The Female Science Professor offers some thoughts on institutional hiring:
Only one graduate in the past 10 years from my research group is now a professor at a small liberal arts college, and that person attended a SLAC as an undergraduate. When I was in job-search mode, I got interviews at SLACs, as did my fellow job-seekers who had attended SLACs, but it was very rare for a SLAC to interview someone who had spent their entire career at large universities. Colleagues at small schools admit that they discriminate in this way because they think that someone who hasn't been part of the culture won't fit in or won't appreciate it. I don't think they would completely eliminate from consideration an otherwise excellent candidate, but having attended a SLAC gives one an edge for applying for faculty positions at one. I think this general approach filters out some excellent candidates who might have enjoyed a small liberal arts college experience but couldn't afford it or had other reasons (economic, family etc.) for attending a large university.
(Let me just note that I continue to find "SLAC" as an acronym for "Small Liberal Arts College" disconcerting, as "SLAC" in my world is "Stanford Linear Accelerator Center"...)
I was reminded of this yesterday at the annual "new faculty introductions" meeting, where department chairs give humorous little speeches introducing all the new hires for the coming year, and giving a quick run-down of their CV's. I didn't keep a careful count, but the vast majority of the new people have a small college background, and I don't think that's an accident.
I'm not sure it's a Bad Thing, either. The culture really is different at a smaller school, and people from larger institutions often don't understand or appreciate the differences right away. There's a much greater emphasis on teaching, there's more of an expectation that faculty will interact closely with undergraduate students, and the resources to support ambitious research projects just aren't there.
All of these are factors that a good candidate can overcome-- after all, nobody gets a Ph.D. from a liberal arts college, so even those of us with small college backgrounds have also come from big institutions-- but there can be some culture shock. It helps to come in with some mental image of what a small college is supposed to be like, and aim for achieving that, rather than having to figure out the expectations on the fly.
The biggest difference is on the research end, and the F.S.P.'s summary is pretty good:
It can be a bit perilous to take a job at a SLAC (depending on the SLAC of course) if you have research aspirations beyond what can easily be accomplished at a small school, unless you don't stay there long (1-2 years, maybe 3 years max) and if you work insanely hard to do well at both teaching and research while you're there, despite having what is likely a huge teaching load and few research resources. That said, it is quite possible to develop an active research program by taking advantage of NSF and other programs that encourage research at undergraduate institutions.
The key, though, is to choose a reasonable project-- something that can be done with limited resources, no grad students or post-docs, and limited faculty time. That's the real trick, and may be the biggest advantage that people from small schools have-- some idea of what sort of research projects can work at a small place.
I haven't witnessed that bias in the searches here at DePauw, but that may be due to being part of a professional school within a SLAC. At the School of Music, we look for musical qualifications, with liberal arts experience secondary at most.
Don't a disproportionate number of scientists elected in into the National Academy of Sciences have undergrad degrees from liberal arts colleges? The reasons are varied (by anecdote they are told in Tom Steitz in this piece).
Might those who went to SLACs be better trained overall in addition to knowing what search committees at SLACs are looking for? That would explain things. Though it would be worrisome if SLACs are pre-filtering faculty at the undergrad application step due to the cost of the education. It would create a cycle of exclusion of certain socioeconomic groups that would not be beneficial for SLACs in the long term. It is something that should be looked at.
Just out of curiosity (and being driven at least as nuts about the acronym as Chad is), are there Big Liberal Arts Colleges?
Yes. Harvard College is an example of a Big Liberal Arts College. There are also state schools which use a liberal arts model, like Buffalo State College (not to be confused with The University of Buffalo).
Harvard College? As in the Harvard College that's part of Harvard University? What is the sense that that's a "liberal arts college"?
While Harvard University is certainly squarely in the "research university" model, the undergrad program is sort of like a "liberal arts" school. The Core requirement means that you're taking at least 1/4 of your courses in areas outside your concentration, and undergrads don't really do a whole lot of research.
Doesn't pretty much everyone outside Brown have some sort of distribution requirement (Yale and Princeton certainly do, and I'm fairly sure about a number of others)? Also, undergraduates do plenty of research at Harvard.
Undergrads everywhere who are serious about getting into grad school do research, whether they're at BLACs or SLACs.
Harvard's Core is not known to be particularly rigorous. It seems to be part of the definition of a 'liberal arts college' to have a core of some sort, but most universities have a core of sorts. For that matter, some big research universities (like the University of Chicago) have more demanding Cores than some SLACs.