11 July 2011

“Can you teach this class?”

Advertisements for faculty jobs usually describe them in terms of the research expertise that the job candidate is specialized in. Sometimes, people get so focused on their research that they forget about the teaching component of the job. When prospective faculty do think of teaching, they tend to think about the wonderful new classes about their research field that they’re going to create.

Very often, faculty positions aren’t always created because the department wants a particular kind of researcher. Sometimes they’re created because there are particular classes that need teaching. Are they are rarely the “niche” research classes about your field.

For instance, contemporary biological research is often centred around cells or molecules or one of a small number of model organisms. Some of the people doing that research probably couldn’t even guess at the number of bones in a body. Biology classes can’t stop teaching anatomy and physiology classes, though, because so many students who want to go into the health professions need them. Consequently, you have cases of paleontologists working at medical schools, because they know vertebrate anatomy better than anyone else.

In my case, one of my supervisors told me that many people in my field got jobs at institutions “because they always need someone to teach invertebrates.” As it happened, I didn’t end up teaching the invertebrate course. But the job was created because they wanted someone to teach neurobiology far more than they wanted someone to do research in neurobiology.

In physics, I don’t know if there are active Newtonian researchers. But there is still an ongoing need for someone to teach those mechanics.

Another reason that you might be expected to pick up existing classes is because there are a whole bunch of classes on the books that were created by an existing faculty member, who has retired or quit.

Job seekers, try to think about some of those core classes that you might be able to teach. Get some experience teaching them if you can. And when you’re asked about whether you can teach those classes, don’t sniff and ask how soon you’ll be able to get out of them. Often, the point of the hire is to get someone who will teach them for a good, long while.

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