Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: When the Promise of Research Support Falls Flat

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As a career consultant for Ph.D.s, I spent a lot of time this spring — and really, every spring — managing the expectations of job candidates who had been led to believe that research support would be part of their job offer.

The story is, fundamentally, the same every time: Someone is offered a job at a place that either is — or markets itself as — an up-and-coming institution in terms of research power. But then the client gets the details of the offer, and those details are disappointing and inadequate to support a research agenda. The client wants to negotiate based on the institution’s self-representation as a place that values and wishes to support research. That’s when I have to tell these folks to dial down their expectations quite a bit and understand what they are dealing with, lest they demand too much and experience that nightmare scenario: the rescinded offer.

What they are dealing with is a scenario I like to call the "aspirational campus."

Basically it’s a regional, teaching-oriented college or university that offers a handful of terminal master’s degrees but thinks it can reinvent itself as a research university — despite having nowhere near the money to do so. Hungry for prestige and status, the institution tries to reposition itself on the research end of the spectrum via overly ambitious strategic plans and hiring goals. But lacking the requisite money and infrastructure, it is mostly just, to use a colloquialism, writing checks with its mouth that its body can’t cash.

The aspirational-campus scenario is increasingly common these days — and fairly distasteful, given the serious fiscal strains pervading the higher-education economy. But whatever you think of the ethics of telling faculty candidates one thing and offering them another, the reality is: Places like this don’t have the deep pockets of an established R1 university, and their job offers simply cannot be compared.

For job candidates facing this scenario, here are some things you might reasonably expect from an offer at a "proper" R1 that, in all likelihood, you are not going to get from an aspirational campus:

A pre-tenure sabbatical. To earn tenure, you may need a book or the equivalent number of articles (whichever is valued in your field). A major research university or an elite liberal-arts college (one with teaching loads comparable to an R1) will invest in supporting a new hire’s productivity by offering a pre-tenure sabbatical (usually a semester long). That helps ensure that the quality and volume of your publications are on track.

At an aspirational institution you still might need a book for tenure because those campuses are keeping up with the Joneses. But don’t expect a job offer from them to include a comparable sabbatical because they don’t have the budget or the institutional culture to offer you one. You may have to meet the same tenure expectations, just with less institutional support.

A reduced teaching load. At an aspirational campus you are likely to have a 3-3 load, which might, in fact, be reduced from what was standard there before. As a part of the aspirational climb, institutions often go from a 4-4 or a 3-4 load to a 3-3 one.

Certainly any reduction in teaching does free up time for research, but the gold standard of supporting research productivity is a 2-2 load, which is what you would get at any R1. In addition, you would be offered, or able to negotiate, time off from teaching — not just a reduced load in your first year but also before your third-year review and in the year before you submit your tenure dossier.

An aspirational campus wants to be a research heavy hitter, but is often tuition-driven and still beholden to its teaching-centric model. You absolutely cannot count on a teaching reduction as a newly hired assistant professor there. Maybe you’ll be able to negotiate your way out of one course. But a reduced teaching load is just not part of the institutional culture. New hires are expected to excel at both teaching and research, in equal measure, which is not the case at an R1, where research output is what makes or breaks a tenure case.

Appropriate start-up funding or facilities. The dean at an aspirational campus might proudly mention start-up funding for your research (something that might not have even been on the table there in past hires). But that doesn’t mean that the institution knows how much money is necessary for adequate research support, or that it actually has the cash. All of which means you should:

  • Be prepared for an aspirational campus to have a meager conference budget, a share of which you might have to compete for internally.
  • Be prepared to share lab space, possibly in a converted closet.
  • Be prepared to rely on external grants to pay for expensive equipment and international fieldwork.
  • Be prepared to deal with a grants office that is the opposite of a well-oiled machine and that might want to take a larger percentage in overhead costs than would be customary at an R1.

A campus culture with a consensus on prioritizing research. For new hires, this is probably the most serious issue raised when you are offered a job by an aspirational campus. Administrators might not know what they want or what they should expect from tenure candidates. And tenured senior professors who have published very little will be imposing heightened research standards on junior people. You don’t want to find yourself in a position where you are held to R1 standards without R1 support. Because that could easily result in an unsuccessful tenure bid.

So if you find yourself with a tenure-track offer from an aspirational institution, beware. Know the terrain. Don’t get fooled by shiny rhetoric. Read my earlier column, "Disappointed With the Offer?," to help you manage your expectations and emotions.

With tenure-track jobs so tough to come by now, you may have no choice but to accept an offer from an up-and-coming institution that offers you less for your research than it had promised. If you do take the gig, at least know what you are getting yourself into, and protect your career by taking the following steps:

  • Once you start the position, approach it with a clear sense of the criteria on which you will be evaluated for tenure and promotion.
  • Plan to look for outside grant money to support your research, but keep in mind that small grants often fly better at aspirational campuses than do mega-grants that come with teaching buyouts attached. Library fellowships, one-off grants from specialized centers, publication grants from foundations dedicated to the topic of your research — all of those are available in many disciplines. Learn where to look for such modest grants in your field, and how to apply for them.
  • Of course, if you land a major federal grant, that will help you secure another tenure-track job at a more-established research-focused university. So I am not saying don’t apply for big grants. I’m saying: Get really good at distinguishing between the opportunities that will help you stay at your new institution (if that’s what you want) and the ones that will help you relocate (if that’s what you prefer). Be strategic in aligning your grant applications with your long-term goals.

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