Thursday, August 23, 2012

My New Jobs and Working in Academia


I've talked before about my current position as a postdoc (short for postdoctoral scholar/researcher/fellow/etc.).  This is a temporary position very much like a medical doctor's residency.  I've held this position for the past 5 years and I've loved it, so much so that I managed to land myself a more permanent position, or I should say positions since I now have 2 jobs.

My first job that will be replacing my postdoc (which is up at the end of the month) is "Data Analysis and EPO Scientist" for Caltech but working at the LIGO Livingston Observatory (EPO stands for Education and Public Outreach).  This is a half-time position that will allow me to continue my LIGO research and continue to perform outreach.  Basically, this new scientist job at LIGO will let me to keep doing what I've been doing for the last 5 years.

My second job is an instructor position in the LSU physics department.  This semester I am teaching conceptual physics (PHSC 1001: Physical Science) which is sometimes referred to as "physics for poets".  I am especially excited about teaching the class at LSU because many of the students are future teachers themselves.  I've taught the equivalent course to this while I was at Penn State (PHYS 001: The Science of Physics).  This was the one course I had complete control over while I was at Penn State: including text book selection, lecture & exam creation, etc.  I picked this class because it is hard to teach.  Through my previous teaching experience, I discovered that the less math you use in a physics class, the harder it is to teach.  Calculus-based physics is MUCH easier to teach than algebra-based; not because the students in the calculus-based physics class are smarter (which isn't true), but because a teacher can use math as a crutch and not have to truly articulate concepts.


I am really thrilled about my jobs.  Not only do I have a job (with benefits) in this economic climate, but it is in my field and doing what I love to do.  I am also back in the classroom which I missed (but loved the work in outreach I've been doing).  I get to continue doing to LIGO research.

In a sense, I have a very non-traditional "professorship" since I get to teach and do research.  The reason this isn't really a professorship is that I do not have the ability to earn tenure.  In academia, after a certain amount of time (usually 7 years) you are eligible for a promotion that makes you a permanent member of the faculty at the school.  In higher education, the evaluation criteria usually include the quality of your research (usually measured on the amount of grants you obtained and papers that you published), your teaching, and your service to the school and the profession.  At very big research schools, much more weight is placed on research; in smaller liberal arts colleges, teaching is often more important.  The fact that I am in a non-tenure track position is good in that I don't have to worry about obtaining my own research funds or publish stacks of papers and it is bad in that I am never going to have the security that tenure could bring me.  Of course, I have the option of leaving my current positions in the future and finding a tenure-track job (which isn't easy to do these days).

Another good aspect about my split position is that it think it is pretty hard to get laid off from two different jobs at the same time.  I guess that's a kind of job security...  I may not have tenure but it will be hard for me to be completely unemployed.

Ultimately, I am thrilled that two different universities are willing to claim me and I still get to do what I love...  It doesn't get much better than that!