Where the Action Is
When asked what they want to do when they grow up, few little kids answer, "I want to teach at a regional public university." They want to be astronauts, fighter pilots, spies or generals (OK, those were my choices at that age). In Ph.D. programs, graduate students are encouraged to seek work and accept positions at the kind of research institutions where they do their doctoral work, whether they are wealthy private institutions or top flagship public institutions. The only step off the research track imaginable is the private liberal arts college, where selective admissions and small classes promise an ideal teaching setting.
Since the terms "comprehensive university" or "regional public university" are unfamiliar to many doctoral students, let me start with a description. These institutions are defined by their work with undergraduates and master’s students, and they have few, if any, Ph.D. programs. They are, at best, moderately selective in admissions, accepting a majority of applicants, many of whom are working adults or commuter students. Many of these institutions are former "normal schools," rooted in a teacher training tradition.
I work at a regional public university and when interviewing candidates, I know that my institution may not be an applicant's first choice. One job applicant passed on my department’s offer of employment for the chance to interview at a more prominent institution. There are also applicants who visited as a "practice interview," but fell in love with the place and took the position when offered.
However, there are good reasons to work at public regional institutions, for they educate a diverse and lively student body. They are at the center of efforts for educational and economic renewal. Their values – teaching undergraduates, mentoring students, community engagement – appeal to many Ph.D.s who seek a well-rounded work portfolio. The process for getting tenure is often clear, and it is an achievable goal for most junior faculty. Research expectations are modest, often a number of peer-reviewed articles easily counted on one hand, and the most important criterion for tenure and promotion classroom is teaching.
So how does a job seeker make a competitive application to a comprehensive university? While applicants apply to comprehensive institutions for many reasons, most make the same mistakes in their cover letter and C.V. Many applicants do little to customize their materials or message when they interview at a public regional institution. They highlight their dissertation research, with little reference to teaching or service. However, it pays for applicants to consider the context of the job for which they are applying and to target their message to the needs of the institution.
Working at a regional public institution is mostly about teaching students with a wide range of backgrounds and preparation. Students at my institution have taken some long, hard roads from high school to college. Some of these roads have taken them to Iraq; some have come through a series of factory jobs; others have gone through a number of other educational institutions. They are at the university to succeed, graduate, and get a job. They expect capable, relevant instruction for their future paths.
As a result, job materials and presentations need to connect to teaching wherever possible. For candidates, this means that cutting-edge research needs to be connected to the classroom. This might involve giving your students only a small flavor of your approach, but it is an important connection to make. Will your material be able to reach a wide variety of students, even at the introductory level? What will students know at the end of your class? Too many candidates, still buried in their dissertations, just fail to make the case that they are really excited by teaching what the department needs to offer.
Regional public institutions are also fortunate to have a diverse student body, drawn from all socioeconomic groups in society. Candidates need to be able to make the case that they are prepared and willing to teach a diverse population of students by race, age, gender, religion, sexual orientation and political beliefs. Please take a look at our student demographics, which often can be found online on the Office of Institutional Research, “about our institution,” or strategic plan sections of a university’s website. If candidates indicate during the interview process that they are familiar with our student body and are able to teach them successfully with a positive attitude, we consider this favorably.
How can applicants communicate this to search committees? One past applicant referred to several of his students as “idiots,” thus ending his candidacy. Instead, presenting some strategies for helping students to develop arguments, write papers, study better – all of these show interest and engagement with student learning. What if you have attended only selective institutions for your whole educational career? A welcome sign is being able to describe how you have helped students grasp difficult ideas and given them guidance on how to be successful in class.
At a public regional university, we define "service" broadly, as administrative work for the university, but also as outreach efforts to the local community. As a candidate, being able to sell yourself as a valuable and active member of the university and local community will be viewed as positive. This does not mean candidates need a community revitalization agenda as part of a job talk, but any interest and curiosity you can muster about the local community will be rewarded. On C.V.s and in cover letters, it is helpful to indicate your community engagement activities, such as involvement in local schools or state professional organizations.
Research is still important in faculty searches at regional comprehensives, and it can make the difference between successful and unsuccessful applicants in the final pool. However, applicants need to make the case that they can further their research agendas without a huge start-up package. For example, how can a scientist further a research agenda with undergraduates and master’s students in the lab, instead of postdocs and Ph.D. students? For those in all disciplines, can your research be used as the basis for a new class or approach to teaching? Can undergraduates be drawn into your research agenda?
I won’t lie to you. I know that if you take a job at an institution like mine, people in your field will ask you what your institution’s letters stand for, and your adviser won’t brag about where you were placed. But we tend to hire people who will be successful, and so the prospect of getting tenure will not hang over your head for six long years. While not a paradise, public regional universities are where the action is, helping many students attain their goals of graduating from college and becoming economically self-reliant. So think about it this job season, and try to weigh us fairly when it comes time to choose a place to begin your career.
Russ Olwell is professor of history at Eastern Michigan University. He is also co-director of the university's Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities.