When I was a graduate student, I recall having or overhearing several conversations whose theme was along the lines “we need more good teachers in physics at all levels.” I suspect that this assertion will not be challenged by many faculty members at a given university; perhaps the statement would be broadened to “we need more good educators” or “we need more people who are dedicated to teaching in their chosen subject fields.” Yet there are many times when it also seems that this is precisely what many universities don't want: faculty who are too much dedicated to teaching.

A quick perusal of any listing of job openings at universities will reveal that just being good at teaching (or even teaching and the catch-all job function of “service”) is not enough. The ideal candidates for any ranked faculty positions must be prepared to establish their own research and often to obtain their own funding: this is true at smaller “teaching-oriented” universities and not only at larger “research-oriented” institutions. At many, even the unranked “teaching staff” (“lecturers” or “instructors”) are often strongly encouraged to devote some time to doing research.

There are of course a few good reasons for even a small “teaching” university to require research. After many discussions on this topic, I have been able to identify seven such reasons:

  1. Research brings in grant money to the university, and thus becomes a source of revenue for the department or university.

  2. Research helps to develop the faculty member as a scholar and/or as a teacher.

  3. Research is necessary for the benefit of the graduate students.

  4. Research helps to develop the talents and job skills of the undergraduate students.

  5. Research is necessary for the resume of many students, either to get into graduate school or medical school.

  6. Research helps to raise the profile of the university.

  7. Research is one of the fundamental duties of a university to discover new knowledge about the world.

These are all good and valid reasons for requiring research at a university. However, not all of these apply to all institutions, or apply equally within a given institution.

For example, at any university whose primary focus is undergraduate research, most papers published will be low-impact factor, will not have been worked on by any graduate students, and may have undergraduate involvement that is, at best, limited. The research may or may not have been grant-funded, and is often done in collaboration with a larger research team based at another university (or national lab, etc.). Thus, the research will have had a limited-at-best impact of raising the university's profile, will help few if any students, brings in no grant money, and is often at the applied level which sheds no real insights about nature. In this case, the research is justified only to the extent that it helps to develop the faculty member as a scholar or teacher.

Moreover, “research” often becomes “publish or perish,” which is an altogether different proposition. This is an especially daunting task at smaller “teaching” universities, where a typical teaching load is twelve or (in some cases fifteen) semester hours per semester and where lab startup funds are minimal. Factor in the reality that many young faculty also take on teaching overloads—often at adjunct payscales—to make ends meet, and the teaching part of the job becomes a fulltime effort, to say the least.

The teaching part of the job is in fact why many of us have taken jobs at smaller universities. The problem enters when publish-or-perish style research is made a requirement of the job, often without any reduction in teaching load. At my own institution, the teaching load for a tenure-track professor and a non-tenure track lecturer is identical. The former is required to do research and to publish, the latter is not. The tradeoff here is that the professor can almost afford to financially support the family which he never sees, while the lecturer has a little more time to see that family which he cannot financially support.

To add insult to injury, there are often unspoken rules as to what does and does not “count” as a published paper. The faculty handbook at many universities state only that the candidate for tenure and promotion must publish peer reviewed papers, often with a specific minimum number. After getting one peer-reviewed paper accepted for publication and completing the manuscript for a second, I was told that neither would likely count because they were “teaching” papers rather than “real research.” This, at a “teaching” university which has its origins as a state normal school.

Many smaller universities are changing their tenure requirements to place more emphasis on research load. As they do so, they should ask to what extent these more difficult requirements will benefit the university, the students, and the new faculty. The teaching universities in particular must consider to what extent they want to prioritize teaching and to what extent research; the two are not always mutually exclusive, but neither will the one necessarily improve the other. In particular, universities which have placed a special emphasis on teaching should not discourage education research.

A friend of mine was fond of stating that a person's vocation is the place where his or her greatest desire meets one of the world's great needs. I consider education to be my life's calling, and there are many others who would join me in this. It is a shame that many are prohibited from this calling by an institutional shift towards research. A Ph.D. has long been considered the necessary qualification to teach at a university in practice if not in theory. One result of this is that many people who earn this degree do so with an eye to teach and not necessarily to do research. Until the last decade or two, those who wanted to pursue this career path were able to do so.