Academia: the types of environments

Many PhD hopefuls want to earn a PhD so that they can, long-term, teach in a university. That’s perfectly understandable, but I have heard so many PhD hopefuls/students that aspire to work in academia that they preferred to teach in departments with graduate programs. I am going to go against the current and say that I would rather teach at a physics department without a graduate program. And many undergraduates who eye graduate school actually study at departments offering graduate degrees as well. Let’s say that I never heard about liberal arts colleges until late in undergrad (Middlebury was the first one I ever heard about, and then Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore) or full-fledged universities (the definition of a university I personally use is: an institution of higher education offering at least one graduate program, conferring at least one advanced degree yearly) whose physics (and sometimes astronomy as well) department does not offer a graduate degree.

I learned about the latter during my advanced statistical mechanics class. The professor didn’t stop lecturing about the statistical mechanics phenomena observed in white dwarves, and white dwarves in general; I can’t blame him because he is one of the leading white dwarf scholars in the world. He mentioned the Villanova White Dwarf Catalog, named after an astronomy department that did not offer a graduate degree. Yet Villanova is one of the foremost schools in the US for white dwarf research, second only to the University of Texas at Austin. But how most departments that still somehow maintain some research activity manage to do so despite the lack of graduate students are, in fact, doing it with a copious amount of summer internships (by the standards of such departments, budget permitting) or with senior theses. In fact, a combination of both is likely in use at Villanova (not in particular but I suspect Villanova is representative of what happens at that sort of schools).


 

Schools with graduate programs:

Pros:

  • You can perform research year-round on projects whose scale and scope is larger than at non-graduate departments
  • You can train graduate students
  • Your teaching load is lighter and you have the opportunity to teach advanced coursework

Cons

  • You are expected to publish and to win research grants
  • The responsibilities of labs and graduate students are actually quite heavy and you have to deal with them year-round
  • The temptation is very great to favor graduate students over undergraduates

Schools without graduate programs:

Pros:

  • You are not expected to pursue grants and publications as intensely
  • You don’t have to deal with the stress of dealing with research students year-round (or at least it takes less room, and it goes without saying that lab responsibilities go hand-in-hand)
  • You have more freedom to choose research topics provided the research can be conducted without the need for large budgets (especially appealing for theorists)

Cons:

  • Your teaching load is heavier
  • You may not be able to contribute to research as much
  • You may not be able to teach advanced coursework as you would have liked to

Nevertheless, regardless of whether one teaches at a department with or without graduate programs, a faculty job at the university level is highly stressful.

 

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