Getting a job at an undergrad institution (partial repost) I: expectations

The economy might be scary, but I've seen ads for academic jobs already. And for geoscience grad students, the first conference is only a little more than a month away. So I'm going to revise and repost a series that I wrote on my old blog, about getting a job at a predominantly undergrad institutions.

Disclaimer: I've taught at two undergrad-only colleges: one private liberal arts college on the East Coast, and one public liberal arts college in the Rockies. (I was also a student at a private liberal arts college. That made me want to teach at one, but it didn't teach me much about surviving.) Everything I'm going to say is based on my experience. One person, limited in time and institutions. All schools have their quirks, and SLACs may have more than most. And institutions change through time - the expectations when I was hired had changed within seven years, in both places. But I'm teaching at an undergrad school right now, and that gives me a different perspective from professors at research universities (who may have been students at SLACs, or who may have run away screaming after a temporary teaching position, or who may know of SLACs mostly via grad students who came from them).

Oh, and for non-USAians - I don't think this kind of institution exists outside the US. And these schools are different from community colleges, and from small universities with M.S. programs. I've never taught at either of those, so I don't know what the work is like.

So, with those caveats, I'm going to do two posts. The first is going to deal with expectations: what exactly is involved in teaching at a SLAC? The second is going to deal with getting a job. (I initially had planned to write a post about getting tenure, but that's so quirky that I didn't.)

So. Expectations.


Umm. Kim? Shouldn't teaching be the first category? I mean, these are the jobs for people who love working with undergrads, right? I've read the catalogs. "Teaching is our mission." So what's the deal with research?

I'm putting research first for a reason. If you want to keep a job at liberal arts college, you've got to do research. Not as much as at a research university, it's true. But you have to do it. And it's hard to know exactly how much, and what quality. And the expectations may change.

There are a lot of good reasons for doing research at an undergrad institution. For one, it's a good way to stay in touch with the field - doing research also means writing grant proposals and knowing what topics are currently hot and reading the literature. For another, research experiences are good for students. Good undergrad research projects let students get a taste of how scientists work. And there's nothing like a research project to test a student's critical thinking skills.

And then there are other reasons. Scientific research means grants, and grants mean money (including indirect costs). With pressure to keep tuition down, and limited possibilities for state funding, grants look like a good source of money to public colleges, especially. And undergraduate research enhances the prestige of the institution. (I suspect this was important to the private SLACs in the late 80's/early 90's, when my Baby Bust generation was going to college, and the SLACs had to convince students that they were as good as Princeton or Stanford. It convinced me, at least.)

So you do research, and you publish papers. What kind depends on the institution. (How important is it to have undergrad co-authors on your papers? How important is it to get an equipment grant? How many papers, and in which journals? Do you need to be a first author for a paper to count? Does continuing your research from grad school/post-doc count? Do grants count? Do unsuccessful grant proposals count? (I've heard claims that they do, but in my experience, they don't. Your mileage may vary.) Do pedagogy grants and papers count?) I don't have a good answer - these are things that are different from institution to institution, and from administration to administration, and from candidate to candidate. (One paper in seven years probably is not enough, though it might still be at some institutions, for the right person. One paper a year is probably plenty. And between that... I don't know. I was denied tenure when I had four papers, one grey literature field trip guide, and a couple small grants; I got tenure when I had nothing but a pedagogy paper, a third-authored paper, and a co-PI'd NSF equipment grant... but that was in three years.)

But I know one thing: you can't publish too much.


You can't publish too much, but you can lose your job if your teaching isn't good enough. And you generally don't get out of teaching for doing research, unless you get a grant that pays your salary during the academic year.

How much teaching? It depends. At the private SLAC, I taught four to five courses per year, most with labs. (I also taught nine different courses - that's nine different preps - in my first four years. Eleven courses in seven years.) At my current public SLAC, I teach six courses a year, most with labs, plus I have taught summer field camp a few times, and I taught a summer gen ed class once. (But I've only taught seven different courses, including field camp. And I had taught versions of most of them before.) Other private colleges have smaller teaching loads, depending on how they give credit for labs. Some also give new faculty a break.

And how good do you have to be? Ah. That's the real question. Teaching evaluations can be brutal, especially at private colleges. And there aren't many ways to evaluate how well students learn, as opposed to how much they like their professors. At my first school, the sciences lost around one junior professor per year to bad reviews resulting from student teaching evaluations.

It's difficult to balance the need to challenge students, and support students, and get good teaching evaluations, and publish.

What about Service? Don't you have to do Service?

Oh, yeah, service. You know... service takes care of itself. You get assigned to a few committees, you go to meetings, you get credit for service. It's basically a box that needs to be checked off - unlike research and teaching, it doesn't have to be excellent. I haven't found committee work to be overwhelming - in fact, it lets me get to know people across campus.

So... would I do it again? In a heartbeat. I like teaching a broad range of subdisciplines. I like working with students one-on-one in lab. I like spending time in the field with each research student, brainstorming with them, trying to remember to make them say what they see before I tell them. I like watching students transform into independent scientists. I like mentoring.

(If I had to do it again, though, I would have left the first job after a year or two. There were warning signs that things weren't going well, and I would have saved myself a lot of grief if I had paid attention to them.)

Next up: how do you sell yourself? And do SLAC graduates have an advantage?


More like this

There are a few job ads for tenure-track jobs at SLACs right now (like, maybe 10, max), but none or almost none of them are in hard-rock/solid-earth fields so far. It's super depressing out there right now. I feel really bad for the students graduating and the postdocs reaching the end of their funding.

I also teach at and prefer teaching at a SLAC. The course load does vary, you're right - 2-2 and 2-3 are pretty normal, but I've also seen schools where it's, like, 4-4. (!!!) My friends who are in research positions and haven't been in this kind of environment are always shocked that I spend so much time on teaching, and on teaching prep, and on assessment, and they seem to think it's really intimidating. But I love it and I wouldn't want a job with a different focus.

Can I just point out that a SLAC career does not necessarily preclude doing high-profile, expensive science? The most obvious example who comes to mind is Christine Siddoway, who does field work in Antarctica and gets analytical grants to do SHRIMP analyses in Australia despite working in a tiny college that nobody's ever heard of. With sufficient networking, grantsmanship, and awesomeness, SLAC professors can still teach 10 courses and knock out half a dozen papers per year.

I've known Chris since she was a grad student. She's incredible - does great work, fantastic person, just plain brilliant. (But I disagree that nobody has ever heard of Colorado College. It's one of the Keck schools, and its alums include a lot of great geologists. If a kid wants to go to a private liberal arts college in the Rockies, it would be a great choice.)

She's also not alone at SLACs. In fact, I would say that, for a number of private liberal art colleges, her level of achievement is the expectation. So for anyone who wants a job at (thinking approximately southwest to northeast without enough coffee) Pomona, Whitman, Colorado College, Trinity, Carleton, Grinnell, Macalester, Beloit, Oberlin, Wooster, William & Mary, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Franklin & Marshall, Connecticut, Union, Williams, Amherst, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Wellesley, Middlebury, Bowdoin, Bates, or Colby - if you want a job at any of those schools, or a lot of others that I'm forgetting, then you should aim to be as successful as Christine Siddoway. That means doing research that is cutting-edge and widely respected, PLUS getting fabulous teaching evaluations.

It is very difficult, even if Chris makes it look easy.

(Apologies to those other schools, or people who graduated from them, for forgetting them. Not enough coffee.)

I'd agree with Kim's reply to Lab Lemming but add that at the types of schools Kim mentioned getting tenure is often MORE difficult than it is at quite a few research universities, including perhaps most land-grant state schools. At these SLACSs, if you're not PERCEIVED to be excellent at EVERYTHING, then you're toast. These schools also prefer to both hire and promote their own: if you went to a public grad school, you're not necessarily toast, but your chances of tenure likely just went down by quite a bit (not the right connections and carriage, don't you know). Of course, once you GET tenure, you can retire-on-the-job just as a depressingly large fraction of faculty do at all colleges.

Most folks around here can name maybe a half dozen to two dozen US institutions of higher education, and I don't think that many on that list qualify.

Do they all have geology departments?

I don't think Grinnell or Connecticut College have geology departments. (I know them from the Council on Undergraduate Research, not from geology. They've got other strong science departments.) But how often do you know the undergrad department that shaped people who go on to impressive careers? Three out of four of my PhD committee members got their undergrad degrees at SLACs. (The fourth got his undergrad degree in another country. I had no committee members who were originally the products of US research universities.) About half of my research group in grad school came out of SLACs (and a lot of people in other groups, as well - I just have trouble counting everyone), and there were so many from my undergrad department there that it became a running joke. Not many of us are at research universities now (though some of my college friends have very successful research careers), but at least in my case, I never tried to work at a research university - my grad school experience was unpleasant enough that I didn't want to spend my life at that sort of place.

OK, arguing about anecdotes is unscientific:
pick a bunch of colleges off your list, look up their geo departments on the web, and determine the average publication rate ( pub/yr, last 10 years, or years since PhD for youngsters, of listed pubs) for min/pet/geochron professors at said colleges (sticking to a subfield for consistancy):
1.2 Carleton
0.4 Carleton
0.7 Pomona
1.2 Pomona
1.2 Smith
1.4 Bowdoin
0.5 Williams
0.4 Williams
1.4 Williams
1.9 Whitman
2.5 Colorado
2.8 Colorado
st dev = 0.78

st dev = 0.68

females (n=4)
st dev = 0.96

Note that about half the schools I originally looked at either didn't have staff pages, or didn't have listed pubs. For out-of-date lists, I counted back 10 years from the most recent entry- which is probably generous for people who feel that their pub list from 2004 doesn't need updating...

So Chris (2.8) is actually about 2 standard deviations above the mean for her peer group- but both CC people are statistically ahead of the rest of the pack.

Note that many of the less productive researchers also write textbooks, win teaching awards, etc.

Could you indulge the moron (me) and define "SLACs". All I'm finding on Google is about a large physics experiment with the same abbreviation.

SLAC = Small Liberal Arts College. (And PLAC = Public Liberal Arts College - less common, but there are some around. I teach at one.) I think most private undergrad-only colleges consider themselves liberal arts colleges.