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I am interested in Math, specifically pure Math, in the USA. I will be on the job market soon for a tenure track position and mathjobs ads usually do not specify the teaching load.

What is the average teaching load of tenured faculty (in pure math say) at a research university? (and let's say we are talking about faculty members who are still very much research active)

I've met faculty who teaches 1+1 (or even 0+0...), 2+1 or even 2+2. But I don't have a good general picture of how much teaching is done (partly because I haven't studied in the US).

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    It's going to depend on the kind of school and to some extent perhaps the region. What kinds of schools are you applying to? – shane Oct 3 '14 at 18:01
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    My impression is that 2+1 is the most common at major research universities. People with substantial external funding may be able to "buy out" some of this, and new faculty may also be eligible for a temporary reduction at first. Lower-tier research institutions may have 2+2 or so, liberal arts and more teaching-oriented institutions may have 2+3 or 3+3. Anything higher than that is typically a teaching-only post that can't realistically include any significant research expectations. – Nate Eldredge Oct 3 '14 at 18:25
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    What unit are these 1+1 or 2+2 in? How many teaching hours/week does it translate to? – Federico Poloni Oct 3 '14 at 20:30
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    @FedericoPoloni: x+y means x courses in one semester and y in the other (so a total of x+y courses per year). This notation doesn't work as well for universities that use quarters rather than semesters; there, people may round the actual numbers off or use x+y+z. A typical course amounts to three hours of teaching per week, but that can vary a little. – Anonymous Mathematician Oct 3 '14 at 21:03
  • Faculty are typically expected to hold "office hours" where they're available to answer student questions. Grading exam papers (and homework if no homework grader is provided) can also take a lot of time. – Brian Borchers Oct 4 '14 at 17:38
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In mathematics departments at U.S. research universities, typical teaching loads are 1+2 or 2+2, with 1+2 being common at fancier or better funded schools. See this chart for some data; I don't know how accurate it is, but it looks approximately right to me. 1+1 is not absolutely unheard of, but it is very rare. Of course what counts as a "research university" is unclear, and some places that consider themselves research universities may have 2+3 loads, but I don't think any of the more prestigious research universities have 2+3.

Of course there are a lot of other factors that come into teaching load. How much flexibility is there in the course assignments? How does the teaching credit differ between huge lecture courses and small graduate seminars? How many people (if any) get a reduced teaching load? Does the department allow faculty to buy out of teaching using grant funds? Without answers to questions like these, a numerical comparison of teaching loads only tells you so much. What I'd recommend is that you apply for every job you might plausibly want, and then once you start to get interviews or offers you can look into the teaching conditions at these schools in detail.

  • For those of us not familiar with the US system, can you explain more about what that average load is for one course? That is which subset of preparing all the teaching materials, questions, answers, mark all homework and exams, manage the web page, answer all student queries by email etc., office hours, upload all relevant data to the university systems, attend meetings to discuss the course, set resits, mark them etc. etc. – dorothy Apr 3 '15 at 10:07
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    @dorothy: It varies a lot depending on the course (some of what you mention is more of a burden for big lecture courses than advanced seminars) and the institution (research universities are more likely to hire graders for the homework, especially the more well funded research universities). By default, I'd expect the lecturer to be in charge of most of the things you mention, except there may not be much development of custom teaching materials, there may be graders for the homework and exams, and student questions might be handled by several people if it's a big course. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 3 '15 at 15:26
  • @AnonymousMathematician Thank you for that. I suspect the amount of support you get teaching a large course is in some cases much more significant than the number of courses you have to teach. It's a stat which is hard to come by however. I have heard of places where faculty are expected to be available to all students at all times during the day, for example. – dorothy Apr 3 '15 at 16:13
  • Yes, I agree that the amount of support can be more significant than the number of courses (if the courses are large), and that there can be enormous differences in expectations between teaching and research focused universities. – Anonymous Mathematician Apr 3 '15 at 18:00
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I don't have a good general picture of how much teaching is done (partly because I haven't studied in the US

A lot of teaching is done. It is easy to get the impression, when talking with faculty from the relatively small number of research institutions, that there is little teaching. But most institutions in the U.S. are not research institutions, and most institutions have teaching as their primary mission.

A two-course-per-semester load would be viewed as extremely light at most institutions; three to four courses per semester is common in mathematics departments at the university level. Higher loads are common at the community college level.

When applying for positions, one of the easiest faux pas to make is to try to negotiate an unrealistically low teaching load. It is unlikely that a school will give a new tenure-track professor a load significantly different than the existing ones have. But they will view the request as as a sign the applicant hasn't done their research, or a sign the applicant will not be a good fit.

So you want to know the typical load at a school as soon as possible in the interview process, preferably before you apply. When investigating the typical teaching load at a school, there are several important things to ask about:

Do they count courses, or do they count hours?

The "N + M" system of counting loads is not universal. Many schools count loads by the credit hour. In these schools, a 12-hour-per semester load is viewed as high, and not compatible with much research -- essentially a 4+4 load. But if the school has courses that are more than 3 credit hours, a 12-hour load might be a 3+3 load. In mathematics, the three calculus courses are often 4-hour (or even 5-hour) courses, and sometimes so is differential equations or linear algebra. You have to research this on a school-by-school basis. Schools with loads higher than 12 hours per semester are unlikely to require any research, but I have heard of some teaching-only schools with 15-hour (or higher) loads (e.g. community colleges).

To find out the "real" teaching load, look up the schedule of classes for the fall and spring and count how many courses the existing tenure track faculty are teaching.

Do they have "research releases" to reduce teaching loads?

Only the best research schools will guarantee a light teaching load. Many schools have a uniform, heavy load for everyone - but then give "research release time" to reduce the teaching load of faculty who are active in research.

This was true even at the highly ranked institution where I did my PhD - the default load was used mainly for older faculty who were no longer active in research, while the lighter load was used for research active faculty. Research releases have become common even at non-research-intensive schools that want to increase their research profile. In almost all cases, they are not written into the contract, and are handled by a separate policy. So you also have to investigate these on a school-by-school basis.

For example, at my institution the default load is 12 hours per semester, which is typical for this type of institution. But research active faculty receive a reduction to 8-9 hours per semester. Several freshman and sophomore level classes, including precalculus, calculus, and others are 4-hour or 5-hour classes. So, depending on the way the course schedules turn out, the 12-hour load is often a 3+3 load, and the 8-9 hour load can be a 2-2, 2-3, or 3-3 load. For me, this is a quite reasonable load which allows me to publish regularly as well as teach several courses.

Some schools that otherwise have a high teaching load give a research release for first-year faculty, to give them a chance to write up the results of their dissertation and publish those.

How often do you get a sabbatical?

A sabbatical is a semester or year of modified duties, typically with no teaching.

Some institutions guarantee a sabbatical before tenure, which can help offset a higher teaching load. The main examples I've seen of this are small liberal arts colleges. At other institutions, you will never get a sabbatical before tenure (e.g. regional public universities). So you need to investigate the sabbatical policy, as well, because a semester or year of no teaching significantly affects your average teaching load in the surrounding years.

Is there a good balance?

The final question about teaching load is whether there is a balance between the amount of teaching and research you would like to do, the amount of teaching and research you are expected to do, and the amount of teaching and research you are able to do with the teaching load at the institution. Low teaching loads, on their own, are not a guarantee of happiness!

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Teaching loads of 1+2 or 2+2 (where the courses are 3 credit hour semester courses) are typical of the better research universities. Some institutions do weird things like the quarter system or semester courses that are 4 credit hours, but there are ways to adjust for this.

Teaching loads of 3+3 or even 4+4 are quite common at regional comprehensive universities and liberal arts colleges. Keep in mind that most tenure track faculty positions are going to have those kinds of higher teaching loads.

If I were looking at teaching loads and comparing positions, I'd also be looking at the types of courses that I'd have to teach and the size/format of the classes. For example, I have a 2+3 teaching load, but I get to teach small junior/senior/graduate level courses for science/engineering/math majors in my areas of interest. I'd rather have this teaching load than a 2+2 load where 3 courses per year were large sections of freshmen calculus for business majors and I only got to teach one upper division course per year in my area.

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