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.)