Regrets? Yes. And no.

My trek from geeky highschool student to Associate Director at the Center for Teaching Development at the University of California, San Diego has definitely followed the alternative academic career path.

What path will you take? (Image: You choose your path by James Wheeler on flickr CC via Compfight)

What path will you take? (Image: You choose your path by James Wheeler on flickr CC via Compfight)

When I finished my Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, I jumped off the tenure track to teach math at a 2-year college in Vancouver.  A few years later, I stepped halfway back into the Ivory Towers when I split my time between teaching introductory astronomy (#astro101) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at UBC and being the resident astronomer at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre (aka, the Planetarium) in Vancouver. I eventually ended up full-time in Physics and Astronomy at UBC, not on the tenure track but as a Science Teaching and Learning Fellow in the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative. (Is there an adverb-form for gobsmacked or mind-blown? Oh well…) Gobsmackedly, I was in the office across the hall from where I’d first met my M.Sc. supervisor, Bill Unruh, some 18 years earlier. Now, I’m a faculty member in the Center for Teaching Development at UCSD, with the rank of Academic Coordinator.

Never have I been on the tenure track. Never have I been able to put “Professor” on my business cards.

And because of that, I have one regret (one is enough for this post): I’ve never felt the satisfaction and pride of having a graduate student. Because that’s what professors do, to move their disciplines forward. It’s their shoulders that the grad students stand upon to see further. When I hear from colleagues about the success of their students, I feel a wave of regret.

This summer that wave  was reduced to a twinge.

Part of my job at UCSD is to teach a class called The College Classroom about teaching and learning to graduate students and postdocs. Some of the graduate students become Summer Graduate Teaching Scholars (SGTSs) and teach a course in the Summer session. As part of our ongoing support, I observe each SGTS’s class 2 weeks into the 5-week marathon and give them some formative feedback.

And it was there, sitting in the back of those classes, that my wave of regret was reduced to a twinge. This summer, I witnessed first-time-ever instructors

  • running flawless peer instruction with clickers
  • drawing out students’ preconceptions and immediately integrating them into the lesson
  • creating a supportive learning environment where students feel free to discuss their personal, sometime quite, experiences
  • make every single one of the 5o students  in the room feel like they have a critical contribution to make to the class
  • ask the perfect question to ignite a conversation that experts in the field would have

Sometimes I sat there thinking, “Seriously? How did she know to do that? Awe. Some.”

Can I take all the credit? No, of course not, no more than a supervisor can take all the credit for grad student producing a succesful thesis. But I definitely had a role to play and, man, does it feel good.

And, so, what about my circuitous trek through higher ed? No regrets.



If you find yourself on a alternative academic path or you’re approaching the fork between tenure-track and not tenure-track, get on Twitter and follow the #altac hashtag. There are many others like you struggling with the same decisions you’re making.