What Do Assistant Professors Want?

Motivated students, the help and guidance of their older peers, and more hours in the day, according to a recent ASEE survey

By Ray Bert

illustrations by Federique Bertrand Tenure-track assistant professors are a little like first-time political candidates. Both start with truckloads of idealism and enthusiasm, and the very best intentions of "serving the people." Only as the tenure campaign drags on do professors realize that more of their energies than they would like must go toward more dollar-centered pursuits than teaching if they want to be "elected."

But while the reality of tenure requirements may leave them grumbling, fledgling engineering professors are still largely enamored with their chosen profession. For many, it is the idealism that got them into teaching in the first place that sustains them as they juggle their many responsibilities.

In February, ASEE conducted a survey of our assistant professor members-to find out about their lives, their backgrounds, and their concerns. Of the approximately 1,200 members invited to participate, 500 took the time to fill out the Web-based survey-an impressive response rate of more than 40 percent that may indicate how much they want their voices to be heard.

More than anything else, their responses show that tenure-track professors may be beleaguered by multiple demands, but they are unbowed in their love of teaching.

Bundles of Joy?

For the most part, assistant professors seem to feel a combination of exasperation at and affection for their students, similar to a parent-child relationship. Suzanne Keilson, an engineering science professor at Loyola College, has no trouble summarizing the difficulties and rewards of teaching: "Most difficult: the students. Most rewarding: the students."

illustrations by Federique Bertrand

"The most rewarding moment is when a student grasps a difficult concept."

What keeps professors going term after term? Time and again, they cite as the most rewarding aspect of their jobs the occasional "light bulb" of understanding when a student grasps a difficult concept. Many others put similar sentiments into a broader context, speaking with unabashed idealism of "making a difference," or as Marybeth Lima, a biological and agricultural engineering professor from Louisiana State University-Baton Rouge, puts it, of "doing my part to save the planet." Having an impact on individual students' lives and careers also ranks high, and a number of professors note the pleasure of working with self-motivated students, and of hearing from successful former students who credit their teachers' instruction and guidance.

Though some educators complain about students who are simply not cut out for engineering, more are concerned about students' lack of enthusiasm for learning. Many students are "bright but unambitious," "unmotivated," "underprepared," or "interested only in technology, not fundamental knowledge," according to their teachers. While a few professors opined that teaching to varied learning styles creates part of the problem ("Each group has its own unique gestalt. Some lessons fall flat that were previously successful," Keilson writes), more typical is University of Notre Dame electrical engineering professor Gregory Snider's claim that "some students just want their ticket punched and can be hard to reach."

Despite the all-too-common "blank stares" that greet them in lectures, most assistant professors are planning to stick around for the long haul, and the connection they make with some students-and the challenge of reaching the rest-is clearly what keeps them coming back. But the students themselves aren't the only source of frustrations. There are other areas of their jobs where professors would like to get some help and see some changes so that they can devote the time to teaching that they feel it deserves.

Teaching vs. Research

Many assistant professors lament what they consider to be universities' obsession with research dollars, and its influence on their ability to teach effectively. "Teaching appears to have little intrinsic worth to some senior faculty [members]," says one. "Academia these days is just a business. Bringing in research money is the only thing that counts," remarks another. A third laments "the short-sighted emphasis on research dollars to the near-exclusion of teaching."

"When it came time for tenure, teaching was an afterthought."

Think that comments like these probably come only from large, research-oriented institutions? Think again. Several professors mention that they work at so-called "teaching-oriented" schools, but still decry the tenure decision as a dash for cash. "I was at a university that supposedly emphasized teaching," writes one. "But when it came time for tenure, teaching was an afterthought." Another adds, "The provost and the dean have stated that pedagogical studies are negative attributes for receiving tenure."

Showing the Strain

Most assistant professor members are on a tenure track, and the pressures and expectations involved in the looming tenure decision show. Many speak of the difficulty in balancing or juggling the demands placed on new professors. "I am pulled in too many different directions," writes Thad Welch, a U.S. Air Force Academy electrical engineering professor. Many state flatly that expectations are too high, and one notes the difficulty of "discussing ethics, communication, teamwork, and multidisciplinary projects (sometimes within a single course)" in addition to the technical material.

While some assistant professors loudly object to specific situations, and others quietly state the burdens of their jobs, there are also at least a few who feel completely overwhelmed. "Most people simply don't know the hell we go through," one writes, while another adds, "The job is almost to the point where it's unbearable."

What Professors Want From ASEE

No matter what the complaints and difficulties, or even scattered implications that tenure is a kind of hazing process, most assistant professors keep returning to some version of a thought expressed by civil engineering professor James Harmon, of Saint Martin's College: "I simply enjoy teaching."

illustrations by Federique Bertrand
"I would feel more secure if a senior professor took me on as a mentor."
Still, assistant professors have a number of ideas about how ASEE can help them through the arduous tenure process-though not all of the requests are feasible. The benefits of "lobbying for more hours in a day" and "direct-brain infusion of information," are undeniable, but (for the moment at least) impractical. And though ASEE may understand the career boost it would give to assistant professors, we simply can't "shoot all the full professors," as one wag jokingly (we hope) suggests.

Serious ideas were also numerous and varied, but again, certain trends are obvious. Untenured professors labor under crushing time demands that not only leave everyone feeling beleaguered, but also deny the educators opportunities to commiserate. It is therefore no surprise that many assistant professors feel that a peer network would be both a career asset and a great comfort. "I would be helped by being able to network with others in similar situations," says Ted Thiede, a physics professor at Murray State University.

Another common, related request is for a mentoring system. Less-experienced professors are eager to soak up the advice of their veteran peers who have already survived the tenure gauntlet. "I would feel more secure if a senior ASEE member took me on as a mentor in all aspects of my job," says Paul Firth, an electrical and computer engineering professor at New Mexico State University.

Finally, assistant professors suggest that ASEE could serve as a "clearinghouse" for everything from course material sharing, labs, and software, to teaching and career management workshops and grant opportunities. It is unsurprising that assistant professors want help finding out where the research money is hiding, given that 61 percent named procuring research funding as the most difficult tenure requirement.

ASEE's Response

The results of the assistant professor survey "confirm other anecdotal information on the high anxiety and stress level" of tenure-track professors, says President Ernest Smerdon. And ASEE Executive Director Frank Huband calls on senior faculty members to reach out to their younger colleagues. "Older members can surely remember both the excitement of early teaching successes and the frustration of obstacles and time constraints," Huband says. "The accumulated wisdom of an experienced educator-especially when applied as a mentor-is a powerful resource for a tenure-track professor."

To the networking and mentoring suggestions, Huband notes, "improving services to assistant professors is something we want to do, and we will consider these specific requests."

Looking beyond ASEE to the entire engineering education community, Smerdon believes that "changes in the [tenure] system, to give more credit for teaching, will come," but cautions, "it will not occur overnight." In the meantime, Smerdon advises assistant professors to "understand what is expected, set goals and time lines, and don't hesitate to ask for advice and help."

Juggling lessons might not be a bad idea, either.

Ray Bert is associate editor of PRISM.


Joe/Jane Assistant Professor

By creating a composite of all of the majority responses, we can form a picture of the typical ASEE assistant professor.

  • Male, 30-39, married, no children
  • Holds a Ph.D., has a salary exceeding $50,000
  • Not professionally licensed (nor feels it should be required)
  • On a tenure track
  • Plans to be in academe for at least the next 15 years
  • Biggest concern for tenure: securing enough research funding
  • Previously worked in industry, but isn't consulting right now (or is averaging less than five hours per week)
  • Thinks that new Ph.D. graduates have more opportunities in industry than in academe
  • Most popular leisure activities: family, reading, church/volunteer work, TV, and sports

Complete survey results and the orginal survey questions - in PDF format.

Original Survey: www.asee.org/ray/survey.cfm 

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