39

In my country, in order to teach mathematics (or any subject) to college students one doesn't have to have a PhD. Just a good academic record in the masters level of one's subject and one must clear a (reasonably difficult) national level teachers eligibility test in one's subject. Having a PhD and research publications is a bonus but not mandatory.

So my question then is - would it be necessary to do research once you have secured a permanent faculty position? By necessary I mean, will I face any difficulties in teaching or explaining concepts and ideas to students if I don't spend some time doing research, publishing papers, learning and asking new questions in a given field?

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    depend of your country... – Gautier C Jun 14 '16 at 9:35
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    It depends on you and the students. I know very good scholars who teach very bad, and some not so productive professors from research point of view which teach very passionately and support the passion in any student, even in those with problems. – Mikey Mike Jun 14 '16 at 13:44
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    I'd note that several comments and answers address a different issue, namely, whether there is an external expectation of "research" to be credentialled to continue to teach. In fact, the question seems to be the more interesting, if less immediately pragmatic, one of whether it is possible to be genuinely competent in teaching if one does not "do research". – paul garrett Jun 14 '16 at 21:34
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    This isn't enough for an answer but: I have always found teachers to be much better if they can give example and share stories from their ongoing work. I like to challenge myself, and seeing where some can apply knowledge that is taught in a course is great. So all in all, I prefer teachers who have strong ongoing research and are vocal about it in their courses. – Polygnome Jun 15 '16 at 8:47
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    As a current student, I warn you that the worst professors I've ever had are the ones who do a lot of cutting-edge research. I don't know if it's because they've lost enthusiasm for the basics, they've become worse at explaining things without using their more advanced jargon, or some other reason. They just were worse teachers for anything except the most advanced courses in their specific field. – Jeutnarg Jun 15 '16 at 18:25

10 Answers 10

46

Over the course of a long career in teaching, the nature of your instruction will necessarily need to change as both our scientific understanding of the world and our society change. This is especially true for undergraduate and graduate instruction, where the knowledge is more specialized and changes more quickly, but I would argue it is also true for much of one's earlier schooling as well.

To be a good instructor, then, I think that one absolutely must keep up with the evolving nature of one's field. But does that require doing research? I don't think so (except, of course, for advising graduate students who are required to do research). Remaining involved in research is definitely one of the easiest ways to keep up with a field, but it's not a panacea either: research is typically extremely focused and narrow, and being up to date in one's particular research sub-field does not necessarily mean you will learn about everything relevant to instructing your students in a course that is only related in the more general sense (e.g., a platinum electrocatalyst researcher teaching introductory organic chemistry). One can consume information about research without producing it oneself, however, and many other forms of professional education are also available.

Bottom line: doing research is a great way of keeping up with your field, but not necessarily sufficient and not necessarily the only way.

18

One of the primary differences between tertiary education and K-12 is producing knowledge. At the K-12 level, teachers share knowledge but normally do not create new knowledge. At the university level, professors do share knowledge but they also contribute to the conversation by producing original research. In other words, the growth of knowledge is one of the main purposes of higher education.

Different institutions have different expectations of research at the tertiary level. However, it is often considered unusual not to take part in some form of research occasionally at the university level, even if your primary occupation is teaching.

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    What does K-12 mean? Primary & secondary education? – TRiG Jun 14 '16 at 13:34
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    "Kindergarten to 12th grade" in the US parlance meaning primary and secondary education as you surmised. – Willie Wong Jun 14 '16 at 13:51
16

You may not necessarily need to do research to be a good teacher - but depending on where you go, getting a "permanent" position may have its own requirements of research. In the US at least tenure is usually tied to some level of research involvement, which ranges from "you need to be a top researcher" to "you need to get your name on a few minor things, but it's possibly less than you did for your masters", all the way to no research requirement (more typical in small liberal arts places, community/junior/tech colleges, etc). But lets say you got a position and you just want to be the best teacher possible.

To be the best teacher possible, the use of research may heavily depend on what exactly you teach. If you are teaching the first two years of typical math - college-level algebra, geometry, calculus, probability - as far as I'm aware that material has not, and likely will not, be changing from year to year and new research findings in those fields won't much change low level courses. Some of my favorite teachers in this area actually have told me they don't like research and that's a large part of why they sought out the opportunity to teach such classes, and I can't really imagine how having done research specifically enhanced their ability. Low level math classes are usually just so incredibly far from research that I can't see how experience in research would be indispensable.

On the other hand if you are teaching applied math in areas like data analysis, machine learning, statistics, etc - keeping up to date on the newest approaches and techniques would be extremely important to ensure your students are getting the education they'll need for their chosen field. Similarly if you are teaching just about any other high-level class, much of the material can be inspired or based on insights from research.

Finally, if your students might possibly want to seek involvement or even a career in research, not being actively involved in research can restrict your ability to help them down that path. If you will be asked or expected to advise independent study, or teach classes specific to things like research methods in your field, you may find your effectiveness impaired by your lack of experience and ongoing involvement in research.

If you don't fit into any of these special-cases, and the reality on-the-ground in your region/country allows you to be a teacher without research, then I don't think research will be strictly necessary for you. But for many people in many different regions, research is often a requirement to some extent - from a minor requirement to an absolute necessity.

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    The idea of professors as mentors and teachers (for those who look to continue in academia) is definitely a reason to continue in research - I would have been lost without my professors guiding me when I decided on my career path. – LinkBerest Jun 14 '16 at 20:21
7

will I face any difficulties in teaching or explaining concepts and ideas to students if I don't spend some time doing research

This is actually a very interesting question. The blanket answer is that no, it isn't necessary, but it helps a lot.

In order to be a good teacher, you need a deep understanding of the material, and the only way to make sure you understand it is by using it in practical applications. Research is particularly suitable because you are banging your head against problems at the boundary of knowledge, so you need to know more than just the topic you are working on. For example, if you apply mathematics to a biological problem, you need to understand the maths, the biology, and be able to bridge the gap between them. That means, not only understanding your mathematical objects in theory, but how they translate to the real world.

Researchers also face ill-posed problems constantly. In my research, I am using techniques developed in computer vision to biological problems. The underlying problem, in abstract terms, is pretty similar; but due to the nature of my problem, I face certain limitations that don't exist in computer vision, so I need to squeeze my brain a bit more to get results. With this hindsight, I will be able to teach my students a wider picture. Note that this kind of problem isn't quite evident if you just read the papers.

Doing research also forces you to keep up to date in fast moving fields, so you can keep your courses up to date and useful.

Lastly, one of the tasks of teaching is designing the syllabus. Doing research helps you find out what is important in the applications. This is particularly important if you are teaching maths to not mathematicians: the focus and content of an algebra course that an engineer and a pure mathematician need aren't the same, and you shouldn't blindly follow a textbook designed for a different background.

You can get all this knowledge in other ways than research, like working in industry applications, or just following the literature.

5

As a supplement to other useful answers: I think the issue is not about "research" as necessary background for good teaching (apart from bureaucratic requirements), but engagement as background for teaching.

That is, I'd claim that intense, ongoing engagement with a subject is necessary for effective (and apt) teaching. We might imagine that "research" has constraints that force us to most accurately or practically engage, rather than delusional or arm-chair engagement. This may be substantially true, but it is certainly not absolutely reliable.

I think it's not so much "creator of new knowledge" that may help one be a good teacher, but, rather, "utilitarian engagement" with the subject, where the sense of "utilitarian" is "to be able to do more of [the subject]". Or applications to other scenarios. Not just "application to didactic situations"... which, without being "informed by" practice, certainly will not reliably reflect practice.

5

There are many factors that can make you a great teacher: creative instructional design; a good stage presence; the ability to explain complex concepts in an understandable way; the ability to relate to students and read their body language; patience, motivation, and feedback; and subject matter expertise. Teaching is part motivation and inspiration, and part knowledge transfer.

Research can help with a few of these (most notably subject matter expertise, but it can also hone your abilities to explain complex ideas, and your ability to relate to and motivate students). In that regard, research can make you a better teacher. However, it can also hinder your ability to teach well, if you get so focused on your research that you don't spend a lot of time preparing your lessons or giving timely feedback.

Hence, the two main roles of the professor – teaching and research – might work synergistically for some, but, for others, one might get in the way of the other. A lot of it depends on the professor's ability to juggle roles and manage time.

Will I face any difficulties in teaching or explaining concepts and ideas to students if I don't spend some time doing research, publishing papers, and learning?

Perhaps not; maybe you can be a gifted instructor in the classroom even without doing a lot of research. However, as others have already pointed out in their answers, there's a good chance you won't be as valuable to your university if you forego that side of your responsibilities (which is why publishing often plays such large a role in tenure decisions).

4

In the most general sense: No.

This depends on country, region, and institution. For example, in the U.S.: 4-year research institutions will (by definition) likely require a PhD and an ongoing research commitment to obtain tenure. On the other hand, community colleges will most like not require a research commitment, even for tenure, and it's possible that those positions can be filled with a Master's or even a Bachelor's degree in some cases. (On the other other hand: Where I am at CUNY can demand a PhD and research component even at its community colleges for tenured positions; while a small number of Lecturer positions do not have that requirement.)

Current example for a tenure-track appointment at a NY-state community college in mathematics, "Bachelor's and master's degree in mathematics or closely related field is required":

https://www.higheredjobs.com/faculty/details.cfm?JobCode=176283373

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    I must say I'm quite surprised at the salary, at least for New York (and I realize this isn't New York City, but it's still in New York state). I would have guessed $15,000 higher. – Dave L Renfro Jun 14 '16 at 19:45
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I will chime in on the two questions you ask, in reverse order:

[...] will I face any difficulties in teaching or explaining concepts and ideas to students if I don't spend some time doing research, publishing papers, learning and asking new questions in a given field?

Probably not.

You can think of it in terms of this rather simple model: The 'amount of knowledge' you will be passing to your students as you teach a course will be finite. Learning does not happen immediately - you do not instantly absorb the contents of a book that is put on your desk. Your students will need time to digest the material, and they have a finite amount of time to spend on lectures and studying. Especially for introductory undergraduate courses, the 'amount of knowledge' that you can convey to your students will be a fraction of the knowledge in a field. While you obviously need to have good content knowledge to teach well, you do not need to be expanding the frontiers of a field to be able to teach a course in it.

Obviously this is a very simplified model - to be able to teach well at the university level, you should have practical experience in the subject, keep up with recent developments (including teaching methods), etc. There are many activities that will contribute to the quality of teaching, and research could indeed be one of them. But I would argue that it is not necessary.

I'll refer back to the model and conclude with two examples: You can be a researcher who has command over 100 units of knowledge in a particular field, but if you do not have good teaching skills, you will struggle to get even 5 units across as you teach a course. Conversely, a good teacher who knows their field only half as well (50 units) could be much more efficient and their students could end up with 20 units of information at their command.

[...] would it be necessary to do research once you have secured a permanent faculty position?

Probably yes.

Unfortunately, most universities do not buy into the reasoning above. It is often the case that the 'permanent' faculty position will require that you do a good amount of research and publish. In many universities research is the priority for full-time faculty.

One good resource that I have found on what life is like for faculty is Philip Guo's writings on the subject. He is an assistant professor in computer science, but his experiences do reflect what it's like for faculty in other fields as well. I suggest you check out the following articles:

This of course is the general situation, and you will surely find exceptions somewhere.

  • RE: Unfortunately, most universities do not buy into the reasoning above. I don't think it's a matter of "buy in;" it's more a matter of prioritization. We don't like to advertise this too much (particularly to the parents of incoming freshmen), but one could argue that the university's primary mission is research, with teaching as a close second. It's not a matter of "units of knowledge;" it's a matter of who can bring in research dollars PLUS have the ability to manage those research projects even while teaching an undergraduate course from time to time. That's the harder bill to fill. – J.R. Jun 14 '16 at 21:40
1

An answer from the American liberal arts tradition, with historical links back to the Scottish Enlightenment and further back to Calvin's Geneva...

The primary goal of a university education is philosophical. One learns what knowledge is, the different forms knowledge takes in different subjects, with an in depth engagement in understanding the particular way knowledge is produced in a particular community of inquiry.

This means teaching, not just facts, but the entire context that makes a fact a fact.

If you're not engaged in scholarship (which might not mean traditional research) in some way, it is hard to see how you can keep an understanding of why we consider certain statements true.

1

"College" means different things in different countries (and even in different parts of some countries). In Australia, depending on where you are, it can mean:

  • A private high school
  • A school specifically for the last two years of secondary education
  • A post-secondary education provider that does not grant degrees
  • A residential accommodation for students at a university

At none of these institutions are teaching staff expected to have PhDs.

In other countries, "college" can mean:

  • A tertiary education provider that does grant Bachelors degrees, but does not grant PhDs or engage in much research. PhDs are often not required to teach at these institutions, but may be expected due to heavy competition from well-qualified candidates who do have PhDs.
  • A university. Academics at universities are usually required to have a PhD or at least equivalent research experience, in part because they are usually expected to engage in research as well as teaching. There is also the argument of the "teaching-research nexus", that teaching is enhanced by having teachers who are at the forefront of their fields and engaged in active research.

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