All of My Faults Are Stress Related

This is a repost from my old blog, from a year and a half ago. But it’s time for academic positions to be advertised – if they haven’t been frozen due to budget cuts. So, some old advice on getting a job, while my own job is keeping me especially busy.

So. You want a job, do you? At an undergraduate college? Ok, then. Let me tell you what I know.

(This is based on being on six different search committees at two different schools – one private small liberal arts college (SLAC), and one public liberal arts college. However, I haven’t been part of a search in the past seven years – my department has been successful at moving people from job candidate to tenured professor, so that’s no longer my biggest service obligation. So: the job market changes with time, and I may be out of touch.)

A job application is like any other piece of writing: to be effective, it needs to be pitched at the right audience. Except that goes triple (at least) for job applications. In the case of a search committee for a liberal arts college, that audience usually includes the entire department, the dean, other administrators, students (for parts of the application – not reference letters), and possibly a faculty member from another department.

So what does this audience want from the job search, anyway?


1) To find someone to teach certain classes. (Some of those classes will be within the major, and some classes will be part of the college’s general education program. All of them need to be taught. If the new hire can’t or won’t teach them, the other members of the department will have to.)

2) To hire a person who is good to work with. (Departments are small. Jerks are difficult to avoid in a small department.)

3) To avoid having to do this same search next year, or in four years, or in seven years. (The new hire should be someone who will be happy at the institution, and should be someone who will survive the tenure process and continue teaching important courses and being a pleasant department member until retirement.)

The administration may also have its own agenda – maybe to strengthen an interdisciplinary program, maybe to hire someone who can bring in grant money, maybe to straighten out a troubled program. (I wouldn’t want to be hired into the third situation, btw.) The students and the additional faculty are usually there to give a broader perspective – they don’t make or break a candidate’s case, in my experience.

The department members on the committee will probably divide up the application materials (cover letter, curriculum vitae, statements of teaching and research interest, letters of recommendation, and whatever else a candidate sends them) between them, and cull them down to a manageable pool (maybe 20 applications). Then the students and outside faculty and administrators join the process, and everyone narrows the field down to a short list, and then to a group of maybe three or four people to interview. Your application materials have to get you out of that pool of 100 (or more) files and into the interview stage.

So what makes a strong candidate versus a weak candidate?

There is one thing that is sure to eliminate a candidate from consideration: a lack of background in the subdisciplines to be taught. (Sometimes only one subdiscipline is absolutely necessary; in other cases, the list of courses is extensive.)

The other stuff can vary in importance, depending on the applicant pool. But, in general, the following things are good:

1) Teaching experience. (I know I said that research is an important part of the job. But teaching is the thing the department needs right away.)

2) Experience working with undergrads (as part of a mentoring program, or supervising undergrads in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, or supervising undergrads in a lab, for instance).

3) Enthusiasm about undergraduate education. (The cover letter is important here. Why do you want to teach at this place, anyway?)

4) Enthusiasm about research with undergraduates.

5) Demonstration of ways you would fit into the program. (Look at the web site. What courses are currently offered? Can you figure out who is leaving? Can you show that you can teach the things that the department needs to be taught?)

6) Knowledge about the institution. (What is the administration proud of, and how do they market the school? If you really don’t want the job, talk about all the graduate students you plan to attract to your research program, or leave another school’s name in the middle of the cover letter.)

7) For geoscientists especially, knowledge about the area around the school. (You will need to dive right in and lead local field trips. Do you have any idea what you’ll be able to do? Can you imagine undergrad research projects in the area?)

8) A PhD completed. (Once upon a time, assistant professors were hired before they had defended their dissertation. If industry starts hiring away a lot of geology PhDs, it’s possible that ABDs will be hired again. But I wouldn’t count on it. And that means you need to finish your dissertation.)

9) Publications. (Notice how low this is on the list – it’s still helpful to have published, but a small college is likely to hire people who they think will publish in the future, rather than the past. Existing publications, however, can provide evidence of your background to teach certain topics, and show that you can follow through on your research. And they impress administrators.)

10) Grants. (If you want tenure, you will need to do research, and that means finding money. If you’ve been successful at getting grants already, that’s impressive. Especially to administrators. But whether it’s critical will depend on how competitive the applicant pool is.)

If one of the other applicants is perfect – five years of experience teaching at another liberal arts college, a dozen first-authored publications, successful NSF grants (or NIH grants for biomedical types), a record of sending senior research students to top graduate programs, stellar recommendation letters, clear enthusiasm about the position… well, you don’t have a chance. (Unless you are that perfect applicant. In which case, you probably aren’t looking for advice.)

But if you’re up against a lot of other people with a year of teaching experience, maybe a post-doc, maybe some papers in press… well, at that point, you can either stand out or disappear based on how you sell yourself. Use your statement of teaching interests to show that you are qualified to teach the courses listed in the job ad, and that you are a creative and enthusiastic instructor. If you have experience, talk about it; if you don’t have much experience, talk about what you plan to do. Use the statement of research interests to talk about how undergrads can get involved in your cutting-edge work. (And if you need to use instruments that aren’t available at the college, explain how you plan to manage collaborations that will allow you to both work with undergrads and do your cutting-edge stuff.) Arrange your C.V. so that your relevant experience is easy to find. Talk about undergrads in your cover letter, too. Make it clear that you understand the kind of school you’re applying to – if you sound like you belong at a research university, you probably won’t make the final cut.

And make sure your advisor and the other people writing letters for you understand that you’re applying to an undergrad institution. You can’t control what they write, but you can make sure that they understand your goals, and don’t write glowing letters about your future as a research scientist and mentor of graduate students.

Finally, one last piece of advice. Don’t hint that you are applying to a liberal arts college job because you just couldn’t make it in the research university world. The private colleges, in particular, consider themselves to be as good as a private research university. If you don’t think much of the type of institution, you probably shouldn’t work at one – even if your teaching and research are at the right level, you might be miserable dealing with the school’s sense of itself.

For more advice (from a wider variety of people), check out How to Get a Tenure-Track Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution (link currently goes to the wrong publication, oops), from the Council on Undergraduate Research. If you’re serious about working at an undergraduate institutions, you might want to join CUR and go to one of its meetings.