I teach at a small US liberal arts college with no graduate students. There is no support for research, and the teaching load is 4-6 courses per year.

A colleague was recently denied promotion to full professor because he was not "a leader in his field". This requirement is new (and does not appear anywhere in our handbook). I understand that it might be possible for a professor in the arts or humanities to be a leader in their field, and maybe even a social scientist (if the field is sufficiently small).

Are there any references we can point to showing that, in order for a scientist to be a leader in their field, they need graduate students, post-docs, institutional support, lower teaching loads, etc.?

If you disagree with my premise and think we should be able to become leaders in scientific fields given the above constraints, please answer instead how to do that.

UPDATES: Science faculty are expected to provide undergraduate research opportunities, even though those generally take more time than they save. This limits the ability to collaborate with groups at research universities.

The problem is especially severe for faculty in the life sciences.

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    writing and being granted funding proposals is something you both try? It's the first I would start at the end of PhD/beginning of post-doc. Probably tough and very competitive in humanities, but is there a better chance...? Mar 27, 2019 at 18:38
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    Well, having some familiarity with physics professors at small liberal arts colleges, they generally have figured out how to be part of some collaboration. Perhaps easier for particle physics types (and similar fields) where large collaborations with various bits that are suitable for undergraduate-level projects. And, the profs often spend their summers with the collaboration, often off-site. Your mileage may vary...
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 27, 2019 at 18:48
  • @JonCuster Thank you. I've added that faculty are expected to include undergrads in their research, which can be challenging if they're collaborating off-campus. Mar 27, 2019 at 19:00
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    Is this the US? Are there annual faculty evaluations with specific criteria? Do you know if similar instances happened in other departments?
    – Kimball
    Mar 28, 2019 at 2:14
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    Just out of curiosity, did your colleague relate this to you, or did you see the decision letter. If your colleague was reviewed to a different standard than is the usual practice, this is probably a matter to be handled by whatever grievance procedure is in place -- but you would want to make sure you know the facts, and not just the facts as your colleague sees or understands them. Mar 29, 2019 at 20:53

1 Answer 1


I'm assuming that, among other things, you want to help the college develop a realistic plan that can be fairly applied in the future.

First, a bit of background. The type of college that you describe, normally has primarily a teaching mission. But expectations of faculty are almost universally threefold: Teaching, Research, and Service. While other colleges provide different weights, small liberal arts colleges mostly reward faculty for teaching, and normally say so explicitly. But the other two can't be ignored. With one exception, everywhere I spent my career had some research component in the expectations, even if it was poorly supported. But "Scholarly Activity" might be closer to the expectation than edge of the known universe research.

Moreover, at different times in a career, an individual might want to put more or less focus on one or the other of these and that should be supported, within reason, by the institution. For example, older faculty might want to focus more on service than the others, taking on administrative duties or duties outside the college proper, such as taking on tasks in professional organizations.

In my view, a "reasonable" faculty evaluation system will leave it to individuals to (a) present a short term (yearly) plan of activities in each area and (b) report on how they fulfilled the previous year's plan. The administration should then have a chance to reflect on this and to make suggestions and adjustments for the coming year's plan, with some consensus required in how it is finalized. Thus, if the institution wants more research, it can insist, each year, that a bit more be done than the individual had suggested in their proposed plan. Thus, the pressure is constant, but not intense on an individual. No one is told in year 15 that they can't be promoted (surprise) because they didn't do any research, though no one previously suggested that they should.

But, another aspect of the above that may not be particularly obvious, is that you can be "a leader in your field" if you get to define (self-define) your field. That means narrowing it, not dumbing it down, though. There are a lot of possibilities.

I think that expecting that a chemistry professor (a lab based science) will suddenly have a major article in Science when working with no inputs from the institution, would be unrealistic. I think lab sciences may be the hardest here as there are hard costs to cover and grants may not be open to small places. But in most other sorts of fields, one can find a niche in which to become well known. Mathematicians, of course, focus on very narrow fields, and there are a lot of these small sub fields. CS, also, has many opportunities, both in theoretical matters, in applications, and in human factors and management aspects. One field that is especially open to people who are primarily teachers is pedagogy. How can we best teach, say, Chemistry in the first year. The existing ways of doing it may be outmoded. But for this to work, the individual has to be able to decide for her/himself what field they will choose to become experts in. It is unlikely to be the overall field: not Chemistry, per se, but Teaching Chemistry in the first year. I've known people who have become, for example, leaders in computing ethics, computing pedagogy, even research opportunities for educators. Small fields, but valuable.

And if your "field" is the teaching of your larger field, then you can become a leader by book publishing or even "pamphlet" publishing if those pamphlets give good teaching support and become well known. Pick some small topic that is difficult to teach and find ways to do it better. Write it up. Publish it, even if on a web-site. Learn to teach in ways that are more effective than the ways that were handed down to you. Find a way to spread the word. You are suddenly "leading" not following.

Some funding is required, of course. Travel to conferences is a prime example. If you want to be known, you need to meet people and have a way to collaborate with them. That collaboration can lead to both research ideas for the professor and for smaller scale research ideas for students. For the sciences, in particular, this need to foster collaboration within the larger field is essential. The web makes a lot possible, but people have to make the contacts first so that they can become part of larger projects. New faculty, in particular, should be encouraged to keep their old contacts active and to develop new ones. If student research is a desirable goal, then you may need ways to let students develop those contacts also, either by funding student travel or by bringing in visitors frequently.

A college can't suddenly expect teaching faculty to acquire grant funding. That normally takes a lot of support from the institution, but it can pay off. Both governmental and private grants can be found, but it may take cultivating. Many small institutions have a few people dedicated to finding grant opportunities, to developing contacts, and to assisting in grant preparation.

The essence, I think is (a) let the faculty member define the niche field, (b) let the individual present a plan, (c) let the administration suggest and even impose small adjustments to the plan and (d) let the faculty member state how they have or haven't fulfilled the plan and why.

If the administration wants to apply pressure, make it incremental but continuous at point (c).

And, of course, faculty are strongly advised to retain all of their plans and reports, including any administration responses.

It is possible to build a system that guarantees failure. This benefits exactly no-one. Secret expectations or suddenly imposed major obligations are often features of such failure inducing systems.

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    I don't think doing research into education is an option, since they are supposed to provide students with lab research opportunities. Mar 29, 2019 at 19:34
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    Well, @Embarrassedtenuredprofessor, you can do both disciplinary research and education research. This is increasingly expected. Mar 30, 2019 at 10:02
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I guess none of us deserve to make full professor then, since we find it impossible to do that on top of the quantity and quality of teaching, advising, mentoring, and service that is expected of us. Maybe it would be possible for someone with a support spouse and no children, but some of my colleagues and I made poor personal choices. Mar 30, 2019 at 17:54

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