BLOG # 100: Professional lecturers–good or bad?

I can’t believe this is my 100th blog!

Thanks to everyone at OT for putting up with me!

In today’s world of dwindling scientific funding across many parts of the globe, one issue that seems to be more frequently discussed is that of professional teachers at universities and colleges.

What do I mean? I mean the hiring of faculty at academic institutions whose job description is relegated designated (this editorial change added in admission to an originally poor word choice that doesn’t reflect my thoughts that teaching is less important!) exclusively to the goal of education. In the US at least, this is not such a foreign concept. After all, there are many colleges (the distinction between “college” and “university” being that only the latter has the research that would allow graduate programs for masters and doctoral degrees) that have no real ongoing research; just some undergraduate research for the purpose of education.

Is this in itself a bad thing at these colleges? In my view, certainly not. This type of education provides a rounded out science education even for those students who will never walk into a lab–who are committed to arts and humanities. But, you might ask, what about those students who are potentially interested in science careers?

I don’t have a good answer to that. Data and statistics are lacking (or I don’t have access to them), and my own experiences are both anecdotal and varied. On the one hand, I have seen outstanding graduate students whose scientific training comes from such colleges, where the teachers are entirely education-based, but not research-oriented. I have also seen weak students. It seems to depend more on the student than the college. And guess what? That’s not exactly surprising.

My own experience at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (eons ago) was with teachers whose primary raison d’etre was research. Does that mean we received better instruction? I doubt it. Some of the teachers were often harried, busy, disinterested in teaching and doing it only because they were forced to teach. The curriculum was often disjointed. At the time, southern, northern and western blots were the newest technology (yes, I’m that old!), and EVERY instructor spent a class explaining these techniques without bothering to find out if they had been taught already. BORING! On the other hand, other teachers were brilliantly organized, and their ability to relate classroom material to some of their own research REALLY excited me. So for undergraduates, the more didactic teaching will probably be better coming from professional teachers (as opposed to researchers), yet the experience of learning from a good instructor who is also a researcher should not be undervalued.

What about graduate and medical students (early, non-clinical training)? The consensus in the US has been that  Ph.D. researchers are the best qualified to teach these 2 groups of students. I think it’s still well accepted that graduate students need to be taught by active researchers. With medical students, things seem to be changing. True, for many years universities have often employed faculty-instructors to teach such complicated and demanding areas as anatomy. But many universities still have active researchers teaching basic physiology, immunology, microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, etc. But this is starting to change. Not so much because universities are hiring faculty specifically for such teaching, but because increasing numbers of researchers are having difficulties keeping their research enterprises up and running. As a result, they end up making a switch with their primary contributions being shuffled from research to education. And while this in itself is not a bad thing, it does concern me that so many talented people–with so much research training–are being forced to reassess their careers.

As for me–I don’t mind teaching, but for now I am hoping to stay in the research business for a while. Unless one of my books becomes a best-seller. Then we’ll see. Perhaps I can use the royalties to fund my research instead of writing grant applications. Wouldn’t that be fun?!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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25 Responses to BLOG # 100: Professional lecturers–good or bad?

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve: re ‘the hiring of faculty at academic institutions whose job description is relegated exclusively to the goal of education’. You’d be in BIG trouble in the UK for using the word ‘relegated’ in that statement! There has been a major shift here in recent years, certainly at my University and no doubt at others, to give the best teachers proper recognition for their efforts. Excellence and innovation in teaching are now viewed with the same prestige as success in research.

  2. I obviously have a personal ‘investment’ in these sort of questions, having been hired a quarter of a century back as a traditional research-plus-teaching faculty member, but having become, by a gradual process over the last dozen or so years, a person who does almost entirely teaching. So I am in Steve’s second category of teaching faculty.

    Which brings me to one point, which is whether there is a detectable difference between the two types of all/mostly teaching faculty – people like me, who were in research for a long time, typically at PI level, and people who left research after typically a couple of postdoc years to take teaching-specialist posts and have progressed along what (for want of a better term) I will call ‘the instructor track’.

    From the University’s perspective, I would say that the latter tend to be cheaper in terms of hours actually taught per salary dollar paid. But of course one might counter-argue that people who spent all those years in research have deeper subject knowledge, and perhaps can still ‘connect the teaching to research’ in the way Steve describes.

    Anyway, I could say lots more on the subject, but I think it is more of a three-category problem than a two-category (‘teaching or research’) one.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I tend to agree that at a university with graduate programs (and a medical school) those who have actively dealt with research-like Austin-will be better equipped to impart knowledge to the next generation of scientists and clinicians. Typically when going beyond the textbook, in depth knowledge of research is really important. However, courses such as anatomy need such a vast knowledge that I doubt there are many researchers who could handle such a course without spending the majority of their time on it. To me, it seems absolutely overwhelming!

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    Apologies to Steve, @Stephen_Curry and @SmallCasserole along with researchers in the UK and across the globe for an initial poor word choice (“relegated”). This has been rectified and updated in the post!

  4. Frank says:

    I never studied anatomy, but for me organic chemistry was the topic that seemed to require mastery of an enormous repertoire of facts. Our first year lecturer in organic chemistry (Lionel Hart) was, I believe, a teaching-only or mostly-teaching academic.

    He was far and away the best teacher I had in three years at Uni.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      There is no question that basic courses, often derived from textbook teaching, can be done equally well (if not better) by an instructor primarily or only involved in teaching. Organic chemistry at the introductory level doesn’t really need much in the way of laboratory expertise, so that would make sense. I do think, though, that in the more advanced undergraduate courses, contact with an instructor who can relate some of the basics to actual research can really benefit the students.

    • Does that make you a Bristol graduate in Chemistry (or possibly Biochemistry), Frank?

      I graduated from Bristol in Chemistry in 1983 and I remember being taught by Lionel Hart. He was, as you say, an outstanding teacher. I’m pretty sure he retired in the mid-noughties. We’re not the only people that remember his teaching (and persona!), either.

      • Frank says:

        Yes, I graduated in Chemistry there in 1979.

        • Clifford Wharton says:

          I graduated in Chemistry from Bristol in 1977 so I would have been in Lionel Hart’s 1st-year organic class in 1974/5. A man not easily forgotten. I lost contact with him for 15 years then when I visited Bristol in 1992 I walked into his office and he immediately recognised me and remembered my name. He has been a great influence on me as no doubt on many others. He had a practice of setting exam questons from the most obscure parts of the syllabus.

  5. Stephen says:

    To answer the question: good. And thanks for responding to the unfortunate word choice, telling though it may have been. In the UK we no longer have ‘teaching only’ institutions at third level education, though they may come back as some unis seek to survive financially at a time when students are suddenly expected to pay up to 3 times as much for university fees.

    But most scientists now have to juggle teaching and research in a climate where funding for research is shrinking. This means they to have to spend more time chasing funds and so teaching inevitably suffers. It is unfortunate that our govt’s university policy is not more joined up. This is disappointing since the same man, Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts, is responsible for both. Couple that’s ailing to long-standing perceptions at many universities that success in research is the key to promotion, and you have a situation where teaching suffers.

    I am very much in favour of active researchers being involved in teaching – it’s good for them and for the students – but recognise the pressures. But I think it’s workable & valuable to have full-time teachers delivering core courses, which are not necessarily research-level (though many teaching fellows are likely to have had research experience).

    • I think research being the key to promotion is still a lot more than just a perception, Stephen.

      Things are moving a bit, but it is slow going. In the institutions with teaching-focussed ‘tracks’ and staff, there has been definite progress in setting criteria for promoting teaching-only staff and moving people through. But if you are talking about ‘mixed portfolio’ faculty, then it is less good. I would say that ‘good at research plus enough teaching & admin’ will still get you promoted without too much argument. I don’t think it is equally true for ‘good at/lots of teaching (and admin), some research.’ Which is really the crux of the matter.

      Part of the problem is that we can reach a bit more agreement on what constitutes being a good (or at least ‘solidly OK”) researcher. (Papers, grad students, grants etc). It is much harder with teaching – are we talking good scores on student assessments? whether other staff rate the person? – so inevitably judgement tends to be more subjective. This does not, I think, always work to people’s advantage.

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    At our university, and probably as a direct result that it’s a medical school with relatively few professional teachers hired, I don’t believe there is even a tenure track for teaching-only faculty (although I may be wrong). Certainly at undergraduate institutes, where researchers carry a heavier burden of teaching than at medical school campuses, I think teaching does play an essential role in the tenure process.

    In many medical schools here, there is usually a requirement for academic success in 3 categories:
    1) Research 2) Teaching 3) Service (committee service etc.)

    However, as most people will tell you, everything is heavily slanted towards funding. So excelling in research means grant funding, not necessarily publications, although there is usually a correlation (but not always). So an outstanding teacher who serves on numerous committees but is unable to obtain national funding over a given time is unlikely to survive the tenure process.

    On the other hand, a researcher bringing in a lot of funding will likely be forgiven for being a poor instructor, or not having time to serve on many university committees. I’m told that in some places, researchers can actually “buy off” their teaching requirements by bringing in a certain level of funding to the institution. So clearly the tenure/promotion process is weighted towards research (or at least funding) in many institutions here.

  7. Stephen says:

    I don’t think there will be a fundamental shift from the ‘research wins’ judgements of university lecturer’s performance until universities show a bit more seriousness about their mission to offer first class teaching to students.

    The weaknesses in the promotion processes identified by Austin and Steve are widespread. It is up to universities to address them. But part of the problem also, as I tried to write last night (I was very tired) is the disconnect between the government’s approaches to funding research and funding teaching. This is exacerbated by research funding policies adopted by the Wellcome Trust which pay no mind to the teaching responsibilities of researchers and are creating unnecessary pressures on staff (see this post from last year).

  8. Steve Caplan says:


    To the best of my knowledge, in this country there is NO funding for teaching st the university level. Private universities obviously make their money off tuition, and state universities (such as mine) do have support from the state in general. But their is no specific funding agency designed to promote teaching. The National Science Foundation, which will support researchers (usually at undergraduate institutions) does have a lot of components related indirectly to teaching, mentoring etc. But in biomedical research, its every university to its own devices, as far as I know.

  9. There hasn’t really been specific funding for promoting teaching in the UK either Steve, if by that you mean ‘funding you can actually get more of if your teaching is better’. The UK system historically paid Universities a standard per-head rate from the public purse for teaching students, banded according to different categories of subject. That is what the current govt is replacing next year – almost entirely – with money students have to borrow from the state [to pay the Univs as fees] and then pay back to the state over many years. Note also that the student numbers (‘quotas’) on courses were fixed, so you could not simply make your big-but-popular course bigger to make extra cash.

    Of course, given that the money you got for teaching was not ‘adjustable’ by doing teaching better, you can see how that might reflect on the status of teaching vis-a-vis research. But of course the paradox was that the actual amount UK Univs got for teaching was substantial when you added it up – up to and including ‘most or all of the budget’.

    My Faculty, for instance, gets approximately half its total budget from teaching, and half from research-derived income. The ‘research fraction’ might well be even higher than that at the science faculties at UCL and Imperial. At smaller UK Univs, but nonetheless ones which you would recognise as being places that did research, it might have been a 90% teaching / 10% research income split.

    • PS I see that California is cutting state funding to the University system, which I guess will be made up via tuition fee increases.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        I don’t know whether you are aware of this, but most private universities in the US don’t even pay salaries to their researchers. In other words, the allow a salary, but the researcher needs to bring in the money to cover her/his salary from grants. So it’s crystal clear where that researcher’s priorities need to lie with regards to the teaching mission. For those at state universities, there is a difference because many universities will cover large portions of the researchers’ salaries, and thus the researchers are under (slightly) less pressure to bring in big bucks, and of course more inclined to feel the significance of the teaching mission.

  10. Eva says:

    When I was in undergrad, in Amsterdam, it took me a few years to realize that the people who taught us were NOT hired to TEACH, but just did the teaching as part of their job. In fact, it took me so long to realize that, that my main motivation for applying to grad school was that I wanted to *teach*. I never actually liked doing research, but I love learning about it and telling others about it. I hoped that I would get a chance to teach during my PhD, but unfortunately (in this regard) made the uninformed decision to go to a research university in Canada for my PhD, where the emphasis was all about research, and teaching was just something you did in your spare time, which we weren’t really allowed to have. My department employed 50 faculty members, of whom 2 were teaching-only, so that made me realize how incredibly rare the jobs are – and also that I could never get one because I had no teaching experience.

    I would *still* like a job like this, but ended up having to find other ways to communicate science. Some people (like me) just aren’t meant to do research, and MANY other people, who are FABULOUS researchers, are terrible teachers.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      As far as I know, the Ph.D. process here in the US (for sciences) simply is not aimed at training teachers. Yes, in universities where there are many undergraduate students, some of the Ph.D. candidates may end up as teaching assistants, but again this is usually seen as a chore to get through that makes it harder (timewise) to focus on the research. And most of the positions for Ph.Ds are research rather than teaching positions.

      I’ve had a post-doctoral fellow in the lab at one point who was interested in a university teaching (rather than research-grant-paper oriented) career. To facilitate that, I’ve had to help find courses that this post-doc could teach in to gain some experience. I think that really highlights how little emphasis is placed on teaching!

  11. I just thought I’d go off topic (or maybe back on?) and congratulate you on your 100th post. Thank goodness you were turfed from the Irregulars given your own blog here – your prolific posting was shaming the rest of the Irregulars.

    I think I’ll aim for… oh… one a week? Oh wait… better get posting. 😉

    • Austin says:

      Yes, second that. 100 posts? In barely a year? Or possibly less??!

      Anyway,,, wow. I’ve only managed half that many in twice the time. Do you ever sleep, Steve?

  12. Steve Caplan says:

    Us regulars need a certain “moral fiber,” eh?


  13. In France, there are positions known as PRAG (and, less commonly, PRCE), which are basically secondary education teachers assigned to universities. They teach twice the nominal amount taught by regular professors (and they are not supposed to do research, even though sometimes recruitment committees hint they could do some – furthermore they don’t have the time to do research). They generally teach only in the first years of university.

    Their existence is somewhat contentious. Some see them as part of a more general movement to turn university teaching into something more resembling highschool.

    In addition, the “preparatory classes to grandes écoles” are basically university-level advanced classes (1st-2nd year) taught in special postgraduate sections of highschools.

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