Scientists at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions

There has been a recent influx of science professors from PUIs (not “liberal arts schools” apparently). @pevaquark, @NLENTS, @Herman_Mays. There are some others already here: @cwhenderson, @Joel_Duff, @jordan.

I admit I do not know the precise term, whether it be liberal arts, parochial, or technical school. I suspect I’m really referring to a mixed bag. Perhaps, teaching Insitutions? Please do clarify if I’m misspeaking here. Regardless, I had a questions for you all.

What are the key differences between your experiences as a professor and those of scientists at R1 universities? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Why did you choose this path?

I ask partly for personal interest, but also because a large number of students frequent these boards it might help them along their path.

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What’s an R1 university?

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Doctoral Universities

Includes institutions that awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees during the update year (this does not include professional practice doctoral-level degrees, such as the JD, MD, PharmD, DPT, etc.). Excludes Special Focus Institutions and Tribal Colleges.

  • R1: Doctoral Universities – Highest research activity
  • R2: Doctoral Universities – Higher research activity
  • R3: Doctoral Universities – Moderate research activity

Levels are determined by objective metrics like research dollars per year. There are other tracks for other types of schools. Presence of a medical school is another modifying factor that is not included in these classifications, but it has very high impact on environment, especially here at WUSTL.

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My institution is probably best described as a “small private liberal arts” or small “PUI” (primarily undergraduate institution". We have ~ 1500 students (800 traditional undergraduates). We do have some Master’s level programs for professional areas (Nursing, Counseling, and Education) but the school has historically been a Christian liberal arts college. We have 11 faculty in a department that includes biology, chemistry, physics, math, computer science, and kinesiology majors.

The key differences that I generally see between what I do and my R1 colleagues are:

  • Teaching is the overwhelming focus. My R1 colleagues usually teach 1 course/semester and it’s often at the graduate level in their discipline. I teach 4 courses a semester and in a much wider area: this semester I’m teaching General Chemistry, Physics I, Thermodynamics & Statistical Mechanics (to both Chemistry and Physics majors, and a science general education course. There are 2 chemists at my school so I teach all the non-biological chemistry (analytical, physical, forensic) and I’m also helping cover some physics.
  • Research is still there, but the focus is on giving undergraduates a research experience rather than pushing my own research agenda. Funding is minimal, external funding is extremely hard to get. That really limits the type of research we can do. My R1 colleagues spend a lot of time writing grants and I spend most of my time teaching/mentoring students. Often times our best bet is to find a nearby R1 research group to work in, it really makes a big difference.
  • Conference travel is often very limited. It’s hard to network with people in the same field. You may be the only one in your particular discipline at your institution and a conference may cost more than your yearly departmental budget (particularly in humanities).
  • Because teaching is the focus, I feel like promotion is easier (not as much “publish or perish”) and there is less stress in general. That’s just my impression though, I could be wrong.
  • Our focus is often trying to move students from high school to graduate school (PhD or professional degrees). We interact with them mostly in a classroom context and not a research/lab context. We also see a large variety of students. In a given semester I will teach 50-70 students spread across 4 classes, and only 2-3 will be in my discipline.

I think it can be difficult in a liberal arts school to figure out your scholarly identity. We have usually been trained at an R1 but we often don’t have nearly the time or funds to compete with R1s when it comes to research. I wonder sometimes whether my primary identity is as an educator or as a scientist. My training was all in science, but my day-to-day work is as an educator.


Yes you are mixing a lot of very different institutions. The common thread, though, is that they are “primarily undergraduate institutions” (PUIs). Having done my PhD and my postdoc at medical centers, I absolutely LOVE being at a PUI. They are more student- and teaching-focused and have a vibrant intellectual vibe that is not just STEM focused. In any given week, you can hear lectures on Shakespeare, cognitive biases, mass incarceration, artificial intelligence, etc. And the diversity of student interests is stimulating also. But, by far, the thing I like most is that we are judged by impact, contribution, and service, not by grant dollars. If you look at my research productivity on Google Scholar, I’ve worked on a ton of different things in several different fields. I love being able to do that, to follow my curiosity (and my students’ curiosities) and just pursue interesting scientific questions for their own sake. That’s a bad strategy for staying funded, but it’s a whole lot of fun. I’ll never win a Nobel Prize and probably never publish in Science, Nature, or Cell, but I wouldn’t trade my career for my colleagues at R1s for a million dollars. :slight_smile:


And while I was typing, @Jordan just said it way more thoroughly than I did. :slight_smile: But he also said some of the “negatives” (if those are important to you), which I left out. It’s not all roses, but you would think so if you listen to me because I really do love what I do. :slight_smile:


As someone who is in the postdoc stage and who wishes to pursue the more teaching focused path, thank you so much @Jordan and @NLENTS for sharing your experiences. Also for @swamidass for starting the thread.

Can I ask a few questions:

  1. What is the difference between a PUI and a Liberal Arts College? Are there any other types of primarily teaching institutions?
  2. How is tenure decided at a primarily teaching institute? Are you more likely to get tenure if you get good teaching evaluations? Are research de-emphasized in whether one gets tenure or not?
  3. How is the competition for applying as a faculty? Is it more/less difficult than getting a job at an R1 institute?
  4. Do you find publishing at a journal more difficult due to your association with a primarily teaching institution? i.e. are there unstated biases against your research from journal referees or editors?

Perhaps @dga471 would also like to comment from your experience as an undergrad at a liberal arts college.

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My experience as a physics major at Amherst College was truly wonderful. At top-ranked PUIs like Amherst, all of our faculty had significant research accomplishments before being hired (one of my professors was a former postdoc with Dave Wineland, a Nobel prizewinner). After they were hired they were also expected to have active research programs. The NSF does award some grants to PUIs, but of course they are much smaller than to R1 universities. For an atomic physics experimental group I remembered it was at most ~$100k/year. Thus it’s still possible to hire a postdoc to keep the research going as undergrad are sometimes unreliable or inconsistent (especially with small departments that are common in PUI - you don’t always have a good thesis student every year). But you cannot buy expensive lasers or other equipment. I imagine theory research is less affected by these funding constraints.

My adviser, Larry Hunter, was a significant mentor to me and gave me significant guidance on my path to going to grad school, on both the technical and personal level. I doubt that I could have easily found such a mentoring figure at larger R1 institutions where there are many more students. As a faculty at a PUI, he was really clever in finding research niches which were still scientifically interesting, yet feasible within the funding constraints. Often this meant finding topics which were not yet “hot” in the field, and moving on to different areas once the topic had gained the attention of larger labs (and made it difficult to compete using PUI resources).

A great example of this strategy was what would become my own senior thesis project. I worked on an apparatus which had originally been design to look for violations of Local Lorentz Invariance (LLI). However, after several years, a larger lab in a top university had developed an apparatus that could almost completely beat us in constraining LLI. Seeing this, Larry had a brilliant realization that he could use the same apparatus to do a different experiment: looking for exotic spin-spin interactions. It required some computational work using geophysics and particle physics, but the result was novel enough to be published in Science. I then spent my senior year researching upgrades to the apparatus.

This was not the first time Larry could figure out such a novel idea. Back in 1989, he measured the best limit for the electron electric dipole moment. At the time not many other labs were doing this kind of measurement. Nowadays, this is a very active research topic (and one that I’m working on for my PhD).


I spend last year working on budgets and faculty governance a lot, that probably colored some of my items :wink: I too love being at a PUI, I would not want to be at an R1. I am glad people like @swamidass are out there pushing boundaries. I’m happy to be amongst those following behind trying to “translate” science to a broader (mostly 18-22 year old) audience.

PUI is more general I think. Liberal arts colleges emphasize a broad education (usually more credit hours in gen ed) and are often more traditional academically. This is your english, history, mathematics, science majors. Usually the “other side” of this are professional programs (nursing, education, engineering) where the focus is on technical education to prepare students for professional exams. Practically, PUIs these days are a mix of the two. My school recently put “liberal arts oriented” in our catalog since half are students are in professional programs and half are in traditional liberal arts programs.

This really varies from school to school. Private PUIs are less likely to have tenure. In any case, definitely good teaching is much more important at a PUI than at an R1 and research productivity is considered differently. My school doesn’t look at teaching evaluation much (since they are pretty awful measure of effective teaching) but I certainly must show that I’m working on my teaching and that it’s effective. On the other hand, I need to show that I’m engaging in scholarship but I don’t have a required paper count, h-index, grant amount, etc. I need for tenure/promotion.

Depends on how “elite” the PUI is. There are a lot of PUIs out there, generally I would say it’s easier to get a job as long as you are an OK teacher. If you really have a hard time communicating to/with undergraduates then a PUI is probably not for you.

Yes. I think the biggest bias is probably in review of grant proposals and the types of funding available. There are a number of grants for PUIs but they are often geared towards education and not research per se. The bias is not without it’s reasons I suppose. To be honest, we often just don’t have the resources to do the quantity or quality of work we’d like. I don’t have a research “group”. Undergraduates come and go so much that you are the primary worker. On top of that, your time is heavily invested in teaching, so you really have to carve out time for research. Lastly, we’re usually at a teaching institution because we don’t want to primarily be a research scientist (or else we’d be at a R1).


This is terrifyingly amazing. @dga471 got a science paper published as an undergrad at an institution with out any phd students. Whatever anyone says, this is not easy. I’m not sure I’ve heard of such a thing before.


Thanks again for sharing, this is very informative! And also @dga471 for sharing the situation from the undergraduate side!

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Amherst physics in the last few years has been very fruitful. Another professor in our department made a Bose-Einstein condensate apparatus (probably the only one at a PUI institution for a while), and within 5 years he published 4 papers in Nature/Science/Nature Physics, with undergraduate co-authors and outside theory collaborators. Of course Amherst is not typical, but it’s common to have undergraduate coauthors in published papers at research active PUIs.

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I want to join @dga471 and push back a little on this one.

In my department of about 30 faculty members, all but a few are research-active and a small handful, maybe 6 or 7, focus way more on research than anything else and get small grants from NSF, NIH, DoD, etc. Those labs approach the productivity of some of the smaller labs at R1s. But they are the minority for sure.

My point is that you don’t have have to be that in order to succeed. What I love about working at my particular PUI is that you have a ton of choice about where you spend your time. You can prioritize research and go for grants; you can prioritize your teaching and stand out in that way; you can do a lot of important service and even dabble in administrative work (if you’re foolish, like me). As long as you are contributing in some way, it’s all valued. Often, the unwritten rule is that you have to meet minimum standards in all three areas and stand out in one.

Now, in order to get tenure, you do have to put out papers in reputable journals. How many and how profile will vary from institution to institution and has a more or less inverse relationship with the teaching load. But unless you’re in a lecturer line, you are expected to publish research with some frequency, as validation that you are a “contributing scholar” in your field. I just don’t want people gunning for PUIs thinking that they don’t really have to publish.

We should start a separate thread about job searching and advice. I’ve chaired ten faculty search committees and went on the job market myself a few years ago. I’ve given talks at Columbia, NYU, and Rockefeller about how to land a job in a PUI, so I’m happy to share my experience with this community.


Yeah, I gotta push back on this one, too. The competition is different, but I don’t know that its any less intense. For a very general job description (anything that can be called “molecular biology”), we typically get over 100 applications per position. For very defined positions (e.g., when we specifically wanted a forensic entomologist), it was more like 20-25. It’s not as bad as it sounds, though, because probably half of the applicants took absolutely no care in their applications and you can tell. It was obviously a “fall back” application and they really wanted to be at an R1 but just weren’t making it. Like anyone else, we don’t want someone that isn’t excited to be working with us.


That’s fine, I do think there is a large variety of experiences within PUIs. I don’t claim that my experience is the only (or even normative) way.

In my department, full-time faculty have only started doing research at all in the last 10 years. Our institution has never gotten a NSF, NIH, or DoD grant, any funding has been through a collaboration with an R1. We have published a few papers in the last few years but you do not have to publish papers for promotion or tenure. We are working on this but the message when I first arrived was “we pay you to teach, not do research”.

This is very true.

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Oh I see. Well yeah that is very different than most PUIs, imho. At CUNY, even the community colleges have an expectation of some research publications for promotion and tenure. But on the main point here, we are 100% in agreement: every institution is different. VERY different I would say. I think we also agree that life at a PUI is really great. I honestly love going to work every day and most people I know at PUIs feel the same. My friends who are now faculty at R1s, while they love the science they do, are under incredible pressure and feel stressed out all the time. They do make more money than I do, but don’t have the time to enjoy it. :slight_smile:


For the record I love my job at a top 5 medical school, and am not feeling stressed at all.

But that’s not the norm, is it? You might be the first person I’ve ever heard say that. Then again, you might be through the worst part of the tenure-track while my friends are still proving themselves. (That’s another difference. I’m already full professor because I did a short postdoc and rose up the ranks quickly, while my friends did long or multiple postdocs in order to have enough for an R1 job.) I might also be reading too much into the stark differences that I see in my particular group of friends and colleagues. Maybe these aren’t as strong of general trends as I think.


The higher you get, the more common it is. Here at the WUSTL medical school, it seems to be the norm among the faculty to me.

I observe that much of the striving and internal suffering I’ve seen in science professors is unnecessary, and it inhibits the creativity behind great research. The stress, to which you refer, appears to be much more a component of internal factors than external.

You say you love your job @NLENTS at a PUI, but a large number (probably the majority) of faculty I know at PUIs do not love their jobs. They feel disrespected and put upon by students, administrators, and their graduate school friends who went to “better” careers. What makes you different? I’m fairly sure it is not your situation and circumstances. There are internal factors driving this, and you have already articulated some of them here.

If this thread was about my situation, I’d articulate more how I, and others, thrive in R1 institutions. In the current funding climate, even with all this public engagement distracting me, it get so much joy out of my work. During my assistant professorship, I learned firsthand how to enter a field, without anyone paving the way for me, and win over skeptical scientists. To find something surprising, important, true, and beautiful in the world, and then win over skeptical experts who initially think its false, this is the thrill of the scientific hunt. I am hooked.

Once again, the reason I am different is most likely internal factors. Encouragingly, these internal factors seem to be more common the higher one is in science. I do not mean, here, personal rank, but the rank of the institution.

We will do this soon, but I don’t want to distract from our scheduled conversation. As an aside, I’m very glad you’ve been around. You have a lot to add.

As long as we are talking about giving advice on your path, there is another direction I want to take this. As you note, there are several PUI professors here, including @cwhenderson and @jordan and more. Some of them I’ve talked to in the past about their role in society. Sometimes it seems they are waiting for “other people” to take the lead so they can follow.

You are articulating some different. You are at a PUI, not an R01, but you are engaging the public square with confidence. You have written two books, and probably have more coming. You are writing editorials, and engaging the public. You are even taking heat from DI alongside me. What advice and help can you give other professors in PUIs to help them find their own confidence and voice?

One hope I have about this forum is that it could be a place to identify and refine scientific voices beyond my own. We need more scientists engaging society in the public square. I’m on a path that parallels yours, but is also different. I wonder if your path and perspective might be helpful. When you look at how disastrous most public voices are, it becomes clear that this is not a zero sum game. We need more sane scientists to be part of the conversation. It will raise the tide for all our boats.


While I am at an R1 and not a PUI, I have had the good fortune to meet and work with a number of faculty at PUIs, through this program. I will admit that this group is self-selecting, but I have had quite the opposite experience from yours, Joshua. I have learned a whole lot of very interesting biology, developed some exciting collaborations, and gotten my own undergraduates involved with an exciting, undergraduate-centered community of science. I have been committed for some time to building a productive research program with important contributions from undergraduates, and have found that people at PUIs can be very successful at this (much better than me). I have the greatest respect for my colleagues at PUIs and appreciate with every passing day their enthusiasm for science (and, obviously, for teaching).

Joshua, I think your reaching out here is a wonderful idea. I will follow this conversation with some interest.

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