The Question that keeps on asking

Posted: August 4, 2009 in Uncategorized
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I remember when I was a little kid. People used to ask me the same question they ask every kid. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I used to tell them the same thing (Writer or teacher), but as time went on, the question became more serious. No more smiles when the question asked, no more glazed look in the eyes while listening to my answer. No more promise that I’ll be able to do whatever I want. If I said “Writer,” I’d get “You better have something to fall back on.” And when I said “Teacher” I’d get a follow up question about what I’d want to teach.

I got older still, and now the people asking me were either teachers themselves, or guidance counselors and advisers of some kind. I had to pick a major, after all. Then graduation was coming, and I had to figure out what I was doing after graduation. Then graduate school started, and I needed a topic for my Master’s thesis.

It’s a question that keeps on asking. It keeps coming up. What do I want to be when I grow up?

Recently, it’s started asking itself again.This time, the question is about what I want to do after my PhD. The answer to that question will help me decide what to write my dissertation on. So where do I want to be? What do I want to do when I grow up?

I don’t know much about the way the academic world really works, but my understanding of it tells me that there are a couple of different levels of school. There are small liberal arts colleges, where teaching is important, publishing really isn’t, and there are fewer than five thousand total students. Classes are smaller, no graduate students.

Then there’s regular liberal arts colleges. Maybe there are a few master’s programs. Mostly, though, it’s just a slightly bigger version of the small liberal arts.

We have community colleges, which are only two year schools. Small classes, small student body, more of a job you go to than anything else. Not sure if they care about research.

Then we have state schools, at levels of R1, R2, and R3. R3 is at the bottom, where research is good, maybe required for tenure, but the focus is still primarily on teaching and service. R2 is more research focused, usually larger. MA programs for sure, probably some PhD, with a student body in the 10-25,000 range, I would guess.

Then there’s R1. The top state schools in the country. These are the “University of…” schools. (Like U of Illinois, U of Minnesota, UPenn, etc). They care more about research than about teaching. Student bodies in the 30-60,000 range. Lots of graduate students. These are the prestige schools, the ‘publish or perish’ types. Where tenure is only slightly weaker than the gravity in a black hole. Higher pressure, yes. But more power, I suppose.

There’s also the Ivy League, which I think is a combination of R1 and Liberal Arts. I don’t know; I honestly doubt I’ll be able to end up there even if I want to.

Which is the question: where do I want to end up? Because that’s important for a dissertation. If I want a job at a research school, I want a dissertation that demonstrates that I have interesting and new ideas, that I know research, and that I can do it well. The same dissertation will convince a liberal arts college that they can’t keep me.

I used to think I wanted to work in a liberal arts college. Like the one I went to. It was a great school, with fantastic teachers. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Talking to a friend of mine who just went back to school and is dealing with the fact that other schools aren’t as good as the one we went to, and the onus of learning is stronger than the onus of teaching; it’s up to him. Between those conversations and chats with my wonderful wife, I’ve come to a conclusion: I don’t want to work in a liberal arts college.

That’s not entirely true. I don’t want to start there. I wouldn’t mind ending up there some day. But I don’t think it’s the job I want fresh out of my degree. The problem I’ve always had when thinking about working at a small liberal arts college is that I LIKE giving advice. I want to work with graduate students. And to work with grad students at all, I have to go somewhere else. To work with them a lot, I probably need an R1.

A lot of the professors at my school used to work at an R1 (a surprising number of them at NYU), then came to my school so they could focus on teaching. I guess it was a form of retirement; work for a while at an R1, build up a reputation and list of publications, then go to another school where they appreciate your teaching.

Not to say that R1s don’t appreciate teaching. But research is more important.

For me, I’ll teach as well as I can no matter where I am. But if I go to an R1, I’ll have more options as my life goes on. Maybe I’ll stay there, get tenure, and then do as I damned well please. Or maybe I’ll leave after a few years or a decade or so. I don’t know. That’s not an answer I’m ready with.

I’ll save that for the next time the question asks itself.

For now, I want R1. That means a dissertation that follows that pattern.

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