Researcher, Administrator, Teacher … or What?

Blogs are typically quite personal things and since this blog is about me, it seems appropriate to address the question that most, if not all, academics face: what exactly am I in the academic world?  A quite common model for an academic will include three main duties – in fact, I remember quite early in my career someone likening their careers to a three-legged stool – the legs being ‘research’, ‘teaching’, and ‘service’.  In fact, this may have been somewhat prophetic since a three-legged stool is rather unstable and standing on one can leave one in quite a precarious position.

In some cases, the roles of an academic are quite prescribed: e.g., 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service.  Others may let one decide the precise breakdown, with minimums in each category.  Regardless, there are some significant implications with however the breakdown is decided from several perspectives, including human resource management, employee retention and morale on the management side, to career advancement, promotion, and tenure on the employee side.

We like to think that the 40:40:20 model is a good approximation of what an academic does because is does not seem to burden one with too much work not related to what universities are supposed to do primarily, i.e., generate new knowledge and train/educate subsequent generations – at 20%, service/admin work is about one day per week.  And, it gives at least lip service to the idea that research and teaching are seen as being equally important to the university, even if that is seldom true when promotions and sometimes tenure are awarded.

In some places in the world, and my experiences in Asia clearly suggest this is one place, (although, no doubt, there are others) one cannot help but wonder if the concepts of ‘equal workload’ and ‘identical workload’ are not seen as being exactly the same things.  In the context of an academic’s workload, this can be seen in the way directors and heads of department try to make sure that everyone has about the same teaching loads and that the expectations for service/admin and research are also about equal.  This would be fine if the training, talents, and ambitions of academics were also more or less identical.  And here is the rub: not all academics are interested in teaching and research in the same way.  Like any skill that is both innate and learned, teaching and research are skills that are not distributed equally in all academics.  We have all had experiences with academics from all parts of the excellent-to-poor spectrum when it comes to either teaching or research.

Outside of category 1 research institutions, most academics have to juggle relatively heavy loads that include teaching, research, and service.  Add to the mix of being in a tenure track, and the pressure to achieve much in a fairly short time means academics have to ‘hit the ground running’, even though very few graduate programs include any sort of career management training.  Those for whom teaching is a real joy – time-consuming but very rewarding –  making time for research tends to be a real challenge.  Students love them and reward them with high feedback scores.  Others catch the research ‘bug’ during their doctorates and love the challenge of trying to answer the next question.  They power through their teaching time, perhaps investing just enough time in preparing lectures to get by, chomping at the bit to get back into the lab or into the field collecting data.

The question raised is: why shouldn’t an academic choose their ‘speciality’ between research and teaching?  If academia was a private company, you can bet a smart CEO would exploit the talents of his or her staff in such as way as to ensure maximum output.  ‘Equal workload’ should allow for some academics to be more heavily involved in one of the two main legs of the stool, research or teaching, while contributing to the overall mission of the institution.  Those who love to teach and feel ‘forced’ into getting involved in research to satisfy departmental requirements would be able to invest more time in what they love if most of the research requirement was removed.  Similarly, a productive researcher, who begrudgingly spends time lecturing – often not particularly well – would be even more productive in research if most of his or her teaching duties were reassigned to those who love to teach.  In the end, each of the legs of the academic stool would be stronger, more stable, and academics would find fewer reasons to look for greener pastures, ensuring good morale and stability in academic departments.

5 thoughts on “Researcher, Administrator, Teacher … or What?”

  1. Drew. Thanks so much for starting this discussion. I think it is a good one to have across faculty. It is true, we are not all blessed with either the interest or talent to excel in all areas of academic endeavor. It is also true, a smart institution will mine the talents of its staff and faculty to best effect outcome.

    The model you suggest is widely used in other universities across the country. I have experienced it several times myself at other institutions. I was a clinical professor at UCLA, non-tenure track, which offered me a better opportunity to exploit my own talents, which were clinical practice and administration. I did have a research load, but was exposed to another set of research requirements that fit my capacity that did not include grant demands.

    I hope to hear from many others within our community re: this issue. There are some exciting options out there. Thanks for your effort. Scot

    1. Scot,

      Thanks for your input. This is by no means uncontroversial. While the suggested system may seem to be the best use of human resources, for those who fall somewhere between the ends of the researcher-teacher spectrum, i.e., those for whom teaching and research are equally rewarding and fulfilling, they may find having to choose one difficult. And, there will always be those faculty who will see a colleague getting a lighter load in either of the areas as being treated ‘special’ at their expense, in which case, morale may, in fact, suffer. This model of workload assignment needs to be managed carefully to ensure it achieves its goals and leaves most, if not all, faculty happy with its implementation.


  2. I agree! Allowing each of us to focus on our area of expertise will ultimately create a better environment for our students with more diverse opportunities for mentorship.

    1. Carisa,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this topic. Although the implementation of what I am suggesting can lead to some concern amongst faculty about the standards within each area of research and teaching, ultimately, I believe, any given academic unit will benefit.


  3. Thanks for this post Drew. I’d suggest studying the work of James Fairweather at Michigan State, who is an expert in the field of higher education administration and incentives. There is ample evidence that universities want faculty to be a “jack of all trades” rather than playing to their strengths. It is refreshing to see that administration at SMU is more progressive than that.

Leave a Reply