Opinion: The R1 culture is not for me

Despite having at least three years left in my current PhD program, like many graduate students, I’ve begun to consider the future.  Where will I end up?  What kind of research will I do?  How can I be the best professor I can?  While I simply cannot know the complete answers to any of these questions, I have begun to think about my preferences.  But, preferences are all they are.  Much of my future in academia is out of my control.  Which university will need a position filled in my specific Political Science subfield? How will the economy affect the number of faculty openings at that time? How many offers, if any, will I have to choose from?  With years to go in my current studies, answers to these questions are downright unknowable, let alone whether I’ll have the foresight or luck of being in the right place at the right time.

But, I do know one thing for sure.  As of now, I’d much rather end up in a department at a no-frills teaching university than a highfalutin R1, or what is now called a university with “very high research activity.”  I have the benefit of experiencing both types of schools.  I did my undergraduate and Master’s studies at two fine state-run institutions that probably aren’t found anywhere near the top tier of America’s colleges.  I’m currently pursuing my PhD at an R1.  While I’m still technically at a state-run school, the similarities end there.  The culture differences between both types of institutions could not be more striking.  And frankly, despite the obvious benefits, I’d like to put the R1 culture behind me.

If I could handpick the institution where I will end up as a faculty member, right now I’d pick the exact university where I completed my Master of Arts.  While the Political Science Department was roughly half the size of that found at my current institution, I found the faculty more approachable, the students more down to earth, and the whole environment much friendlier.  That’s not to say my current department is at all bad. It’s not. I have no problems with most of the faculty members I’ve dealt with and I actually like them all personally. Their impressive knowledge, accomplishments, and publications speak for themselves. But, I have to say, I felt far more commitment to my success from the faculty at my Master’s university. Faculty members took an interest in students’ pursuits, looked out for us and offered a helping hand whenever they could. Put simply, they just seemed to care more – this is probably because they were not as burdened by research requirements. There, I was also not subject to the unrelenting competition among many of my colleagues. The graduate students melded into one big friendly group. Here, you’re constantly wondering who’s on your side, and who’s not. I think I’ve finally figured that one out for the most part.

I have a very down-to-earth personality, with an aversion to intense competition and arrogance.  I just want to do the best work I can regardless of what anyone else is thinking. But, I want my friends to find success, as well. I believe I’ll be able to thrive at one of the nation’s many teaching colleges, where the commitment to education is greater and the pressures to publish are less – I respect those with a desire to put more of an emphasis on research, but I think teaching is far more applicable to my own personal skills. In short, although it may be a good fit for others, an R1 is not for me.

2 thoughts on “Opinion: The R1 culture is not for me

  1. Kenneth Bryant Jr.

    Well stated and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had similar thoughts. Before I started my graduate program, I didn’t even know there was such thing as an “R1″ vs. teaching-focused universities. Boy did I get my wake-up call early!

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