How to Get a Small College Job

We’ve been running a search to fill a tenure-track faculty position for next year, and I’ve spent more time than I care to recall reading folders and interviewing candidates. Now that the process is nearing completion, I’d like to do a quick post offering advice for those thinking about applying for a tenure-track position at a small liberal arts college. Yes, this is too late to do any good for people thinking of applying for the current job, but then, we wouldn’t want anybody to get an unfair advantage by reading my blog.

The following statements are entirely my own opinion, and should not be taken as referring to any particular applicants, living or dead. I do not speak for my department or my employer in this matter– I am speaking only for myself. That said, here are some things I think you should know if you want to get a small college job:

1) We Are Not Your Safety School

Small colleges are not research universities. The environment is very different, both for students and faculty. On the faculty side, there’s a greater emphasis on teaching, and fewer resources with which to do research. This does not, however, mean that small colleges are lesser institutions.

I did not settle for this job– I sought it out. The same is true of many of my colleagues. We’re not teaching at a small college because we couldn’t cut it at Harvard or Yale, we’re teaching at a small college because we appreciate the values that small colleges exemplify, and we want to work in that environment.

If you’re thinking of applying to a small college just because you think it’s an easier path than applying to a research university, don’t. Small college jobs aren’t easier to get, and they aren’t easier to keep. Small colleges are different institutions, not lesser ones.

When you apply to small colleges because you think it’ll be easier to get a job there than in the Ivy League, you’re not fooling anyone. We can tell, and it doesn’t help your application. If you want a safety school, look somewhere else.

2) Research Matters

If you want to get tenure at a small college, you’re going to need to do research. The research requirements won’t be as high as for a major research university, but you will need to do research, and you will need to publish something.

If you’re thinking of applying to a small college because you’d like an academic job but have no interest in research, don’t. You will need to do research, and you will need to talk about research in your application. You don’t need to have ideas that will lead to six first-author publications in Science, but you need to propose a research program, and it needs to be a program that can produce publishable results.

At the same time, you need to recognize that you won’t have the same resources at a small college that you would at a research university. You won’t have graduate students to work in the lab, and you won’t have post-docs. You can get grants, but you won’t get as much money as you would at a bigger place.

Whatever you propose, it better be something that can be done by yourself, or with the aid of undergraduate students. If you calculate that the project in your proposal will take two years with three graduate students, rip it up and start over– a good undergraduate student is worth about half a graduate student, and you’re not getting any graduate students. You need to propose something that will work in a small college setting, and you need to convince the search committee that whatever you’re proposing will work in a small college setting. If your projects require graduate students, or unrealistic capital outlays, we’ll think you’re really after a research university position, and then you go back to point 1) above.

3) Teaching Matters

At a small college you will be required to teach considerably more than you would at a research university, and with less of a support structure. You won’t be able to buy your way out of teaching classes very easily (if at all), and you won’t be able to foist work off on a small army of TA’s.

If you’re thinking of applying to a small college because you’ve recently suffered a massive head trauma and somehow think you can get away without much teaching, don’t. Teaching is a very large part of what we do (research is the bulk of the rest), and you shouldn’t even apply for a small college job unless you really like teaching, and want to do a lot of it.

Your application will include a statement on teaching. Use it to convince us that you’re serious about teaching. We don’t expect you to present revolutionary new pedagogical techniques, we don’t expect deep original insights into student psychology, and we don’t even need you to have extensive experience as an award-winning teacher (it doesn’t hurt, mind, but we’ll hire people with very little experience). We do expect you to convince us that you’re serious about teaching, and you know what you’re signing up for. A good teaching statement is one that shows that you have put some serious thought into the idea of teaching, and regard it as a worthy activity in its own right.

A teaching statement that sounds like “Teaching is all well and good, as long as it doesn’t take too much time away from my research” makes us think that you’d really prefer a research university position, in which case see point 1) above.

4) Letters Matter

The application will ask you for three letters of reference, sent under separate cover. These letters can provide us with a lot of useful information that doesn’t show up anywhere else. Make sure you take advantage of this opportunity, and get references from people who will write you good letters.

“Good letters” in this context doesn’t necessarily mean “Best post-doc ever in the history of the universe!,” no matter what you may hear about hyperbole in recommendation writing. We’re looking for letters that highlight a candidate’s strengths, and explain what might appear as weaknesses. A good letter might be one that explains that a candidate’s research productivity was limited by a lab fire or an incompetent contractor, or a letter pointing out that a candidate lacks first-author publications because of collaboration policies and politics.

We want letters that will address the above points. There should be at least one letter that talks about the research that you propose, and not just the research that you’ve done. If you have an advisor or a colleague who can assess whether your proposed research would work at a small college, get them to say that. There should be at least one letter that talks about your teaching, or at the very least about your potential as a teacher. “I’ve never seen him in the classroom, but he gives fantastic research talks” is fine– just make sure that your references know what sort of job you’re after, and say that.

Most of all, we want to see letters that convince us you’re really serious about wanting a small-college job. Sometimes, this can be done through the choice of references– we had a few candidates who got letters from former students, and at least one who got a letter from a colleague who was on the faculty at a small college, testifying to the feasibility of the research plan. Sometimes, this comes through almost inadvertently– a head-scratching letter that says “This person could easily get a tenure-track job at an Ivy League school, but she insists on applying to these little tiny colleges and I don’t understand why” is fantastic. That convinces us that you’re really applying because you want a small college job, and not as a fall-back option, which is good because, well, see point 1) above.

Teaching at a small college can be an extremely rewarding experience– I love it, and I highly recommend it to those who have the inclination. That said, it’s very different than the “typical” large university academic job, and you need to know that going in. You also need to make sure that the people reviewing your application know that you know what you’re applying for. Just as you would find it unpleasant to work at a different type of job than what you really want, we would find it unpleasant to work with a colleague who really wanted a different type of job. And we’ve got the ability to decide who we work with, so if you really want a small college job, it’s in your interest to make that clear in every way that you can.

(As always with things I write about academia, this advice is more directly applicable to potential job candidates in the sciences. This may or may not work for humanities types, but I figure that’s payback for the Chronicle of Higher Education consistently writing as if all faculty are English professors. When I talk about “small colleges,” I tend to be thinking of relatively elite institutions, so this may be more applicable to schools that make it into the top category of US News rankings. Past results do not guarantee future performance. Your mileage may vary.)

Comments

  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    January 24, 2007

    This is superb advice all around (and free, no less!).

    I had the benefit of going to a small college with outstanding teaching faculty who ran small research programs – some of the biomedical folks were at least eligible for NIH R15 AREA awards. The focus on helping undergrads get useful, publishable research was a real benefit to me when applying to grad school. In return, I hope that the idealism and unbridled excitement of mine and my peers served to energize our profs – it seemed to be so.

    The folks who really wanted to be there as profs were a truly special bunch, some of whom remain dear friends, and now, colleagues. I hold in very high regard those profs like you who choose a career path at a small college. Thanks for giving folks this priceless advice.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    January 24, 2007

    This is well done, Chad, and I can assure you and your readers that it applies in our neck of the woods (Davidson College) as well.

  3. #3 JC
    January 24, 2007

    Chad,

    How would things change for a theorist type job at a small college? (What I had in mind is the sort of job David Griffiths has at Reed College).

  4. #4 RBH
    January 24, 2007

    As one who taught at such a college (high-ranked expensive liberal arts college in the midwest) for 20 years (1970s and ’80s), what I found most interesting about the piece is the increased emphasis on research. It’s true where I taught, too (I’ve retained some connection with the college, occasionally teach a course and occasionally lecture in someone else’s course). When I applied in 1971 there was almost no emphasis on research, past or projected. Though I had done and published research when I applied, and planned more, no one in the hiring process wanted to hear much about it. I think I may have been the first junior faculty member in the natural sciences to apply for (and get) a significant grant for research support. Over my 20 years that emphasis increased, though it remained (and still remains) secondary to teaching.

    A third area that candidates should be aware of is what our criteria for evaluation and promotion called “collegiate service”. While Chad may be subsuming it under “teaching”, stuff like advising students, faculty committee service, and other such duties are an important component of being a faculty member at a small college. While committee service was (sort of) voluntary, advising was not — every faculty member got his or her batch of first-years to advise, and sometimes kept the same advisees through their undergraduate careers. One also had a batch of majors in one’s department to advise — we didn’t have specialist advisers: everyone advised some majors. Like all assortments of people, some advisees ran on autopilot and some were time sinks. In the aggregate, though, advising soaked up a significant chunk of time and effort, and not just at course registration time.

  5. #5 chezjake
    January 24, 2007

    I agree with RBH and would extend that “collegiate service” bit to have applicants show a willingness to become involved in various other aspects of campus life. Many of the small liberal arts colleges require student organizations to have one or more faculty advisors. If an applicant has interest and experience in some extra-curricular activity or roganization that they’d be willing to devote some time to, they should certainly include that in an application.

    Also, although it’s probably obvious to those who have gone to small schools, students at these schools commonly arrive there without having a definite major or career path in mind. They often don’t have to declare a major until the end of their freshman or even sophomore year; so a faculty member also has a certain role in recruiting majors for the department.

    In short, a candidate should demonstrate a willingness to become involved in the college community as a whole.

  6. #6 Alison Chaiken
    January 24, 2007

    Someone in the physics blogosphere should comment on this scientific publishing news:

    http://www.nature.com/news/2007/070122/full/445347a.html

  7. #7 perry
    January 24, 2007

    I’m at a smallish place, and we get so many candidates who mail in a package that has no teaching statement at all, no indication of how this worldly important research can actually be done where at our shop, and merely send in a list of papers written in some subfield of physics with somebody great in that small subfield of physics that we are supposed to know in depth of, and that of course is more than enough to get them the job. And a letter from the “great person” and two of his colleagues, that say “yes, Joe Blow worked for the great person, and must therefore be great”. Its like they don’t get that we’re just different, not a backup, or a place where they will automatically be a star.

    And another pack of idiots (yes, idiots….) that when the job ad says “nanotech experimentalist” thinks, “well I’m such a GREAT theoretical particle astrophysicist, they’ll take me instead”.

    I actually appreciate such folks sometime, cause ya sure don’t have to waste much time with them before round filing them, at least in your head. No round filing, or even notice you don’t get the job, can be done for 12 years after the position is filled:-)

  8. #8 Ben Vollmayr-Lee
    January 24, 2007

    JC, I’m a theorist at a liberal arts college. One strike against theorists in this environment is the common belief that theorists can’t find good undergraduate research projects. There’s some truth to this if you do mostly analytic work. In my case, I’ve branched out into more numerical work as a way to find good undergraduate projects, and I made a point of discussing my plans to do this when I applied for my job. I still do some analytic undergraduate research projects when I find the project and the right student.

    There are some perks to being a theorist in this environment. For one, the relative lack of resources isn’t much of an issue. And collaborating via email is probably more feasible than it is for experimentalists. I’ve got no complaints … well, it would be nice to sleep a bit more, but no other complaints.

  9. #9 Chad Orzel
    January 24, 2007

    Today ended up being even worse than yesterday, in terms of running around at work, so I’m only just getting around to responding to comments. I should’ve saved one of the droky polls for today…

    How would things change for a theorist type job at a small college? (What I had in mind is the sort of job David Griffiths has at Reed College).

    There’s no real difference in the process. The only real difference is in the details of how you present your research plans, particularly regarding students. It can be somewhat difficult to get undergraduates involved in theoretical research, and it’s probably a good idea to spend extra time explaining this in the research statement, but the things we look for in a theorist are the same as the things we look for in an experimentalist.

    A third area that candidates should be aware of is what our criteria for evaluation and promotion called “collegiate service”. While Chad may be subsuming it under “teaching”, stuff like advising students, faculty committee service, and other such duties are an important component of being a faculty member at a small college.

    I left service out of the list for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there’s no formal statement regarding service in the typical application packet, and we really don’t consider it in any systematic way. It is important that a potential faculty member be able to connect with students, but we deal with that during the campus visit stage of the process– in the current search, we scheduled each candidate for a half-hour meeting with students, and took a couple of students along to lunch and dinner with the candidates.

    The other reason for leaving it out is that service and $2.50 will just about get you a cup of coffee. Service is considered as part of the tenure and promotion process, but it doesn’t carry anywhere near the weight of teaching and research. If you’re an outstanding teacher and a very good researcher, you can get tenure, and if you’re an outstanding researcher and a very good teacher, you can get tenure, but if you’re merely very good at teaching and research, there’s no level of excellence at service that will get you tenure.

    It’s very important to be able to get along with students and colleagues, and to participate in the campus community, but the key elements for getting and keeping a job are teaching and research.

    And another pack of idiots (yes, idiots….) that when the job ad says “nanotech experimentalist” thinks, “well I’m such a GREAT theoretical particle astrophysicist, they’ll take me instead”.

    I always enjoy the ones who mis-spell the name of the college, or get the title of the available position wrong. We got a lot of applicants in our last visiting search who wrote cover letters saying that they were very excited about getting a tenure-track job in our fine research institution.

  10. #10 Ponderer of Things
    January 24, 2007

    Nice post. But don’t you think it’s at least somewhat understandable that a sizeable fraction of applicants uses SLACs as safety schools? If someone’s research credentials, such as publication record, aren’t sufficient for top research schools, SLACs as well as low-tier institutions may serve as the only viable alternative, no?

    In other words – do you think the candidate for whom Union is their top choice of school is also the best candidate?

    Someone on the market who is truly passionate about teaching (and I hope you are not implying that folks in research schools aren’t), and who has a reasonable research record, but is not sure about whether it’s going to be a match (or good enough) for top research schools (of which there are not many and competition is often very fierce), may also decide to apply to a SLAC. SLAC may not be their top choice, since as you mention, chances of doing cutting edge research are slim to none, financial support is limited, no grad students or postdocs, large teaching load – but why would it be wrong to at least consider this as an option – better than getting no offers at all?

    I am sure every university or college wants to think they are not only hiring the best person suited for the job, but that it’s someone who would choose their school over any other, if given such choice. In reality (as in dating among other things), such matches are rare. I know I cannot compete with Brad Pitt in terms of looks, so how come college committees (as well as so many applicants) are so delusional as to convince themselves that they would never ever settle for anything other than the best of the best?

    Podunk State may want to think that they hired top candidate of the entire field, and that this particular candidate would rather accept an offer from Podunk State, than MIT.

    But we all know that both parties have to settle for what the supply/demand had to offer. What’s wrong with that?

    In other words, what’s wrong with admitting that your school may not be someone’s top choice, as long as you are getting the best you could GET (and not necessarily the best, PERIOD)?

    And are you being serious when you say that SLAC jobs aren’t easier to get than top research schools? Does it imply you can be as selective as places like Harvard or Princeton? Somehow I really doubt it.

    Finally (and I know I am going to get some negative responses on this post), I understand that it is important to have *some* research program, but I also feel it may be somewhat disingenuous for SLACS to mention that they require externally funded, vigorous and active research program – as they do in many ads. No offense, but it is basically impossible to have a real cutting-edge research program with large teaching loads and only occasional “passing through” undergrads working in the lab. We are all human.
    For most projects it takes years of training for an average *grad* student to be able to produce some meaningful results. By the time you train an undergrad to do something, they are ready to graduate!

    What is wrong with saying that professors at SLAC provide a valuable research experience for undergraduates, rather than top research for research’s sake? It seems like SLAC administration is trying to have it both ways – by making it seem like they also do serious research, but at the same time not providing much in terms of time or funds or facilities.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s great for undergrads to get some research experience, and programs like REU are wonderful, but in terms of SLACs – it’s simply a zero sum game, and if one takes a solid research university lab, and then remove ALL postdocs and grad students, take away most if not all of grant money, and overload professor with teaching – well, something’s got to go here.

    I’ll hide now and wait for flames (which as Chad notes, only attract more blog readers)

  11. #11 Katherine Moore
    January 24, 2007

    THANK YOU for this excellent post. I am just a 2nd year graduate student but I am already thinking about my career options. I am considering both large research universities and small colleges, and might even apply to both (but if I were to, I would send out two very different applications, of course, with two separate sets of letters and everything.) So far I consider myself to be very serious about teaching and about research. I’ll acquire more advice as I move along in my graduate career, but this essay seems to be particularly useful.

  12. #12 Steinn Sigurdsson
    January 25, 2007

    Just a comment on #10: the best SLAC’s tend to get the highest number of applicants per position – the Big Research Universities often hire by sub-field, they’ll not ask for a physicist but for an experimentalist working in microwave background, for example, which limits the pool of applicants for each job. At the top level, the pool of applicants is self-limiting, a lot of people don’t bother applying for a job at Top Ivy League because they figure they have no chance, so they end up with fewer applicants for an open positon.
    This is based on my anecdotal impression of seeing the process from both sides.

  13. #13 Aaron Cass
    January 25, 2007

    But don’t you think it’s at least somewhat understandable that a sizeable fraction of applicants uses SLACs as safety schools?

    It might be understandable, but if you actually want to get the job, it must be clear from your letters that you know what a small college is and are excited to play in that arena. We get enough applicants that make this very clear — we don’t need to add to our short-lists those that are using SLACs as safety schools.

    what’s wrong with admitting that your school may not be someone’s top choice, as long as you are getting the best you could GET (and not necessarily the best, PERIOD)?

    We are perfectly willing to admit that the school may not be someone’s top choice, but if they don’t even want to be at this kind of school (or don’t even acknowledge that we are a different kind of school), how can they be the best fit for the job? We don’t expect to get the best, PERIOD, competing with MIT, etc… but we do expect to get a good fit for the school, which will involve probably competing against other SLACs.

    And are you being serious when you say that SLAC jobs aren’t easier to get than top research schools?

    I don’t know about the raw selectivity numbers, but that candidate that really wants to be at a Research I school, and makes that clear in their application materials, will find it much harder to get a job offer (or even an interview) from a SLAC than from the Research Universities. If you really want the Research U job, your safety schools should probably be Research Us.

  14. #14 Chad Orzel
    January 25, 2007

    Ponderer: But don’t you think it’s at least somewhat understandable that a sizeable fraction of applicants uses SLACs as safety schools? If someone’s research credentials, such as publication record, aren’t sufficient for top research schools, SLACs as well as low-tier institutions may serve as the only viable alternative, no?

    Sure, it’s understandable, especially given the large population of people (yourself among them) pushing the idea that the only job worth having is a job at a top research university.

    Is it accurate? No. People who want a research university job but can’t get a job at Harvard should be applying to lower-tier research universities, not small liberal arts colleges. As Aaron says, we’re not going to put somebody on our short list if we think they really want a research university job and are just settling for a small college. They wouldn’t be happy with us, and we wouldn’t be happy with them.

    And are you being serious when you say that SLAC jobs aren’t easier to get than top research schools?

    We had somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 applicants for a single tenure-track job, in the just-completed job search. I don’t know what the numbers are like for a top research institution, but I’d be shocked if they were larger by more than a factor of two.

    If you think these are easy jobs to get, you’re kidding yourself.

  15. #15 dean dad
    January 25, 2007

    Nicely done. I couldn’t agree more about the ‘we’re not a fallback’ point. At cc’s, we get that a lot.

  16. #16 Ponderer of Things
    January 25, 2007

    Chad – research is clearly not for everyone. But do you also believe every teaching statement that says how much they enjoyed their semester of teaching, which clearly takes priority over their 10 years of research? Do you genuinly believe what they say in application packets?

    You must admit, it’s a little counter-intuitive for most people who went through ~10 years of hard-core research training to take a job that uses those premier skills in a rather peripheral way.

    There’s just something fake in the way SLACs dip into the talent pool of candidates that undergo the highly specialized training in cutting edge research, while at the same time not utilizing that potential in any way.

    A more honest way to describe the situation would be to say that SLACs are getting folks who for whatever reasons given up ambitions to carry out advanced research programs (they were trained to do over past 10 years), but found (or were forced to find) application of their talents in other ways.

    Because there are a lot more talented people getting PhDs than there are jobs for them in research environment of tight funding, the job market favors hiring overqualified (in terms of research) and relatively inexperienced (in terms of teaching, especially if you compare with humanities candidates) people, but hey – they are smart and hardworking folks so why not exploit the situation?

    I realize my post about doing “cutting edge” research may appear elitist and snobbish, but so would be the claim that research university faculty are not seriously interested in teaching, and that SLACs are superior in that regard to top research universities.

    My best teachers also happened to be the top researchers, and it is wishful thinking on SLACs part to assume that a) they have the ability to hire the best teachers on the market (research credentials aside) b) that candidates for their job could also be competitive for research university slots, but they simply chose not to.

    as my final example, I never heard anyone at government labs (which do top research but do not have teaching angle) make a claim that they can get researchers that are better than what Harvard or Princeton can get (in FACT, they are perfectly willing to go on the record that they can’t compete with those places – even though they typically offer a significantly higher salary and more stable financial research support structure). They also wouldn’t claim that they would not consider any candidate who is also seriously looking at academic options, and for whom government lab may be a second-tier choice. They know their place on the market ladder, and don’t get some self-delusionary nonsence get in the way of getting the best people for the job.

  17. #17 smm
    January 25, 2007

    chad: especially given the large population of people (yourself among them) pushing the idea that the only job worth having is a job at a top research university.

    that sounds a little defensive and i didn’t take that to be the sentiment of ponderer’s comment.

    this may be a bit off-topic, but i wonder…why is research degree (ph.d.) a requirement? in fact, why are research credentials important at all at a SLAC? if your goal is to attract the best teachers, then why not recruit high-school teachers with a masters degree in physics? one of them has a lot more teaching experience than a fresh ph.d.

  18. #18 kstrna
    January 25, 2007

    A more honest way to describe the situation would be to say that SLACs are getting folks who for whatever reasons given up ambitions to carry out advanced research programs (they were trained to do over past 10 years), but found (or were forced to find) application of their talents in other ways.
    **********************************************************************

    I am a person who went in graduate school without ever having the desire to be a faculty member at a top-notch research university. My ambition was always to be a faculty member at a SLAC. I know many others at my university who came in with the same mind set. A sizable segment came in without a real sense of what they wanted to do after grad school but wanted to learn a set of skills that accompanies getting a PhD in the sciences. A PhD in the sciences is very valuable and can be applied to a wide variety of positions.

    I do think much of the “ambition” many (and by far not all) people have to be faculty at research universities is more externally placed upon them than true internal motivation.

    Research is important for faculty at SLACs because one of the best ways to teach undergraduates about science is by having them do research (i.e. have them do actual science). Research develops analytical skills in ways traditional coursework can not which will aid students in whatever career path they choose in life.

  19. #19 Chad Orzel
    January 25, 2007

    Ponderer: Chad – research is clearly not for everyone. But do you also believe every teaching statement that says how much they enjoyed their semester of teaching, which clearly takes priority over their 10 years of research? Do you genuinly believe what they say in application packets?

    I believe that every time you write a comment about academic hiring, I become more convinced that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    It’s been a very busy couple of weeks, so I’m kind of short-tempered at the moment, but frankly, I’m offended by statements like:

    A more honest way to describe the situation would be to say that SLACs are getting folks who for whatever reasons given up ambitions to carry out advanced research programs (they were trained to do over past 10 years), but found (or were forced to find) application of their talents in other ways.

    Quality teaching and first-rate research are not an either-or proposition, and you can find plenty of people who have chosen to work at small schools and still maintain excellent research programs. Look at someone like Larry Hunter at Amherst, who is one of the most respected people in the field of precision symmetry tests, or Bill Wootters at Williams, who is a highly-respected theorist in quantum information.

    These are not people who have abandoned their ambitions for doing research to settle for a job at a small school. These are not people who couldn’t cut it at a bigger place, and thus opted for the small time. These are people who are at small schools because they believe that small colleges offer important benefits, and they can and do carry on important and interesting research there.

    I have no idea who you really are, or what you do for a living, but your comments about academic jobs in general (in other threads as well as this on) don’t give me the impression that you have any real experience in academia. And your comments about liberal arts colleges frankly piss me off.

  20. #20 anon
    January 25, 2007

    Hi Chad,
    So what about more senior folks applying from one SLAC to another? I have no idea what your ad said about strictly being for Asst. or not, but I wonder what reactions would be like, possibly one of: (1) this person looks pretty good, but let’s play the lottery with someone younger who may turn out great (2) this person likely doesn’t want to give up tenure, and trying to push that through the department would be hell, so let’s just go with a younger person. Any thoughts?

  21. #21 Kate Nepveu
    January 25, 2007

    in fact, why are research credentials important at all at a SLAC?

    Because doing research with students is an important part of teaching them.

  22. #22 Ponderer of Things
    January 25, 2007

    Chad, there’s no need to turn this personal – I will admit I have very little idea about job searches at SLACs. But I do find it interesting that despite teaching-oriented duties a lot of SLACs, yours included, are short-listing folks who are 5-6 years past their PhD, meaning they are onto their second postdoc. Which also means they are likely to be about 10 years past their most recent teaching experience.

    Does it mean that semester or two of teaching gets better with aging the way old wine does? Maybe.
    Does it mean it takes two consecutive postdocs for these people to realize that teaching they did in mid to late 90ies is their true calling? Maybe. Or maybe they went through job search cycles at research universities a couple of times and realized that SLAC position is their only viable option, as they don’t want to do a third postdoc? Also possible, except we now know that supposedly SLACs wouldn’t be remotely interested in people like that, so that can’t be the case.

    I do agree with another poster, that in principle SLACs could hire folks fresh out of PhD (you know, the ones who always wanted to teach), but why do that if market offers more experienced and distinguished folks, with longer resumes, who are equally if not more desperate to get a job?

    Sorry to be so cynical, but that’s the way I am about job searches that feature 200 candidates for a single spot…

  23. #23 Kate Nepveu
    January 25, 2007

    Ponderer: a lot of SLACs, yours included, short-listing folks who are 5-6 years past their PhD, meaning they are onto their second postdoc. . . . Or maybe they went through job search cycles at research universities a couple of times and realized that SLAC position is their only viable option, as they don’t want to do a third postdoc?

    You have two incorrect inferences in your statement.

    First, they could also be in visiting positions now.

    Second, and more fundamentally,

    1) Being a faculty member at a small liberal-arts college means you’ll have to do both teaching and research.

    2) Doing a PhD or a postdoc shows an interest in research.

    3) Doing a PhD or a postdoc does not show a non-interest in teaching.

    You seem to be stuck on #3.

  24. #24 NL
    January 26, 2007

    #3 is particularly head-bang-on-desk. The notion of the role *doing research* plays in making one a *better teacher* later seems to be particularly elusive.

  25. #25 kstrna
    January 26, 2007

    3) Doing a PhD or a postdoc does not show a non-interest in teaching.

    You seem to be stuck on #3.
    ***************************************
    But it does mean you are not developing your teaching skills. Are research skills really developing that greatly during post-docs especially after two years? After a certain point you have the laws of diminishing returns. Or are SLACs getting caught up especially in the biological sciences in the lure of grant dollars? Selecting ones who endure a PhD and a long post-docs is not selecting the best researcher nor teachers. It is selecting those who are more passionate about science than anything else in life. I have seen a number of people (& seemingly more women then men) leaving science who are excellent teachers and researchers, who would be a excellent SLAC faculty but they don’t want to put up with another jerk of an advisor & the post-doc experience.

  26. #26 Chad Orzel
    January 26, 2007

    At the risk of injecting actual data into this discussion, here are some very general numbers regarding our most recent search: out of 25 candidates on the “long list,” ten did only a single post-doc, two did a single post-doc and were currently in visiting faculty positions, seven were in their second post-doc, and seven followed some other trajectory (no post-doc yet, or applying from a long-term job).

    I don’t have figures for the years since Ph.D., because we’re not legally allowed to consider age or proxies for age in hiring, so I don’t even write it down.

    I don’t think that doing a second post-doc causes any significant atrophying of teaching skills– if you’re doing a good job as a post-doc, you will be required to present your work on a regular basis, which requires most of the same skills that you use when teaching. Many post-docs who intend to pursue liberal arts college jobs also find ways to do teaching or public outreach work during their post-docs.

    The idea that teaching and research are mutually exclusive is simply not true. Time spent as a post-doc does not in any way hamper one’s ability to teach. And by giving people exposure to more areas of research, and new and different research techniques, it can actually make them stronger candidates in both teaching and research.

  27. #27 Ponderer of Things
    January 26, 2007

    Chad, before I get on your “people I hate” list for my continued rambling tirades against everything that is wrong with faculty searches, let me say that your blog is on my GoogleReader list for a very good reason. And that I am not usually this cranky in real life.

    I am sure a lot of things are open to personal interpretation, but in my admittedly overly cynical view of universe there is a smooth transitional hierarchy beginning from top research universities, with grad students and postdocs and facilities support, down to second, third tier and so on, where grad program becomes… (I know, I am not supposed to say this) of *lower quality* (or “different”, if you will), ability to get research grants for doing top sciences diminishes and so teaching naturally becomes more important (with larger teaching loads) as faculty have to earn their salaries doing something. Then you smoothly go to colleges that have no (or virtually no) graduate program, no postdocs, very little or no ability/support to do science, and these places may include SLACs and also small state schools, followed by community colleges and private/public high schools.

    I am sure every school would like to believe that they somehow occupy the most special place in this teaching/research spectrum. Perhaps even coming up with new dimensions, or parameters for which the combination of research and teaching is just about right. But to me such ego-centric approach seems self-serving and a little dishonest.

    For example, when you say that folks who failed at research should instead apply to N-th tier (Podunk State) research colleges, rather than your SLAC, the implication is that SLACs are somehow superior to them. Of course those Podunk State folks could claim that they focus on teaching just as much as SLACs, but they also care deeply about teaching of grad students, and doing research, which may be not Harvard-quality, but still more serious than that of SLACs.

    On the other side of the spectrum, community colleges or private high schools could argue that they are the ultimate teaching-oriented place for folks who really *do* care about teaching and only teaching, and that those who failed at research should go to SLACs, where some minimal research program is required. In fact, they could also argue they are the only ones working for the poor and uneducated masses, rather than self-selected group of rich yuppie college kids.

    So in the end everyone is different, and nobody wants to be anyone’s backup career plan. But just because you say “we are not your safety school” doesn’t change this hierarchy, and if you guys want to continue dipping into the talent pool created solely by research universities, for the use of (defined by skills) research universities, you would have to deal with the fact that for a lot of them SLACs may not be their top priority, and maybe there’s nothing wrong with that approach.

    As a disclaimer, I have never applied for SLACs for jobs, so this ranting is not a result of any action that SLACs took against my application. But if I *did* apply, I would probably lie my ass off about how teaching is my true and only calling and how my 2 semesters of TAing back when Hootie and the Blowfish were still popular was the most exciting time in my life, but in reality such application would be merely a safety/backup plan in case other things fell thru and I had no other choice.

  28. #28 APP
    January 26, 2007

    As a disclaimer, I have never applied for SLACs for jobs, so this ranting is not a result of any action that SLACs took against my application. But if I *did* apply, I would probably lie my ass off about how teaching is my true and only calling and how my 2 semesters of TAing back when Hootie and the Blowfish were still popular was the most exciting time in my life, but in reality such application would be merely a safety/backup plan in case other things fell thru and I had no other choice.

    Being involved in the hiring process at a not-particularly-selective SLAC, I would doubt your ability to pull the wool over the eyes of the search committee through all stages of the hiring process and actually manage to portray yourself as a reasonable fit. There are some people with very good CVs who will not get interviewed, some of whom even talked a good game in a teaching statement, who were hurt by a poorly thought-out research plan to involve undergrads, or other warning signs. During an on-campus interview it is even more apparent whether the candidate has any real desire to be at the place. We have no illusion that we are everyone’s (or even our top candidates’) first choice, but “fit” is harder to fake than you seem to think. And we don’t get 250 applications for an opening. Some people really want to be at a SLAC. Those are the people we’re looking for.

    One helpful sign: a lot of our candidates went out of their way to get teaching experience beyond a typical TA lab assistantship, during a postdoc or as a VAP or whatever. If you pretended to believe that you were that inspired by working for someone else’s lab as a TA, well, we might not be that impressed with that, either.

  29. #29 Kate Nepveu
    January 26, 2007

    Ponderer: since you refuse to accept that people are being truthful when they tell you that they believe something, there is absolutely no point in discussing this matter further with you.

  30. #30 Chad Orzel
    January 27, 2007

    Ponderer: I am sure a lot of things are open to personal interpretation, but in my admittedly overly cynical view of universe there is a smooth transitional hierarchy beginning from top research universities, with grad students and postdocs and facilities support, down to second, third tier and so on, where grad program becomes… (I know, I am not supposed to say this) of *lower quality* (or “different”, if you will), ability to get research grants for doing top sciences diminishes and so teaching naturally becomes more important (with larger teaching loads) as faculty have to earn their salaries doing something. Then you smoothly go to colleges that have no (or virtually no) graduate program, no postdocs, very little or no ability/support to do science, and these places may include SLACs and also small state schools, followed by community colleges and private/public high schools.

    Kate has this just about right.
    I’m not annoyed with you because of the particular viewpoint you’re espousing– it’s annoying, but not that annoying. I’m annoyed enough to snap at you in comments because you don’t listen. You have at least three people in this thread who have experience with small college jobs telling you that the way you think these things work is not the way they actually work, and you continue to insist that somehow, the people with the relevant experience are the ones who are looking at this all wrong.

    Either you’re not listening, or you think we’re lying or deluded. In either case, this is not a conversation that can go anywhere useful.

  31. #31 Chad Orzel
    January 27, 2007

    Picking up a question that got skipped because I was annoyed:
    So what about more senior folks applying from one SLAC to another? I have no idea what your ad said about strictly being for Asst. or not, but I wonder what reactions would be like, possibly one of: (1) this person looks pretty good, but let’s play the lottery with someone younger who may turn out great (2) this person likely doesn’t want to give up tenure, and trying to push that through the department would be hell, so let’s just go with a younger person. Any thoughts?

    The decision about what level to hire at is made above the department leve– when we want to make a hire, we have to get it approved by the Dean, who determines whether we’ll be allowed to hire at the junior level only, or whether we can offer a senior person a position with tenure. Up-front permission for the latter is pretty rare, and mostly comes when you’re bringing someone in to be Chair. If there was a really exceptional candidate in the pool who ought to be hired at the senior level, we could probably go to the Dean and make that case, but it would be tough. The candidate could probably also try to negotiate that with the Dean, but I doubt that would work, either.

    We did get a number of applications from people with tenure-track jobs at other institutions who were looking to move for one reason or another. I can’t go into the details, but I will say that they got full and fair consideration in the search process. We didn’t end up with any of those people on the short list, but that had nothing to do with their status at their current institutions.

    If you’re asking whether I think it would be a good idea for somebody to try to move from one small school to another, I couldn’t really say. Personally, I can’t really imagine going through the tenure process a second time, so the only way I would consider moving would be with a guarantee of tenure at the other end, but other people in other circumstances might feel differently.

  32. #32 Ponderer of Things
    January 28, 2007

    I am sorry for getting you (and Kate and others) annoyed at my comments, but I do think you are deluded at least to some degree.

    Definitely when it comes to claims that your faculty search is of equal or comparable competitiveness for talent with those that are carried out at Harvard or Princeton. Come on.

    I also think you are delusional if you think that majority of SLAC applicants or those selected as finalists would gladly forego a position at top research university in favor of SLAC, provided of course they were presented with such possibility in the first place. But this is a question nobody can answer for sure, unless of course you believe everything job applicants tell you, which is, frankly, rather naive.