23

I recently defended my PhD in Neuroscience and am starting a postdoc soon. Like a lot of people who take this track, I hope to one day have my own research lab at a university. I would also like to teach, but here's the thing — I don't want to teach neuroscience or biology. I taught lower-division math at my undergrad university as an adjunct before leaving for my PhD (when I had just a BS in Bio, Math) and I loved it. I would ideally like to have a research career in neuroscience and teach lower-division math courses.

My question is: is it possible to span fields like this if you can demonstrate capability or have subject-specific teaching on your CV even without PhD-level training in both fields? I don't have math-specific training beyond my BS. Many adjunct/lower-division math professors have a Master's in Math and no PhD in any field. Do I also need a Master's if I have a PhD in a different field (neuroscience is more quantitative than other life sciences, but it's not math)?

  • 20
    Nobody is going to invest in you as research faculty and then let you do the job of a minimum wage ta or adjunct. Your education is fine. If you want to do something like this teaching biostats to grad students would probably work. – user128815 Sep 20 at 23:04
  • 17
    Echoing @CJRD's comment: in theory this is entirely possible; in practice it is vanishingly unlikely. The maths department has no shortage of people capable of teaching lower-division maths, and the chair of the biology department isn't going to be interested in paying you to teach someone else's students. One exception might be if you find a school that doesn't have a proper maths department, but still needs to teach 'maths for scientists'. However, I have no idea if such a place exists... – avid Sep 21 at 0:17
  • 4
    @AnonymousPhysicist it’s not a duplicate at all. OP is asking about having a specific type of job - tenure track in a neuroscience or biology department - and having teaching duties of a specific other kind - teaching math classes. Even if OP were qualified to teach math without a PhD (per the discussion in the other question), it does not follow that they can do so from a tenure track neuroscience faculty position (indeed, I argue in my answer that they cannot). – Dan Romik Sep 21 at 7:06
  • 3
    maybe work in a city that also has a 2-year college to teach at – Mike M Sep 21 at 12:51
  • 1
    You say "I taught lower-division math at my undergrad university". I can't imagine any university hiring a tenure track professor to teach only lower-division math. What qualifications do you have to teach upper-division math? – user247327 Sep 21 at 20:54
38

Can I become a tenure-track prof in one dept (biology) and teach in a different dept (math) with only one PhD?

TL;DR: no.

Long answer:

I was for several years the chair of a mathematics department and during that time oversaw teaching assignments for the 200-odd courses offered yearly by my department. I can recall only one case in which my department allowed a faculty member from a biology-related department who did not have an advanced degree in math or a closely related area (eg physics) to teach a math class (I believe it was calculus for biology students). Even this arrangement raised some eyebrows — mine, and possibly other people’s — but the circumstances were a bit unusual so it was allowed to happen, for reasons I won’t go into.

With this background, I can say with reasonable confidence that what you are proposing is impossible. Perhaps you can reasonably expect to be allowed to teach a math class once or twice in your career if that’s something you have your mind set on doing, but as a regular part of your job, at a normal university? No way. Even setting aside your lack of qualifications to teach math (an objection which one can imagine you overcoming under some hypothetical, if rare, circumstances), the fact remains that departments hire faculty among other important reasons to fulfill their own teaching needs. If you are in department X, you will be teaching the classes that department X offers - that’s why they are hiring you; so it simply doesn’t make sense for a neuroscience department to allow you to regularly teach classes of another department, except under some extremely rare and unusual circumstances.

Now, if you get a second PhD in math, or publish several years’ worth of postdoctoral research work in neuroscience that can be plausibly described as serious applied math so that you can credibly start calling yourself a mathematician, then your plan might start making a bit more sense. In that case you would probably want to look for positions that involve a joint appointment between a neuroscience department and a mathematics department — such things are not common, but they exist. Your teaching load will then be split between the two departments, likely in roughly the same proportion as the proportions of your position that are assigned to each of the departments. It’s still not likely that you will be allowed to teach only math classes, but it may be not too far from what you have in mind.

Edit: you also wrote:

I would ideally like to have a research career in neuroscience and teach lower-division math courses.

Another thought that occurs to me is that your expectation that you will only teach lower-division classes is also unreasonable, independently of the discipline. Professors are expected to teach at all levels: lower division, upper division, and (where applicable) graduate; again, that’s sort of why you’re hired in the first place, and that’s what sets you apart from an adjunct or lecturer. You seem to want to do the high-level parts of a professor’s job - doing research, running a lab etc - when it comes to research, but only the most low-level parts of the job - teaching the sort of beginning math classes that your former university allowed you to teach with only a BS degree - when it comes to teaching. That’s simply not how it works: no university will waste a professor’s position on job duties that can be performed by someone with much lower qualifications than a professor. That would very obviously not be an efficient arrangement for the university, either economically or pedagogically.

If you don’t want to teach anything more challenging than the least challenging thing that there is to teach, you may want to ask yourself if you actually want to be a professor at all.

| improve this answer | |
  • 36
    I take a bit of exception to the notion that the lower-level mast courses will be the least challenging to teach. The least technically challenging yes, but these courses will also have the least capable and motivated students, so the teaching skills required are arguably greater. – Charles Staats Sep 21 at 12:46
  • 5
    @CharlesStaats yes, good point. But I think it’s clear enough what sense of “challenging” I was referring to. – Dan Romik Sep 21 at 12:56
  • 6
    Also, if you're not confident teaching higher level math courses, then one has to wonder about the quality of the teaching at the lower levels also. Having a strong command of the higher level mathematics is very useful in helping to guide the context in which lower level mathematics is taught. The way the concepts are framed and presented, and the way that the professor answers student questions can rely heavily on that deeper understanding of where this whole course is going. If anything, you frequently want the stronger professors teaching the early courses because those are so important. – J... Sep 21 at 13:14
  • 9
    @aelx being a neuroscience professor is a full time job. It’s noble to want to volunteer to do extensive extra teaching duties for the math department, and perhaps if you offer it they might allow you to teach a class here and there, but I think you have unrealistic expectations if you think you’ll have enough spare working time to be able to do this regularly. And as I said your lack of qualifications is likely to make it considerably less likely you’ll be allowed to teach any math class at all, although I wouldn’t say it’s entirely impossible. – Dan Romik Sep 21 at 13:57
  • 7
    Neuroscience is a big field. If you're at the western blot + a t-test end, it might be tough indeed. If your neuro "day job" is at the theoretical/computational end: proving theorems about dynamical systems, studying randomly-connected graphs (etc) @DanRomik's advice might be a tad pessimistic: someone like Bill Bialek or Bard Ermentrout wouldn't have much trouble fitting in some math or neuro departments. A postdoc with such an advisor could put you on that path. – Matt Sep 21 at 17:40
21

What are your research interests within neuroscience?

Dan Romnik's answer presupposes that you want to keep the two fields completely separate: you'll run a neuroscience wet lab as your day job and moonlight as a calculus instructor at night. For the reasons he outlines, this would be very difficult indeed, verging on impossible.

However, neuroscience is a giant, sprawling field and the edge between theoretical/computational neuroscience, physics, and math is nebulous (if that). People study Ising models and manifolds and dynamical systems for many different reasons and from many different directions. If you were interested (and successful) in the more mathematical parts of biology, a joint--or even primary appointment--in a math department would not be out of the question. For example:

I don't know that you would necessarily need a formal mathematical credentials, especially for joint appointments (how would that even work?!). However, you would need to demonstrate your mathematical chops through suitable publications and reference letters. Depending on your current math skills, a postdoc, perhaps with someone like those listed above, might be one way to go about getting those.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Yes: putting the best possible spin on the idea... – paul garrett Sep 21 at 23:05
  • 7
    I am supposed to be writing a Research statement :-) – Matt Sep 21 at 23:06
  • 4
    Good and and thoughtful answer, +1. It’s worth mentioning though that Kopell got her PhD in pure math, Kording and Abbott in physics, and Shilnikov in dynamical systems. I didn’t check all of the web pages but MacKay was the only one I saw whose PhD area sounds related to neuroscience. So overall it’s not clear that this list of illustrious names actually supports the thesis of your answer. – Dan Romik Sep 22 at 2:56
  • 3
    Thanks. I think some of that is a historical accident--when Abbott started his PhD in the early 70s, neuroscience was just forming as a field in its own right rather than a branch of biophysics/physiology/psychology. However, my PhD program (for example), wouldn't exist for another ~25 years. Ken Miller started out doing experimental work on NMDA receptor properties; I think Konrad spent some time in the lab. Anyway, my suggestion is not so much mimicking their career trajectories precisely but more that working with/like these people could be a good first step for OP. – Matt Sep 22 at 15:22
17

Having only one doctorate isn't the problem. But you would find it difficult to find a university that had compatible needs. If you are tenure-track in Biology, that department will want you to do research in Biology (of course), but also to serve the students in that field. If you aren't doing that, you will have problems, and if you ask for such a position, they would most likely say no.

On the other hand, once you are tenured, you might be able to teach the occasional math course and still have everyone happy.

An exception to the above might occur in a small Liberal Arts College (in the US) in which both math and biology are under the same Dean and the teaching requirements were seen as more important than the research. But there will still be few such positions open. And having a neuroscience lab in such a place would be difficult to manage as the funding would be pretty much all on you to arrange. You'd be unlikely to have any time to spend on other things.

Nice to dream, though.

| improve this answer | |
  • 3
    "But you would find it difficult to find a university that had compatible needs." This is the core issue, I think. Hard to hear but I appreciate the reality. Perhaps I'll keep the dream alive by hoping to teach biostats or some kind of bio-math that has crossover appeal for a biology dept. – aelx Sep 21 at 1:54
11

No, almost surely not.

Lower-level math courses are imagined to be easily teachable by soooo many people that the market pressure is that there's a vast labor surplus...

And, as in other answers, your home department will have definite ideas about your allocation of energies there...

And, it would be unwise to promote yourself as a low-end product... who is, in effect, no better than a part-time instructor of low-end math... I'm absolutely not disparaging the teaching job, but am addressing the status thereof in most univ's in the U.S.

Summary: both infeasible and (very) unwise...

As in other answers: better (for many reasons) to try to steer your in-department courses in a more mathematical direction.

| improve this answer | |
8

I think you should think a bit harder about what it was about the math class you taught that was such a good fit for you, and how you might incorporate that into teaching classes that are closer to your research field. As you discussed in the comments, if it was really the subject matter that you liked, then you might want to try to shift your research in a more mathematical direction and see if you can get a joint appointment of some kind, but I can't help but wonder if you can't find some kind of teaching in a biology department that draws a closer connection between your research and teaching.

| improve this answer | |
5

I am a tenured prof at a research university (in biology) and can't see a university (and the relevant departments) letting you do this unless there are unusual circumstances like the ones some respondents mention above.

In addition, you won't get tenure unless you teach in your home department.

However, think creatively. Along with some suggestions above, here is another:

Many biology students don't like math for whatever reason. But they have to take some amount of math for requirements. But you are in a field (neuroscience) that has lots of math and lots of biology. Why not design math courses for biology majors using neuroscience examples so you are teaching them neuroscience and math at the same time. Of course you could use other branches of biology too - system biology, ecology, evolution, gene regulation, etc. all of which use a lot of math. But if you reframe your idea in this way, then a biology department might be interested. Many biology departments today want their students to have more quantitative background, but they are shunted off to math departments to learn it and there is a big disconnect in students' minds. How can we expect them to figure out for themselves how some calculus concept should be applied in biology if they have never seen an example of it? So think about making courses that bridge that gap and that show biology majors why they are learning this math and show them that it is actually important for learning biology.

| improve this answer | |
  • I like this idea!! I hadn’t thought about framing it for a biology dept. A lot of room for different types of courses in there. – aelx Sep 23 at 14:42
4

It is possible but unlikely. For one you don’t technically get to choose your teaching assignment (it’s from the Dean or something like this). For another, the university is likely to already have people in math to teach such courses, and will complete your teaching assignments with courses from your own unit rather than from another unit. Finally, if you have a position, you will be expected to teach in your home unit unless the position is explicitly identified as some sort of cross-appointment

Now, if you have specific and strong background in one area of mathematics, or develop a particular expertise - stay you have demonstrated expertise in applications of differential equations to competitive population dynamics, or an expert in Bayesian statistics - it may be possible to teach some courses in another unit, but that is NOT the usual situation.

Finally, if you have expertise in biostatistics, it’s more likely that a department of biology (rather than math) would ask you to develop such a course (and possibly attract math students in the process).

| improve this answer | |
1

Your university's accrediting body may require that you have some minimal qualification (perhaps master's degree) to teach in an area.

Perhaps you could teach quantitative reasoning in an interdisciplinary general education program.

| improve this answer | |
0

Just get a part-time job at a community college/junior college. That should let you scratch the teaching itch.

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.