BY CLAUD BRAMBLETT
Update: Claud Bramblett is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
When students ask me about how to prepare for a career in primatology, I tell them to think in terms of skills they need for the activities they will perform, and acquire those skills. A beginning student, for example, might consider combining engineering and biology as a starting point. At least if one expects to do research (or read research publications), then one needs a background in statistics and experimental design. It is unthinkable for current students to be ignorant of computers and modern media. Generally speaking, it is not enough just to have an interest. The most successful applicants bring skill packages of biology, computers, statistics, communication, etc. that provide useful tools. Any missing tool, a knowledge of biochemistry for example, creates a barrier that can limit the directions that one can go. Of course no one can do everything, but serious planning needs to go into choosing and shaping of skills. Nervous parents can be reassured by knowing that the same skills and traits that make a successful primatologist also apply to other jobs – indeed, often at better salaries than primatology.
Careers in education combine two rewarding activities: research and teaching. Research also allows us to follow our curiosity and contribute to conservation. These two activities together influence the future through our publications and our students. I can think of no place I would rather be, or anything I would rather do.
We face several serious problems in education. One looming crisis for K-12 will be a shortage of qualified science teachers in some regions. The causes are numerous (retirements, low salaries, poor working environments, low community prestige…), but the reality is too few of the best students choose to teach and of those who do teach, many leave the field after a few years. Primatology in middle or high school? Some of my high school student co-authors read Papanicolaou slides, followed vervet dominance hierarchies, and tested responses to images in mirrors. These high school students were nurtured and encouraged by public school teachers who had special interests and backgrounds in biology and science.
Several remedies to the past teacher problems in my state, Texas, include modification of teacher curriculum, mandating a college major other than education. It seems logical for a math teacher for example, to have a degree in math. A more recent program in the natural sciences provides biology majors with both certification and teaching experience as they pursue their interests (and degree) in biology.
Teaching positions at the university level are few and the skewed ratio of candidates to jobs is discouraging. Is there anything a student can do to guarantee a job? No. Although the closest thing to that in the last few years in primatology seems to be preparation to teach human gross anatomy and a willingness to accept temporary positions. Job market uncertainty means that candidates must have breadth as well as specialized experience. Many post-docs may find themselves teaching classes outside of their special interests.
It is the norm now for new PhDs to work at a temporary teaching job or a postdoctoral research position for several years. Being a temporary employee has, among its drawbacks, research positions that last only as long as the grant with no assurance of continuance or of the next grant proposal being funded. However, these postdoctoral positions often permit one to acquire advanced skills, expand teaching repertoire, and publish. In most of the biological sciences, a postdoctoral research experience allows candidates to establish themselves as researchers, a prerequisite for landing the most desirable positions. Indeed, most (perhaps all) high profile universities try to recruit world class researchers, not world class teachers.
What qualifications are successful applicants likely to have? Hiring committees look first for well-trained individuals who have a track record of research and publication in an exciting area. The candidate’s interest and background should fill a need in that department’s programs. Hiring committees also look for quality teachers. No department wants a colleague whose teaching skills are going to decrease enrollment – unless their research record is going to regularly bring fame and funding. Hiring committees are also influenced by a candidate’s social skills. A colleague is, after all, a representative of their institution. Finally, candidates need to be lucky enough for their interest and skill package to fit one or more vacant positions at the time the candidate is job hunting.
Most universities follow the same pattern of promotion for assistant professor in a tenure track position. A review at the end of the first three years gives the candidate and the department feedback. Tenure review occurs by year six, at which time the candidate is either promoted to associate professor with tenure or terminated. Since research takes time, a delay of about a year between submission of manuscript and publication is common for most peer reviewed publications. Therefore a candidate should begin publishing research (and conducting class evaluations if they teach) during their graduate student years in order to compile a record of research, publication, and teaching that will pass the sixth year review. The sixth-year tenure review and promotion, a the great filter of academic life, insures that everyone on campus (the dean, the president, etc.) starts their career at a high level of academic achievement. The level of competition in the sixth-year promotion sets the minimum academic standards for that department or that university.
Tenure at a modern university means that the institution can not fire you without giving a reason. If the reason is inappropriate, the faculty member has judicial recourse. The impact of tenure is to protect faculty from political or peer pressure, to provide freedom for faculty to pursue research and publication of their ideas, even unpopular or controversial ones. Tenured faculty are reviewed, and unacceptable performance in teaching or research is grounds for termination. Though recognition of a problem by a department can produce a review at any year, formal reviews on my campus occur in six year intervals.
There is less uniformity among universities about promotion to full professor. On my campus, it rarely occurs before six or more years in rank as associate professor and usually requires a demonstration of international recognition by one’s peers. But deans have a little more freedom than they do in earlier promotions. Not every faculty member reaches the rank of full professor.
Although some universities demand heavier teaching loads, a faculty member on my campus teaches half-time and devotes the rest of their time to research and writing. Leaves for full time research are usually unsalaried unless one has grants or contracts that provide salary.
This discussion has focused on major universities, but there is a wide spectrum of educational institutions with differing expectations and job requirements. For example, the growth of computer and web technology has stimulated renewed interest in distance learning, an area that all candidates should consider adding to their skill package. Some campuses expect faculty to teach full time and still do research. Others provide teaching only contracts. The extreme low end of the job range are institutions that “allow” candidates to teach for experience and offer only token salaries.
Should you consider a career path that takes you toward a job in education? Yes! But be realistic about the credentials and skills you need to bring as a job candidate. Motivation alone is not enough. Plan, prepare, and make it happen.
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