U pushes grad students to teach elsewhere

Most doctoral students must leave their alma mater to teach and do research.

by Kyle Stowe

While many doctoral students aspire for faculty positions after graduation, few ever go on to become professors at their alma mater.

At the University of Minnesota and nationwide, many who complete Ph.D. programs are encouraged to find work at a new school to gain a wider range of experiences.

The University hires back few of its Ph.D. students as faculty — which is common for schools around the U.S., said electrical and computer engineering department head David Lilja .

“Different universities really have different personalities,” he said. “It’s important to understand different ways of doing things.”

When doctoral students are only exposed to one university’s ideologies and research, Lilja said, they haven’t experienced outside learning opportunities or alternative ways of thinking.

He said University departments benefit from employing faculty members who come from different schools’ research backgrounds.

“You want your department to have a richer diversity of thought,” he said.

History department chair Ruth Karras said it can also be awkward when somebody who just received their Ph.D. is teaching in the same department as the person who advised them in their program.

“It’s hard to move from being somebody’s student to being their peer,” Karras said.

Some students, like American studies doctoral candidate Andrew McNally, understand the University’s rationale.

While McNally said he likes being at the University, he always expected to go elsewhere after graduation.

“I think going to another place after you finish your Ph.D. is definitely something that benefits your research and probably makes you a better professor,” McNally said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison, like the University and other schools nationwide, rarely hires back its doctoral graduates, said Robert Joynt, chair of UW-Madison’s physics department.

Three of 41 tenure-track faculty in his department graduated from UW-Madison — a figure Joynt said reflects the competitive nature of landing a full-time faculty position.

“We try to hire the best person that’s available,” Joynt said. “Our applicant pools are filled with lots of qualified candidates from around the country.”

Lilja said departments are more likely to hire back their own doctoral students after they’ve been away from the University for some time, adding that his department typically wants doctoral program graduates to work elsewhere for four to six years before being considered for a job at the University.

Chemistry professor Larry Que, who received his doctorate from the University in 1973, was hired back at the University 10 years after graduating. In the meantime, he did post-doctoral work and taught elsewhere.

“It was good for me to gain some perspective,” he said. “It’s what I tell my students, too.”

While it was never his goal to come back, Que said he jumped at a full-time faculty position at the University as soon as he heard it was open. Que said he moved back because he liked living in Minnesota and the University provided him with the opportunity to do his best work.

Some students, however, would rather just stay at the University without working at other institutions first.

Cognitive sciences doctoral candidate Nicole Scott  said she understands it’s important to have learning and teaching experiences elsewhere, but moving away can be tough on multiple levels.

“When I’m done here, I’ll have been here for five years,” she said. “After investing five years in a new place where you have roots, it’s tough to get up and leave. It gets tougher as you get older.”

Scott also said she’s made a lot of connections at the University that she would lose if she left.

“It’s tough professionally to start over again,” she said. 

But for Department of Sociology Chairwoman Liz Boyle, it’s important to spread the University’s ideas and reputation to other schools.

“We don’t want to create an echo chamber where everyone is just voicing the same ideas,” she said. “We want them to take their experiences to different audiences outside the University.”