I was just looking at a different post that cites National Center for Educational Statistics about how professors of all levels spend their time. I am actually doing some research on faculty hiring practices at research universities.

How much time do professors have to do research on their own?

The thrust of the data is that most professors, whether tenure track or non-tenure track spend more than 50% of their time on teaching. I imagine this data is averaged across both research and teaching universities, but still teaching must make up the bulk of time or even professors at research universities--whether that be teaching classes, mentoring grad students, committees, etc.

But at the same time, I know that the hiring criteria for the research universities focuses on publication records with little if any concern about teaching evaluations and such. I am not trying to make a critique or political point, this is just something that I have understood from my interactions with professors and other graduate students.

Now my assumption is that most research university departments get the majority of their money from student tuition. I might be wrong about this, and if I am wrong please let me know. We also know that the ability to do research does not always correlate with teaching ability.

So I want to understand the mechanisms that allow research universities to continue to hire professors who are not necessarily the best teachers? Of course, there are many amazing professors at universities who are excellent teachers. I am not trying to make a blanket statement by any means. I just mean that you would probably get better teachers if the primary hiring criteria was teaching ability, right.

By mechanisms I mean, if student tuition is the main source of money, then why do students keep paying for classes taught by not always the best teachers? Or is there just so much money coming into research universities from grants, etc., that they can afford these large professor salaries despite the loss of undergraduate students? Like how does this actually work?

I imagine part of the answer to this question is associated with the growth in non-tenure-track faculty like adjuncts. That seems like it would solve some problems. But still why can universities who seem to get most of their money from students, get away with paying so little attention to students when it comes to hiring faculty?

Any insights are welcome. Again, if I phrased anything indelicately, please forgive me. I was not trying to cast any aspersions on anyone. Just purely thinking from an economic rationale.

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    Now my assumption is that most research university departments get the majority of their money from student tuition. I might be wrong about this, and if I am wrong please let me know Your wrong. At least in R1 science/engineering fields in the US it is all about grant income.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 19:49
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    The biggest source of revenue for elite private research schools (excluding the medical school) is from their endowments. E.g. at Harvard that's 50% of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences revenue as opposed to tuition which is 23% and grants 13%. Grant income is the plurality for the medical school. finance.harvard.edu/files/fad/files/_fy15harvard_finreport_.pdf Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 20:00
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    Worth noting that the trend here for state schools is clearly in the direction of fewer research faculty who do less teaching, with more of the teaching done by non-research faculty. The superstar researchers bring in grant money and give the school prestige and you keep them happy and productive by having very low teaching loads. Departments in fields that don't bring in grants never get to hire again. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 20:21
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    @StrongBad It's not that simple. At least in my R1 science/engineering department, there are two orthogonal species of money. Money to pay regular faculty salaries, staff salaries, TA wages, and basic education infrastructure all comes from a combination of state support (ha ha) and tuition. On the other hand, RA wages, faculty summer salaries, faculty startup packages, and basic research infrastructure are all paid either directly or indirectly from grant money Neither species of money can be used for the other's purpose. Both species of money are essential.
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 22:40
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    @StrongBad General revenue money (state+tuition) is fungible. Research money much less so. Exchanging one for the other is nearly impossible. (In particular, paying regular tenure-track salaries from grant overhead is verboten at my university.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Jun 10, 2017 at 3:13

7 Answers 7


Because they don't spend most of their time teaching. For example, officially the expectation is that I spend half my time on research, a third on teaching, and a sixth on service (e.g. administrative responsibilities).

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    It's paid out of the general budget, there's no way to answer that question. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 20:02
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    At any rate, in a math department it would be extremely unusual for grant income to come anywhere close to paying for faculty salaries. But it's still complicated. Some of our faculty (lecturers) are hired to teach, and they do a lot of teaching, but if we only had lecturers the experience in upper level major classes would be quite different. Graduate students do a lot of teaching, but need to have an advisor who is primarily a researcher. Research lends prestige which helps in attracting students and in fundraising. It's all hard to tease apart. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 20:15
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    Math is a bit weird here in that we're technically a science, but don't have the same equipment budget as a typical science department and so are bringing in way less grant overhead. In some ways we're more like a Spanish department surviving on teaching a ton of intro level classes for students who aren't our majors. But you can't have strong science departments without a strong math department, so to some extent science grant income is playing a role. And we do bring in some grant income. Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 20:29
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    On the more extreme end, I have 0% teaching obligations.
    – Fomite
    Commented Jun 9, 2017 at 23:47
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    @NoahSnyder While true, this doesn't really doesn't go far to answer the question. Do you think when your department hires they give as much consideration to to a candidate's service and teaching combined as they do to their research? Certainly that isn't my experience, and that imbalance does require some explanation. Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 0:23

One contributing factor is that research ability is much easier(*) to measure than teaching effectiveness.

Beyond some level of basic competence, how effective a professor is with students depend quite a lot on the characteristics of the student body. A professor can be quite effective with a certain student body but quite inept with another.

Teaching evaluations give very little information about how effective a teacher someone is; they just say how popular a teacher is with their students - which is not the same thing. Generally, it seems that professors get better evaluations if they spoonfeed material to students and don't make their classes too challenging, telling the students what they need to write on exams rather than getting them to think.

Peer evaluations don't seem too useful either; a peer can only spend so much time observing a class, and the effects of a professor seem to be too subtle to measure over an hour. Also, just because someone is a good teacher doesn't mean they know what to look for to judge whether other people are good teachers.

Student performance is too variable and dependent on the group of students. Also, what we would really like to know is whether students develop over the course of their studies the ability to contribute original ideas to complex projects related but not identical to material they should learn. This is hard to measure within the context of a single course/module. For example, it happens frequently that a curricular unit is originally introduced (as one of the last in a course/module) to get students to synthesize for themselves various ideas they should learn in a course, an exam item is introduced to test whether students have managed to synthesize all these ideas, but, over time, students and instructors become accustomed to the particular (type of) exam item and this curricular unit becomes teaching students how to do this exam item by rote. Exam results look better, but learning has been diminished. (It doesn't help that such an evolution typically improves student evaluations even as it destroys the aim of this curricular unit!)

(*) Maybe it's not actually easier. However, there is a research community that is willing to volunteer (as reviewers and editors) and able to do this evaluation and report reasonably accurately on it, whereas an institution has to do the work of evaluating teaching effectiveness by itself since it depends much more on local factors.

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    While I do not think it is the main reason, it is definitely a good point. Also, one is expected to get better in teaching with time, but in research, if you are hopeless in your 30s, no one assume you will be a genius in 20 years just because of experience.
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 10, 2017 at 2:36

I think this state of affairs may be easier to understand if we look at it in this direction:

University needs good researchers because that is a core part of their mission --> now that we've got these great researchers on board, let's have most of them (but not Fomite!) teach too, since teaching is a core part of the university's mission too, and since a great researcher would understand the material inside and out.

If you go at it like this, great teaching will be icing on the cake, not fundamental from the ground up.

There are smaller "liberal arts" schools that supposedly emphasize great teaching. (Maybe I've had bad luck, but the ones I visited were disappointing. My conclusion was, the best thing a student could do, when shopping for a university, is enroll in a large institution and then pick and choose the best instructors.)

  • Yeah, I see what you are saying. I work at a large public research university as well, but the teaching aspect is just terrible. Especially here in the USA, there costs have been rising and funding falling, so much larger class sizes and fewer teaching assistants, etc. Of course the situation is different at private universities which have more money. But I have never understood why good students come to these universities with such little commitment to teaching. And now of course so many courses are taught by adjunct faculty, so the students don't get to learn from top faculty anyway.
    – krishnab
    Commented Jun 10, 2017 at 3:36
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    Of course, I can only talk about my own anecdotal experience at my university. My undergrad experience was also at a large public univ and was excellent. But I think that most students would probably gain a lot more from going to smaller universities, especially for learning the fundamentals. So it seems like an unstable system since the students at the big universities probably learn less than students at smaller universities where they get more attention.
    – krishnab
    Commented Jun 10, 2017 at 3:39

I'd like to add a few important points. Tenured positions in many universities are a way to attract well known, accomplished academic staff. Having famous professors increases prestige of the university and makes it attractive to potential students, who in turn are willing to pay higher tuition. That's the business side.

Another important point is that in many fields you have to be a good and active researcher to be a good teacher. For example, in my field of economics, we always have to stay up to date with current research. Things change so quickly that in 10 years the same lesson plan doesn't only become obsolete, it can become plain wrong. That doesn't apply to all fields, but it applies to many. In engineering fields, for example, there is a constant struggle to make things simpler, easier, and more efficient. Being an active researcher shows that the professor is at least aware of the new and better things that are out there.


You asked many different questions in your question. I'll only be addressing some of them in my answer.

In my opinion, the reason why tenure-track professors are hired on the basis of their research rather than their teaching is due to the following reasons. I have ordered the reasons from what I think are the most important reasons, to the least important reasons:

  1. The professors in an academic department care about hiring the best researchers because that would affect their school's research ranking. For example, in business schools, there is a ranking of business school research known as The UTD Top 100 Business School Research Rankings. This is an objective and measurable way to rank business schools in their research, although you could argue about whether quality is more important than quantity.
  2. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to accurately measure the teaching quality of a particular academic department. For example, how do you objectively measure and compare the teaching experience of say Harvard Business School versus Stanford Graduate School of Business? I imagine that if there were a magical way to measure teaching quality, and schools could be objectively compared on this metric, schools would try to improve their teaching performance and their ranking.
  3. Finally, it is not true that the hiring committee does not consider a job candidate's teaching ability in a hiring decision. Typically, there is a 1-hour research presentation as part of the tenure-track hiring process. In my opinion, the ability of a candidate to explain his/her research clearly has moderate correlation with the ability of the candidate to do a "good enough" job of teaching students in a lecture setting. If a candidate is extremely brilliant, but shows poor presentation and social skills, that would definitely count as a negative in deciding to hire this candidate.

From the perspective of a smaller school whose faculty do not spend a majority of their time doing research. In no particular order:

  • Successful researchers have to be current with their field. The world moves pretty fast today, especially in STEM fields. A great teacher who is 5-10 years behind the state of the art is going to be less valuable to our students than a decent teacher who stays on top of things. Even if you only publish once a year or every other year, that still means that you have to bring yourself up to date every 12-24 months. Most people have had the experience of a woefully out of date professor, and it's a horrible experience.
  • Small research projects create opportunities for students outside the classroom. In particular it creates reasonable undergraduate research experiences, which are vital for students who are considering graduate school. Without these opportunities during the semester our students' only option for an informative research experience would be an REU at another location after their sophomore or junior year.
  • Our department doesn't have a doctoral program, but we're a part of an R2 school whose administration would like to see more research being done. This creates downward pressure from the administration to hire researchers, and lateral pressure from colleagues to do so. For example, the university tenure guidelines require a reasonable amount of research activity for an R2 institution. Even if our department decided that we all just wanted to be great teachers and forget about research, the university wouldn't approve anyone's tenure case. Not having any tenure-track positions would effectively end our department.
  • Most Ph.D. holders do not have any formal educational training. We all tend to be mediocre teachers in that respect (especially out of grad school). If your options are between two mediocre teachers, but one of those people has a better research track record, why wouldn't you pick that person?

I will object to your statement, "I know that the hiring criteria for the research universities focuses on publication records with little if any concern about teaching evaluations and such." Universities do not want to hire bad teachers. If you had two otherwise equal candidates for a job, but you knew that the first of them was a bad teacher, you'd offer the job to the second person. Likewise, if you had two otherwise equal candidates and one of them had great evidence of being a great teacher, you'd be inclined towards the great teacher.

However, objective teaching evaluations are hard to get for anybody, and especially for graduate students who have had little teaching experience. It is true that a research-oriented position will more highly value research qualifications, and there's nothing wrong with that. However, teaching-oriented positions aren't given a pass on teaching qualifications. It's becoming more standard as these positions become more common for those who apply for lecturer/teaching oriented positions to be asked to give a sample lecture. For teaching-oriented positions any evidence of good teaching such as past favorable evaluations or teaching grants or awards would be taken into account in the hiring process as well.


I think part of the answer here is that in most fields we just don't need that great teachers. At this age student in a good university are expected to pick up the material themselves, esp nowadays with all the textbooks and supplementary information available. If you need someone who spoon feed you everything you may be not ready for university. So a good average teacher can do most of the work, and his/her research experience, knowledge of the cutting edge techniques of the field is the more important part, that textbook does not contain. Sure, good/ better than average teacher can be helpful, but less harm if they are not, one should be able to make up without them.

  • Hmm, I hear what you are saying and I agree that good study skills are crucial. But the challenge is that all of these students enter the university at very different levels of ability and skills. I think the biggest predictor in the success of a student in a class is whether that student has been exposed to the material before. In such cases, it is important to have both good teachers as well as available resources and a strong student commitment to learning. Hence teaching still seems to still have a big role.
    – krishnab
    Commented Jun 11, 2017 at 23:56
  • That is not true. Most material covered in universities are new for the students, and they apparently able (and they should be) master it with little help.
    – Greg
    Commented Jun 12, 2017 at 10:26

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