I have a couple of friends who went the route of teaching at a small
college that serves undergraduates exclusively, although I don't plan to
do this myself. I thought that some of their experiences might be
interesting to people in this group who have asked about that career path.
It appears, from the outside, that it is not "the promised land" for the
1. The workload is very high. A professor is often expected to teach 3
or 4 classes per semester. One of my friends, who is a very gifted
teacher and lecturer, and who has a lot of energy, says that by the end
of the semester he is "crawling towards the finish line." He found the
first few years of teaching to be as much or more work than his postdoc.
2. Many of the students, although not all, by any means, are unmotivated
and uninterested in the coursework. One of my friends cynically
describes a large majority of his students as "Limbaugh dittoheads" and
"frat boys" although he has also described the very rewarding experience
of working with the three or four really good, motivated students that he
has every year in various courses and independent work. I have heard
comments like this from both of my friends my age and from a friend's
father, all who teach science at decent small colleges. A large number
of students are more interested in drinking than in studying, have short
attention spans, and are extremely grade-oriented, especially the
pre-meds. The balance/reward that comes from the really exceptional
minority of motivated students is sometimes worth the aggravation,
3. These colleges are not always more sympathetic to family concerns
than large research institutions. Another friend faced a very
unsympathetic administration and department when she wanted to lighten
her teaching load during what turned out to be a difficult pregnancy (in
her mid-30's). I think, like any job, one has to look at the specific
school, the specific department, because many can be good environments
for family-oriented people; I'm just saying that there's no guarantee just
because it's a small teaching institution rather than a grant factory.
On the positive side, even my cynical friend really enjoys many of his
students. It seems that on the balance, he usually thinks that the good
ones are worth the aggravation of the bad ones. And if there are other
young faculty around, they seem to form a close cameraderie and
friendship with each other. And, my friend with the difficult pregnancy
ultimately did end up getting tenure, so perhaps the unsympatheticness
that she perceived was more talk than action.
My own personal feeling about a teaching job at a good undergrad college, is
that in order to excel, one really has to have a thick skin, a secure ego,
and to enjoy and be good at public speaking. These aren't necessarily
skills that you learn in grad school.