FAQ for Prospective PUI Theorists

Are you a theorist considering pursuing a faculty job at a primarily undergraduate institution? Here are answers to some questions you might have about becoming a PUI theorist.

Q: What are undergraduate institutions looking for in my application?

A: Priorities vary, but some combination of the following are likely required:

  1. Ability to teach across a wide range of levels and topics in a way that challenges and engages students.
  2. Ability to establish a productive research program.
  3. Involvement of students in summer, independent study, and/or thesis research projects.

Q: How do I get the teaching experience that undergraduate institutions are looking for?

A: If you are in a graduate or postdoctoral position that has teaching duties, make the most of it — try to get an assignment that involves classroom interaction with students rather than just grading. Use your expertise as a theorist to develop new course materials and make these available to prospective employers.

Another great way to get relevant experience is to give talks on your research at undergraduate institutions or to other general audiences.

Q: But my research area isn’t accessible to undergraduates.

A: Are you sure? Students don’t have to become experts in the whole research program; you can give them a small piece of the problem, or a side project inspired by the main line of research. Once students have a concrete starting point, they can often pick up the things they need as they go along — just as students working in experimental labs do. Often it is profitable to combine independent study, summer research and/or senior thesis projects.

Q: I heard undergraduate institutions won’t hire theorists.

A: Experimentalists outnumber theorists in most physics departments, but the ratio is particularly high at many undergraduate institutions. However, as departments see more examples of successful theorists at undergraduate institutions, the gap is closing. Probably the best thing you can do to address this issue is to show that even though you think about complex ideas in your research, you can still relate your work and the material you are teaching at a level appropriate to undergraduates.

On the other hand, most theorists are good at this, because a central goal of theoretical physics is to reduce complex problems to simpler terms.

Q: I know teaching loads are higher at undergraduate institutions, but maybe I can get enough grants to “buy out” my teaching obligations?

Q: As a theorist, will I have first priority to teach upper-level courses rather than lab/introductory/general audience courses?

A: If a positive answer to either of these questions is important to you, an undergraduate institution is probably not for you. While such situations may arise, most undergraduate institutions’ physics departments are small and there is “nowhere to hide”. You should be prepared for whatever teaching assignments (consistent with the institution’s teaching load
guidelines) might arise.

Q: I take pride in my teaching, but I don’t see myself volunteering to teach three extra classes in my spare time. Am I insufficiently dedicated to teaching to be a good match with an undergraduate institution?

A: No. It’s fine to view teaching as work — we haven’t encountered a faculty member who doesn’t — but it should be work you take pride in. If you just see teaching as a task to be dispatched as quickly as possible so that you can return to research, you are probably not a good fit for an undergraduate institution. But if you would find the combination of teaching and research rewarding, an undergraduate institution might be the place for you.

Q: All that extra teaching, fewer colleagues to work with…why would I want to work at an undergraduate institution?

A: There are drawbacks, but there are also advantages. You have more freedom in the topics you choose to study, and can pursue unorthodox ideas without as much pressure to study the “hot” topic. (And you probably shouldn’t work on “hot” topics since there are lots of other people working on them with more time for research than you have.) You can take more chances in research, since the careers of graduate students and postdocs don’t depend on the project’s success.

Theorists are particularly well-positioned to make the most of this flexibility, since we can more easily move from one topic to another.

Q: Then it sounds like an undergraduate institution is a great fallback in case I don’t get a university job.

A: Not likely. Search committees are quick to eliminate candidates for whom the job is a fallback option, and rightly so. They know neither you nor they will be happy with the situation. The best candidates are often people for whom the tradeoffs of an undergraduate institution are optimal, meaning the negatives aren’t especially bad and the positives are particularly good.

Q: When should I apply?

A: Early and often. In a small job market, fluctuations are large and you have to seize opportunities when they come. Applying while you still have time remaining on a current position is a great way to show you are interested in a job at an undergraduate institution.

While some faculty are hired directly out of graduate school, a substantial(and increasing) fraction of undergraduate institutions expect postdoctoral experience.

Q: Can I get research grants at an undergraduate institution?

A: Absolutely. (See our list of grant resources.) In fact, many funding agencies have particular initiatives to support research at undergraduate institutions. Again, theorists are particularly well-suited to these opportunities, since we don’t have extensive needs for facilities and equipment.

Q: When should I apply for grants?

A: As early as possible. The funding will help you stay connected to people in your field and will help support your students.

Q: How is the tenure process different at a PUI than at a research university?

A: The triumvirate of teaching, scholarship, and community service cited widely for tenure considerations boils down largely to scholarship at research universities; at PUI, the roles of teaching and research are both genuinely important, and faculty must succeed in both arenas in order to receive tenure and get promoted.

Q: What do I need to do to get tenure at a PUI?

A: That depends on the institution. Ask around. Ask when you interview, and ask again early in your contract there. Talk to different people, because sometimes the people who have been there for a while have a very different perspective than the people who just went through the tenure process themselves.

Q: With teaching loads as high as 3 or 4 courses per semester how can you possibly sustain a research program in the long run?

A: It’s hard, but possible. Here are some of the ‘tricks’ people have used to make it happen:

  • Keep a certain time set aside for research every week (and resist the temptation to catch up on your grading during that time).
  • If you have a research university nearby, go to their seminars and keep in touch with faculty there.
  • Keep going to conferences and workshops; stay in touch with colleagues in your field.
  • Make good use of sabbaticals.
  • Make good use of summers and other breaks from teaching responsibilities. Use the sustained chunks of time to initiate new projects or otherwise take care of elements of your research that require extended periods of continuous attention. Identify elements of projects that can be broken into discrete blocks. Small units of work can be tackled more easily during the short periods you have to devote to research while you are teaching.
  • Find a niche. I.e. find something to work on that is interesting to you, and hopefully interesting to the community as a whole, but stay away from problems that theory groups at research universities all over the world are working on also.
  • Join the Anacapa Society to meet other theorists at PUI for information-sharing, advice, and collaboration!