how to get those sweet liberal arts jobs

If you read this blog, you’ll know that I obsess over professionalization. Academia is a tough, competitive business, but I also want it to be efficient and a positive experience for students (buy my book – it’s cheap). But there is one aspect of the academic job market that I remain uneducated about – the liberal arts colleges. I didn’t attend one, few of my friends did, and IU soc doesn’t place many folks in the most competitive LA colleges. Neither does my alma mater, the Chicago soc dept.

What advice would you give to a graduate student who wants a career in a environment devoted to excellence in undergraduate teaching? Are high evaluations enough? Do people need to signal their dedication to teaching in other ways?

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Written by fabiorojas

June 14, 2012 at 12:01 am

15 Responses

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  1. High teaching evaluations are helpful, but so is a sense of who you are as a teacher and an ability to articulate how you teach and what teaching strategies work for you. LA schools look for people who enjoy the classroom and are passionate about the discipline. It can help to show that you’re refining your teaching – even if you’re already good. I sometimes advise people to list out their teaching improvement activities, such as seminars, workshops, innovative activities etc. to add to their teaching portfolio.

    It’s a common mistake to think that liberal arts colleges want people who are just good at teaching. We want people who are good at what they do both as scholars and as teachers. In some ways, that can be a harder balance to strike. You really do have to be good at both for most schools, especially the more elite colleges. And at schools where there are less resources to do research, you need to also be creative about how to do that research while also teaching. It can be tricky.

    One of the things that Liberal Arts profs end up spending time doing is engaging with undergraduate students – much in the same way that R1 profs do with their grad students. Students expect to be able to talk to their profs, see them regularly and to have a one on one relationship. To get a LA job, it can be helpful to show a willingness to engage with students in your research, they’re usually quite engaged and smart students, so it’s a good chance to foster a mentoring relationship that can be quite rewarding. It’s helpful to think about how you might work with undergrads in research and ways one might make connections between research and the classroom as it will lessen the load somewhat.



    June 14, 2012 at 2:41 am

  2. Obviously, you need to be committed to teaching. And good at it. But evals aren’t enough… you need to have designed your own class and taught it solo. And have shown evidence of engagement with students outside of the classroom, such as advising theses, participation in a mentoring program, having them as RAs, etc.

    But Beth is right. Teaching isn’t the only game. You also need to be a researcher, and being able to show that you’re able to do it while balancing other responsibilities (like teaching that class of your own) is good. Since hires tend to get tenure at SLACs, and tend to stick around their whole career, your colleagues want someone who they’re confident won’t be an intellectual lightweight. And that you’d be a good colleague to have, e.g. personable, willing to pull your weight, etc.

    But even all that won’t get you a a SLAC. Why? Because the hire is all about fit. There’s a bunch of people qualified for the position, and unlike the R1 it’s not the ASR/AJS that’s going to set you apart. It’s being able to teach what they need easily and happily, and add to their offerings. A small department can’t have two people who do the same thing. So make sure you pay attention to the position description when you apply.



    June 14, 2012 at 5:37 am

  3. Don’t underestimate the importance of being a good researcher. In fact, naive job candidates risk insulting faculty members at top liberal arts colleges by talking about the position as if teaching is the only thing that matters. The good liberal arts colleges are looking to hire people who fit the teacher/scholar model. Teaching and research are viewed as complemenatary activities. The schools sell themselves to prospective students by emphasizing that they will be taught by professors who are dedicated to teaching, but are also leading scholars in their fields.


    Rory McVeigh

    June 14, 2012 at 1:45 pm

  4. I think a lot of LA professors have a healthy skepticism about student evaluations. More than in R1 settings, LA colleges tend to keep in mind that student evaluations capture a narrow subset of teaching performance, and they will expect candidates to offer a variety of other kinds of evidence–philosophy, creative assignments, active learning strategies, and so on. I also think that there are many LA colleges where a certain teaching style that is often regarded as standard–assigning textbooks, lecturing to students, multiple-choice exams–is held in contempt, so it would be worthwhile for a candidate to explore the online syllabi of current faculty to get hints of this.

    And there is a wide variety of research expectations. This, too, requires some advance research of current faculty.

    A word of warning: many private LA colleges are in dire financial straits these days. Starting salaries can be low, and they may not improve much over the years as enrollments drop and endowments stay small.



    June 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm

  5. SLAC jobs require that you are an excellent candidate all-around. You need to have a strong publication record (though there may be less concern about impact factors and journal rankings) as well as teaching experience (preferably as instructor of record in multiple course titles), good fit, expertise that does not overlap too heavily with that of faculty already at the institution, a clear demonstration of your ability to contribute to service and advising and supervise undergraduate research, etc. Many care so much about fit that they are reluctant to hire those who have not previously attended and/or taught at a SLAC, so you might want to seek out a year or three of visiting assistant professor positions, Some even have the students interview you. But this set of criteria apply to less than 50 institutions in the US.

    The less-selective private liberal arts colleges, as tina says, are in dire straits; some really are sinking ships, and the hiring requirements vary considerably.

    But from my own personal experience, I would encourage those who are interested in the SLAC jobs to carefully investigate public comprehensive colleges. Our teaching loads may be somewhat higher and our resources severely constrained, but our jobs often involve small classes, lots of contact with interesting and motivated students, etc. We have research expectations, but there is a lot more freedom to how to pursue your research and writing. And at many public colleges, depending on the state, enrollment is going up as students discover the value of a lower-priced education. If you are interested in these sorts of jobs, you need to have teaching experience with the types of students who you will be teaching at the institution (so try adjuncting at your local 4-year or community college). We do look at your research record, especially given the competitiveness of today’s applicant pools, but no one expects top journals. And the ability to teach in particularly high-demand areas (like methods or criminology) really helps.



    June 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

  6. I’m not at a SLAC or a regional comprehensive, but I want to share a couple of things I learned from people at such places that surprised me. (1) They get many more applications than we do at “top R1” departments (because people screen themselves out of some jobs they don’t think they have a chance at). I’ve heard speakers talking about getting hundreds of applications. Managing their application-reading job requires a first cursory screen to rule people out. Especially if they are in an out-of-the-way place, they are looking for cues that the applicant is really serious about them. I think this means that tailoring and crafting the application materials to fit that specific job is especially important, more important than for a “top R1.” (2) As others have written, overlap with someone else in the department is definitely a bad thing; the big question in a small department is what will you teach that others don’t want to teach? (3) The specific job description is often a highly-negotiated object and, as others have said, you do have to fit exactly that niche. But what complicates matters is that sometimes someone resigns after the job description is written and then the “real” criteria are different from the ad. I don’t know how you manage that, but I thought I’d mention that I’ve definitely known of it happening.



    June 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

  7. I’ve heard speakers talking about getting hundreds of applications.

    For what it’s worth, I am at an R1, and this has been the case with every one of our hires in the past few years. I don’t think this phenomenon is limited to SLACs anymore, given the atrocious state of the job market for assistant professors.



    June 14, 2012 at 3:14 pm

  8. I agree with cwalken and Mikaila: it’s all about fit. I had basically every card punched to land a job at a decent liberal arts college: bachelor’s degree from a liberal arts college, doctorate from a top-5 grad program, 3 years of independent teaching experience in grad school (including Methods, Theory, and Intro), two years of teaching experience at an elite liberal arts college (and letters of recommendation from faculty there), teaching fellowships and awards from almost every constituency at my grad school (dept., college, student orgs.), research grants, sole-author publications in top-tier journals–and I still didn’t end up in liberal arts college. Yes, I got interviews, but hiring decisions are driven by fit and whatever idiosyncracies exist among the faculty and administration at each institution. So I just never made the final cut.

    So, what advice to give to grad students, beyond the obvious? Make sure you have both teaching experience AND areas of expertise (research, prelims, etc.) in substantive areas liberal arts colleges need. Yes to race/class/gender, social psych, social movements, family, criminology. If your primary interest is in anything that might be seen as a “luxury” specialty (in which only the biggest and richest colleges can afford), be sure to be able to sell yourself as a candidate for jobs in high-demand areas. Also, it is my experience that scholars who do quantitative research are more in-demand at liberal arts colleges than scholars who do qualitative research (maybe because historically, people with quantitative skills tended to be more likely to go to R1s?).


    Market Veteran

    June 14, 2012 at 3:18 pm

  9. I can add a few more thoughts from the perspective of someone whose first job was at a good liberal arts college (Skidmore—and it really was a good job) and who chaired a search committee while there. As I mentioned above, you need to be a good researcher to get their attention so in that sense, what makes you marketable at a research university also makes you marketable at good liberal arts colleges (except you also need strong evidence of teaching effectiveness to land the liberal arts job). But you should not go into the liberal arts market viewing a school as temporary situation where you can work until a job opens up at a research unversity. First, it is not fair to the hiring department as they are looking for people who are going to be deeply committed to the college and to the students over the long haul. There is often a fear that once given the job, the candidate will become so invested in research that she/he will neglect the students. So you should present yourself (with sincerity–don’t try to fake it) as someone who is deeply committed to undergraduate education and feels that one’s research should enrich one’s teaching (and vice versa). Candidates should also recognize that it is harder to maintain a strong research record (one that would allow a leap to a research I university) when teaching at a liberal arts college–becasue of heavier teaching loads and the absence of graduate students. A liberal arts college is not the kind of place where you will be able to land large research grants and put graduate students to work on big projects. It is better suited to scholars who write good books and do not require massive data collection efforts.


    Rory McVeigh

    June 14, 2012 at 3:38 pm

  10. I wanted to thank everyone for responding. These comments are extremely insightful, as I would expect, and I know they will help people in their career planning.



    June 14, 2012 at 4:35 pm

  11. I wanted to agree with Market Veteran here–having the clear ability (and willingness) to teach quantitative courses is a feather in your cap. LACs are overloaded with qualitative researchers to the extent that most majors think that’s what sociology is. So they’re always looking for someone to teach that required quantitative methods course.

    But I’d disagree somewhat with Rory. He’s right that your productivity takes a hit, but that’s more about the demands of service to the department and the institution than it is the lack of graduate students. After all, your average graduate student takes magnitudes of more time and effort than your average undergraduate advisee. Many basic research tasks can be done by undergraduates, particularly those of the most selective institutions. I once saw the following formula that I agree with based on my N of 1 and non-random sampling of colleagues:

    great graduate students > no graduate students > poor graduate students



    June 14, 2012 at 6:06 pm

  12. Reblogged this on tressiemc.



    June 18, 2012 at 3:00 am

  13. I had gradually become more, and more interested in the teaching. I mentor, advised, and individually trained many students, and designed and taught a couple of short intensive courses. HOWEVER, I don’t hold an academic position and I am mainly a scientist. I really want to have teaching playing a more central role in one of those institutions you describe.

    I think found a department that I consider indeed perfect, any advice?

    (English is not my first language)


    Gustav Carr

    November 10, 2012 at 12:18 am

  14. Suggestion: 1/Get yourself in track with your reseach objective prior to think of applying to any LA poitions because 2/ teaching and pastoral care will take most of your the first three years and 3/ you need to prove that you are advanced enough in your research and your publishing prospect so that the board will consider you for teaching. 4/ If you are that serious/resourcefull candidate thaey also want to come up with a designed course (not too rigid with perhaps more than one route that could appeal to them) and a method of teaching that will 5/ fulfills the posisiton criteria and b/ which is conveyed from your own research aginst othr scholas in your ffield and perhaps c/ that might offer some perspective of development for your own career and that of the course throughout the years. You need to show that you are in for the long run and so research and teaching must be self fulfilling on another; who can learn (through research) teaches. Hopefully I am too wrong about this.



    February 12, 2013 at 12:15 am

  15. Sorry for the typos, but you get the idea!



    February 12, 2013 at 12:17 am

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