Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A look into the future

[Warning: a rambly, self-indulgent post follows. If you don't want to read about a community college professor's thoughts on his career path, skip this post.]

Last spring, after being on a hiring committee, writing an NSF grant, being chair of a committee that was actively meeting, and teaching my full load, I proclaimed that I'd never take on that much work again. This spring I'm on two hiring committees, am writing another NSF grant, just submitted another (non-NSF) grant, and am chair of the whole department. Yet again I'm not getting enough sleep and don't have time to spend with my SO or students. Even my friends and coworkers are noticing; a number of them have started telling me (with varying degrees of bluntness) that I'm doing too much and need to slow down.

Last week I visited a local university to be a panelist in a (very neat) discussion with a number of graduate students; due to the vagaries of my schedule I ended up arriving quite a bit early. Before I sat down with my laptop and worked on a grant, I found a quiet spot where I could just think about what I wanted to do in the future. I came to the conclusion that there are three separate paths I can follow:
  1. Focus my time on research.
  2. Focus my time on being department chair.
  3. Focus my time on teaching.
What struck me about this idea of separate paths was that it made me realize that in the past year I've been trying to work on all three of those paths simultaneously. I've been administering the department (spending ~20% of every week on it), continuing outside research (both applying for grants and advising students interested in research), and improving my teaching (e.g., publishing my lab manual) all at once. While these are all fun and fulfilling tasks, I feel like I'm in Root Beer Tapper and the customers (work) just keep piling up at the end of teach table (separate career path) faster than I can take care of them all. The faster I flip between each table, the faster work keeps piling up.

So, I've made a decision. Starting this fall I'm going to stop straddling all three paths and just choose one. Here's my three-option plan for accomplishing this:
  • The grant I applied for last week includes funding to release me from about 1/3 of my teaching duties. This would allow me to only have two teaching preps a week, and thus give me enough time to do research properly, but still be able to improve the course I'd be teaching. If the grant is funded, I won't seek re-election as department chair (my term ends this spring).
  • If the grant doesn't get funded, I'll consider continuing as department chair. However, for this to happen the administration is going to need to increase my release-time compensation so that it's on par with the amount of work I'm doing. This is unlikely to happen, however, as I've been told that in the fall the administration will remove the release time I'm currently getting and just give me a stipend. This means that I'd have to teach my full load of courses, and then do department chair work on the side; that wouldn't be fair to my students. So, unless I get that release time back (and get more added), I won't be chair. Many thanks to Orac's wise commentary (via e-mail) for contributing to this decision.
  • If neither the research nor department chair propositions come through, I'll happily stop doing both and instead focus on my teaching. I may continue to dabble in research, and I'll continue to serve my department, but not in the leadership roles I'm currently occupying.
One thing that long-time readers (and friends and family) may notice is that the first path I list involves doing research, yet I specifically started teaching at a community college so I wouldn't have to do research. I haven't changed my mind on this; I still love the teaching-focused aspect of being at a community college, and I still don't want to be forced to do research.

The research that I'm carrying out appeals to me for many reasons, not the least of which is that it's completely optional. Even if this grant comes through, it's only for a one-year term, and at the end of that term if I don't like where I am, I can return to teaching full-time. Additionally, my campus has a unique field resource available for research; if we (the biologists at my campus) don't use it, then my campus will likely lose this resource forever. And, most importantly, my research gives first and second year biology majors at a community college an opportunity to get involved in field biology research. When I started this project a little more than a year ago I had no idea how many students would be interested, but I've now had dozens of students participate (or show interest) in the research, and they all love it. So, in reality, the research I'm doing is just another biology course I'm teaching; it's just a very advanced one.

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