The ins and outs of being an associate college professor

Welcome to my next installment of interviewing a scientist series!  If you are curious about my previous interviews they are here: Leaving academia to teach young scientistsThe important work of a science policy directorBalancing work and family life as a part-time college instructorWorking in the science industryLife as a postdoctoral researcherThe business side of scienceFrom professor to entrepreneur. 

I met Candice Klingerman when we were both attending Lehigh University together for our Ph.D. degrees.  She’s one of those people who you instantly like because she is kind, intelligent, and super helpful.  Therefore, she makes a great college professor!  We both attended the same conferences and taught the same courses at Lehigh because our research was very similar.  She is now an associate professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.  Congrats on your most recent promotion Candice!

Candice’s original interests were in veterinary medicine and her goal as an undergraduate was to become a veterinarian.  However, in her senior year of college, she was introduced to research and came to love the process.

“I enjoyed developing a project, carrying out the research, analyzing the data, and disseminating my results.  During this time, I also learned of the hardships associated with veterinary medicine including tuition debt and depression (associated with animal euthanasia).  She (her professor) encouraged me to apply for research positions.  The research led me to graduate school.”

Therefore, her plans changed and she went on to become a research technician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).  She quickly realized she wanted to advance in her career and to do so meant going back to school.  She went on to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Delaware in Animal Science with a focus on dairy nutrition.   However, she still felt as though her career options were not where she wanted them and decided to apply to Ph.D. programs.  After searching many schools in the region of PA, DE, and NJ, she found Jill Schneider, a professor at Lehigh University.  They instantly found a connection and Candice applied and was accepted into the Ph.D. program.

“She (Dr. Schneider) was studying the relationship between energy balance and reproduction in hamsters…I was studying energy balance in cows.  At LU, I had the opportunity for many collaborations both within and outside of the University.  I learned many different research techniques, which made finding a post-doctoral position rather effortless.”

Like many Ph.D. students, Candice went on to two different postdoctoral research positions because she knew that in order to obtain a professor position, many required postdoctoral experience.

“While submerged in my PhD program, I came to the realization that I wanted to help people, not just animals.  My post-doctoral experiences (both at the Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA) did just that.  First, I studied the metabolic side effects of antipsychotic medications.  Then, hydrogen sulfide poisoning.  Both had little to do with my research interests, but I performed surgical procedures on large and small animals – something that I was good at.  After about 6 months into my 2nd post-doc, I applied and was offered a “real” job!”

I have to say I think it’s interesting that Candice pointed out that having a postdoctoral position feels like it’s not a real job.  That’s because it’s a temporary position with no room for promotion within the lab, making it a super stressful time for most scientists.

I asked Candice to describe her current position as an associate professor:

“My current position is Associate Professor in the department of Biological and Allied Health Sciences at Bloomsburg University.  We have a heavy teaching load, referred to as a 4+4, meaning 4- 3 credit courses each semester or 12 contact hours in the classroom.  We are also required to maintain 5 office hours each week, although many of us have 20 hr or more.  “

Candice teaches several different courses each semester:

“My main course load has been Introduction to Nutrition (for majors and non-majors) and Anatomy and Physiology laboratory.  However, I have also developed and taught Animal Behavior and Hormones and Obesity, both senior and graduate level courses.”

Candice has to balance not just teaching, but also serving on university committees, research, meeting with students, etc.

“In between teaching, office hours, and meetings, I try to do research.  I have decided to continue studying energy balance and behavior.  As many new faculty, I was met with challenges.  Going from a R01 University with a large graduate program to a smaller University like BU with undergraduates and a newly emerging Master’s program, I had to give up many resources -including having to change animal models, from hamsters to zebrafish. I was fortunate to find the facilitates to house my fish and a few good undergraduates and graduates students to carry out my research.”

I asked Candice to talk about her likes and dislikes of her position as a professor and she elaborated:

“What I like the most about my job is interacting with students.  I have students that come into my office to ask questions about my classes, but more often than not, students stop by just to talk about life – family, relationships, friends, roommates, etc.  What I dislike about my job is having to fail students.   Rarely, do students that are honestly trying to succeed fail.  However, it does happen where students are clearly trying, but just cannot grasp the information.  Once students begin drowning, it is difficult for them to swim.  The trick is to catch them before they slip under the surface.”

I asked Candice to give me her take of applying for and being offered positions in academia and she echoed what many other scientists tell me.  However, in my opinion, finding a full time tenure track position is becoming harder due to more adjunct and visiting professor positions being offered.

“Finding a job in academia is fine.  However, applying and actually being called for an interview is another story.  Some of my colleagues have had to do multiple post-docs for years before landing a teaching position.  I was lucky that it only took me ~1.5 years after my PhD to get hired at BU.  I do think that politics are involved.  Many times, professors are hired from within a department, but the position needs to be posted publicly first.  Therefore, you are spending countless hours applying for a job that you think is available, but really it is not.  The interview process is also strict.  If you make the first cut, there will usually be a phone interview, followed by an in-person interview after the second cut.  The in-person interview may be 2 days or more and will probably include a teaching presentation, research presentation, and meeting with every single colleague in the department, including students.  They will also want to see how you interact outside of the University by taking you to dinner or lunch.  After all, socialization with colleagues outside of work is also important.”

As far as changing anything about her past education or experiences Candice explained what she would alter.

“If I could go back and change anything about my education, I probably would have eliminated my Master’s degree.  I met some great people over my 2 years at U. Delaware, but this really didn’t help my education or career as I am no longer studying dairy cattle.”

Candice’s advice to young scientists thinking of pursuing a higher degree in science is this:

“I would tell them to think long and hard about graduate school.  It’s a major commitment, one that may make you put your personal life on hold for 5 years or more (I didn’t start having kids until I was well into my 30’s!).  Also, don’t be afraid of criticism and failing.  Both are part of the ride.  Not all projects will work, in fact most will probably fail!  You pick yourself up, dust off the negativity, and try it again.  As a great man once said, “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be called research.” –Albert Einstein”

Lastly, I asked Candice what she wishes someone had told her when she was still an undergraduate and she went on to explain what she tells her students now:

“What I tell my students now is that life has a way of working itself out.  You may start out as a biology student, but end up working in business or retail, or in my case, studying “animal” anatomy and physiology to now teaching “human” nutrition courses.  There is not one straight road.  The road to success may change course many times.  Eventually, you will end up where you belong.  Moreover, not everyone is perfect.  We all make mistakes.  What makes you successful is being able to take those mistakes and to learn from them.”

Thank you, Dr.  Candice Klingerman for your excellent advice!  Candice hopes to become a full professor in the next 5-10 years at Bloomsburg University. Good luck!