in here, Mark? Because it took me years to figure
out, and now that I have protocols. I have a Google Drive, and students,
whenever they complete or learn how to use an instrumentation, we keep
up-to-date standard operating procedures for pretty much everything.
Because the key is reproducibility if things are turning over. So
usually the very first thing I have when a student comes into lab is to
reproduce the last measurement that the previous student did. And we
constantly update those protocols. We date them.
And they’re really specific. They’ve gotten as specific as, “You have to
add this salt. It has a red bottle that’s on this shelf.” Because a lot
of that common hands-on stuff gets lost, and I don’t always see it. So
protocols. I take their lab notebooks really seriously and every week
they send me a weekly report (it’s a running Google Doc) where it says,
“What I did this week. What I’m doing next week. What I need.” And those
are records for students as well. So documentation and organization.
Those are two huge things to keep an undergraduate lab, at least in my
So I need to work in Dr. Howard’s lab then. It’s the same thing.
Unfortunately, I’m a little bit looser about the protocols, but it is so
important. I have a Google Drive with all the protocols, and we
constantly are updating those and making sure they work. Sometimes I
even go in and have to tweak them and see if they’re working or not.
The other thing—and hopefully I’m not misunderstanding the question—in
terms of transitions into honor students or how you keep a long-running
project going, especially in terms of honor students, the majority of my
honor students have been in a lab for about a year before they started
the project. And it started on something small or easy to do. I handed
Most of the projects come out of my NIH R15 grants that I have, so I
don’t have students that come in and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea.”
Sometimes they do, and I try to corral that into something that fits
with my grants. But, again, going back to the transition with the honor
students, they are working the lab to begin with. When they start their
honors project, oh my gosh, these guys are like seasoned veterans.
They’re better than I am at the research project, and I can usually let
them go and do their own thing with some supervision, but they’re really
good at it.
Thank you. The next question is specific to you, Mark. Is there any visa
requirement for teaching at NKU? Is a postdoc holding a J-1 visa
eligible to teach?
I wish I knew the answer to that, and I am not very well versed in human
resources. My impression is that a person is, but I would have to check
on that. So if the person wants to contact me personally about that to
see what a regional state university can do, I would be happy to look
OK, next question. “I have six years of lab teaching experience during
my Ph.D. where I taught the lab—did all the prep, ordered materials, and
updated and rewrote the lab handbook. And one semester of lab teaching
experience at the Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, as well
as experience teaching several undergrad and master’s students in the
lab I have worked in. How important is it to have actual classroom
So Kathleen, since this is from Bellarmine, I want to take this one.
Congratulations, and it’s a really good university. I’ve been down there
before. In terms of NKU, that’s a big plus. So even though you may not
have a longstanding lecture course that you’ve given or overseen before,
if I understand the question correctly, the fact that you’re teaching a
lab section or teaching labs at Bellarmine or other institutions, that’s
going to be a big plus compared to someone who has not taught a lab
before, which we do see applications like that from people who have
really strong research credentials but really don’t have much in the
That’s going to be a big knock if they don’t have any experience. So you
just kind of play that up and try to pull out what you’ve learned from
that and how you can apply some teaching or instructional principles
from even that lab experience to maybe some other classes.
Thank you. The next question presented an interesting case and question.
The question is, “Any suggestions for graduate students or postdocs to
build teaching experience beyond T.A.? Postdocs are often not allowed by
their supervisors to teach classes.” That is the question part, but I
want to share with the audience about the story. I think it’s
“I was lucky in the sense that my postdoc contract was terminated due to
a lack of lab funds. And I have found a teaching position for a semester
at a small college as a visiting instructor, which actually helped a lot
with my faculty job offer. That experience turned out to be great
preparation for current teaching class. Otherwise, I would not have had
a chance at all to teach classes.”
So that’s the story experience. Now back to the question. Any
suggestions for graduate students or postdocs to build teaching
experience beyond T.A.? Kathleen?
Sure. There is no one path to showing that. And I was just thinking of
our three most recent hires. They all showed their ability and interest
in teaching in different ways. And a lot of it was, again, even if
you’re not allowed to teach, if you went and did a teaching pedagogy
workshop or you did a visiting lecture, so it’s not that uncommon.
So Penn, where I spend a lot of time, the postdocs will give sections of
lectures for one of the seminar courses. Doing volunteer. You can
moonlight and do adjunct stuff. One of the recent hires we had already
had a faculty position at a liberal arts college, so we knew he knew it.
One of them, actually as an undergraduate, got a teaching certificate
for secondary school chemistry and had taken every opportunity to do a
ton of outreach at all different levels before they got there.
So I don’t think there’s one special way; it’s just to look for ways to
show that you can communicate and be in front of a class.
Anything to add, Mark?
I would just say the idea of… I mean, I moonlighted a lot as a postdoc.
I don’t know if there are some rules that prohibit that nowadays. If
nothing else, learn about pedagogy. Learn about what the best practices
are for teaching and at least incorporate that into your teaching
statement. Be clear that you’re aware of what the current state of the
art is in terms of testing and instructional delivery and so forth. That
probably is not going to get you the job completely, but it’s certainly
is not going to hurt to put that in there.
Thank you. We have about two minutes left. I’m going to try to squeeze
two questions in because they are both very, very important. One is how
secure teaching positions are at teaching universities compared to
professorships at research universities?
At least at NKU they’re pretty secure. I hate to say this, but today I
just got an email that said my salary had been cut by 2 percent. But I
don’t think I’ll ever lose my salary or lose my position. And it’s
because of all the budgetary issues, not because I’m a bad professor—at
least they didn’t tell me that. So I feel very secure, but then I’ve
been here for 20 years. I do worry a little bit about newer faculty, but
again I think once you’re in the door, your colleagues are going to do
as much as you can to make sure you stay there.
Thank you. Kathleen?
I’d echo that from Mark as well. If you’re in the tenure-line faculty,
at least Swarthmore is very committed to you. I know there are other
places that have visitors or adjuncts that the funding lines aren’t
always there for those positions, but if you’re in a tenure line, I
think you have a pretty good shot at staying.
OK, the last question. I’m sure you’re ready for it. How do you think
the job market will be after the pandemic?
Uncertain. But I would stay hopeful because you never know exactly
what’s going to happen, and you always prepare yourself because there’s
lots of things… I’ve been constantly thinking lately about seeing a
silver lining in what’s going on. So we can’t do a lot of things we did
before, but you can develop your online teaching, which could be very
important for the ongoing job market. Keep doing the best research and
teaching you can possibly do. So there’s currently a lot of job freezes,
but you’ve got to stay hopeful and just look for opportunities.
Amen to that.
All right. Well, I would add to that by sharing an observation. Just
like the stock market, what goes down always goes up. I think the job
market after freeze there will be a day to be unfrozen. So with that, I
would like to thank both of our outstanding speakers and thank all of
you who participated. I hope the discussion was very enlightening and
very useful to you. Have a great day.
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