Balancing work and family life as a part-time college instructor

Welcome to the next blog in my interviewing a scientist series!

If you would like to read the other interviews they are: Working in the science industryLife as a postdoctoral researcherThe business side of science, and From professor to entrepreneur.

I met Kerri Mullen while I was attending graduate school at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA and we were both lab instructors for the same course.  We have kept in touch since then and I also gave two lectures to her environmental science students a few years ago at Stonehill College in Easton, MA.

Kerri received her bachelor’s of science in biology from Simmons College and then a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island.  After her master’s degree, she moved to Ithaca, NY to become a research technician in a marine disease ecology lab at Cornell University.  During the same time she also completed an employee degree program for a master’s of professional studies with a focus on environmental education with hopes to work as a non-formal science educator in a museum or aquarium.

Kerri currently works part-time in the Biology department at Stonehill College where she has worked for the past 8 years and teaches courses and preps for student labs.  She explained that many of the lab lectures are pre-recorded and viewed by the students before coming to lab but that she has many responsibilities during the lab:

“During labs, I spend a lot of time guiding students through new techniques and learning about new concepts. I also spend a lot of time teaching students how to use technology (using Excel to sort data, run basic summary statistics, and create graphs, as well as using databases to search the primary literature), and a LOT of time teaching them how to WRITE.”

She explained that there are a lot of journal article reading assignments that the students go over during the semester and that the students have frequent writing assignments:

“That means I spend a lot of time outside of lab grading papers, and meeting with students to help them become comfortable with data handling and science writing”

As far as her time with the students, Kerri explains that she really enjoys connecting with them:

“I really enjoy my time in lab with my students. I play fun music, and try to engage them with the material and experiment. I also love when they come see me during my Office Hour so they can get extra help because it gives me an opportunity to get to know them, and having a one-on-one session with me is so much more impactful to them.”

As far as the downfalls of her job, I can say that this is echoed by myself and most other instructors and professors that I know because it takes up a huge amount of time:

“The most challenging part of my job is the grading. It’s my nature to give everything 110%, and I spend a LOT of time giving students constructive feedback. I typically spend 60-90 minutes grading each final lab report, and there have been times when I have had 90+ students in one semester. I spend the last 3-4 weeks of the semester hyper-focused on that one assignment, sleep-deprived, and disconnected from my family. It’s especially disappointing when students don’t show up to pick up their final assignment after I’ve spent so much time trying to help them really learn.”

“The other challenging aspect of my job stems from being a part-time adjunct. Adjunct compensation has been part of an ongoing conversation about equity in academia. Part-time instructors typically make $20,000-25,000 annually, or $2,700-5,000 per 3-credit course. Also, developing and maintaining relationships with my students and colleagues, as well as taking part in daily campus life, is difficult when I’m only on campus 1-2 days per week. While I’m always invited to take part in faculty professional development, seminars, and many aspects of campus life, I’m not usually able to participate due to not having full-time child care.”

I can also attest that now more than ever there are many job postings for adjunct professors instead of full time tenure track positions at universities and colleges mainly due to the lower cost of funding adjunct positions.  Kerri also brings up a great point about those instructors and professors that have families at home to attend to, as work-life balance is difficult to achieve in academia.

I asked Kerri about her ideal career when she was growing up and she stated that her goals have changed due to having children and working around her family’s schedule:

“My career goal during graduate school was to become a non-formal science educator or educational exhibit designer at a museum or aquarium. My Masters of Professional Studies coursework was designed around science education in the public sphere.”

Her position now gives her flexibility of her hours and she is able to work on projects at home which allows her time with her family, but is open to going back into non-formal science education as her children get older.

As far as the current climate of hiring and interviewing for scientist positions Kerri states:

“My impression is that as more students pursue graduate degrees in science, competition for available positions increases. There is also the issue of decreased government funding for research grants, which have provided graduate research assistants, post-doctoral positions, technician jobs and other funding. To further compound these challenges, more and more small liberal arts colleges are experiencing decreased enrollment, with resulting cuts, hiring freezes or even closure. So, I think that the current climate for tenure track job seekers is very competitive and stressful.”

Kerri’s husband is a full-time tenure track professor at Boston University, so she has seen firsthand the challenges of applying and interviewing for academic scientist positions which have up to 400 applicants many times.

I asked if Kerri could go back and change anything, would she?

“If I could go back, I don’t think I would change much at all. When I occasionally feel undervalued or dissatisfied that I don’t particularly have career goals toward which I’m working, I do wonder if I should have pursued my PhD and pursued a tenure track academic position.”

However, Kerri states that her priority is her family and she is happy to be able to have a position that is super flexible in order for her to spend time with her family, something she wouldn’t be able to do if she was a full-time faculty member.

As far as advice for high school and college students thinking about advanced careers in science, Kerri stated:

“Science is really fun, interesting, and relevant in today’s world with societal and political issues such as global climate change and conservation, as well as rapidly changing technology. I think pursuing a career in science can be exciting and satisfying, but can also be challenging and stressful. Working toward a PhD and beyond is a long, arduous process that requires extreme dedication and hard work. But science careers are very rewarding. I encourage anyone considering a science career to consider non-traditional jobs outside of academe, whether that is working in public or private education, technical start-ups, the non-profit sector, or government positions in parks, forests, reserves, etc.”

Lastly, I asked Kerri if there was anything she wished someone had told her when she was just starting her scientific career she had several thoughts which line up with what many others in the sciences have told me during my previous interviews with them:

“I wish someone had explained to me the different career options when I was a graduate student. I often feel like academics tend to beget academics in their professional training, and I think a broader focus on career options would benefit more PhD candidates and society, as well. I also wished someone even earlier (when I was an undergrad) had prepared me about the financial reality of being a biologist. The reality is that many biologists have a lower “market value” compared to other STEM disciplines. I realized this when my husband was a professor at Lehigh University, and the Engineering Professors had salaries twice that of my husband – because frankly, they are worth more. I didn’t realize that we might not be as financially secure as other science professionals until we had both chosen our career paths, so we were unprepared for the discrepancy.”

Thank you so much for all of your great advice Kerri!!

Stay tuned for more interviews!