A Guide for Applying to Jobs at Selective Liberal Arts Colleges

They are different types of institutions than where most people will have gone to graduate school, write a group of contributors to a philosophy blog.

October 23, 2015

You are on your way to earning a Ph.D. from a major research university. Your professors work at a major research university. Your placement director works at a major research university. But when the time comes for you to enter the job market, many of the available positions will not be at major research universities. Among the various other institutions of higher learning where you might be applying for jobs are selective liberal arts colleges, or SLACs. Here's what you should know.

1. Research Matters. Research is important at SLACs, but perhaps in different ways than at research universities. SLACs expect that successful job applicants and candidates for tenure have a strong research program where they attend conferences every year, present papers regularly and publish articles in strong journals or books with excellent publishers. While the research requirements at SLACs are less intense than at top research universities, at the same time, there is the expectation (and support for) scholars to be highly engaged with their research program, to have their teaching informed by their research program, and to be engaged with other experts in their field. Emphasis on research tends to vary inversely with respect to teaching load -- the higher the load, the less emphasis on research.

Generally, SLACs are not worried about people having earned doctorates at institutions that are “too good,” fearing that they will leave. SLACS don’t count it against someone that they are from a top school. Nor are they generally scared away by publications in tippy-top journals. SLACs consider themselves worthy of the best and brightest researchers. Having said that, you are a good fit for a SLAC only if you value and enjoy undergraduate teaching and recognize that a commitment to excellent teaching is not a major obstacle to achieving research goals. We at SLACS are looking for a colleague who wants to be professionally active and can combine excellence in teaching with serious research. So, red flags go up when (real-life example) the first question a candidate asks in the “Do you have any questions?” portion of the interview is, “How easy is it to miss classes to go to conferences?” or when a candidate expresses, however jokingly, disdain for teaching introductory-level classes.

It is also important for you to be able to show how you can make your research comprehensible to your students, usually through advanced seminars. You should be able to convey to your potential colleagues, who are likely not experts in your area, the value of your project and its value in the research tradition in which you are working. Most important, however, is that you are able to speak about, motivate and understand your research with respect to your field generally and to nonexperts (including colleagues in other fields at the institution).

It is a good idea to learn about the specialties of your potential colleagues in the hiring department, at the very least, to prepare yourself for the kinds of questions you might get at your talk and in conversations during your interviews. When preparing for a SLAC job talk, think about ways to showcase your ability to demonstrate the importance of your research and to present it in an engaging and accessible way. At many SLACs, students attend the job talks and give feedback on them to the department faculty. Your job talk will likely be read as reflective of how you would be as a teacher and so making complicated things understandable, without making them seem too easy, is another important skill to display.

2. Teaching Matters. Quality teaching is a high priority for these jobs. As an applicant, you will be required to show evidence of teaching effectiveness, experience and enthusiasm. These may include numerical evaluations, narrative evaluations and observations, sample syllabi, and teaching awards (specific examples of effective interaction with students or learning from your teaching missteps are helpful and tend to be more memorable than mere numbers). In your interviews, job talks, and conversations over lunch and dinner, the interviewing committee will seek evidence of a commitment to teaching; of thoughtfulness and creativity in constructing courses, assignments, grading and evaluation; of your interest in the development of more general student skills, such as writing and research; and of quality of interaction with students such as ability to explain basic ideas clearly and effectively. Many SLACs will include a teaching demonstration/mock class as an important part of the on-campus interview process. Hiring departments at SLACs will be looking for an outstanding teaching performance, as well as a demonstration of your ability to elicit student interest and lead discussion effectively.

Meaningful engagement with your students is an important part of the job at SLACs. Accordingly, SLACs highly value thesis and other independent-study supervision; one-on-one instruction outside of the classroom is essential to high-quality undergraduate instruction. So be prepared for nonclassroom teaching to matter, whether you are asked about it or not.

Pay special attention to the nature of the tasks you’re asked to perform on campus visits. Have you been asked to discuss your research with the faculty as well as to give a job talk? If so, then the job talk may not be geared toward professionals in your discipline but rather (smart) undergraduates. That means that killer paper you would give as a job talk at a major research university will not make for a great SLAC job talk because your audience will be lost. When in doubt, ask who the audience for the job talk is, and then change things up accordingly.

3. Curriculum Matters. Whether you are a person who fits the teaching needs and desires of the department, as well as the overall college curriculum, matters much more at SLACs than at research institutions. A department at a SLAC typically seeks someone to teach a certain profile of courses and may prioritize people without too much overlap with existing members of the department in terms of teaching expertise. You should be conversant with the interests of others while adding new interests into the mix. Additionally, you might be asked to teach a wider range of courses within your area than you would at a research institution, since you might be the only faculty member working in an area. SLACs also often assume that, eventually, you might be ready, willing and able to teach courses outside your area. In short, coverage of what the department deems to be essential to the curriculum is a very high priority: in this manner, both actual fit and potential flexibility matter.

4. Interactions With Students Matter. Because excellent undergraduate teaching is central to the SLAC mission, many SLACS have undergraduate students come to job talks and/or teaching demonstrations, or have a student-interview process, or elicit a report from students on their evaluation of a job candidate. How much such evaluations are rated depends on the institution, but some institutions take them very seriously. Use your interactions with students to show them what sort of a teacher you would be. If possible, find out what they want out of the position to which you’re applying and explain how what you would bring to the table matches their aspirations for the position.

5. Contributing to Departmental Life and the College Matters. An ability to bring something extracurricular to the department is an attractive feature in a SLAC candidate. It may help to think about how to start a club related to your field or plan a speaker series, etc. Providing evidence, if you can, that you’ve done this kind of thing already helps even more. More generally, hiring committees at SLACs may be more interested than those at major research universities in ways in which you can be of service to the department and the college, particularly in regard to student activities (e.g., as an adviser to student clubs).

6. Career Stages Matter. There is little to almost no hiring of senior people at SLACs, save for the very well-endowed colleges. Such places almost exclusively hire junior candidates, as they are cheaper and thought to be more adaptable to their teaching environment, and there is considerably less priority for senior research distinction than at major research institutions.

7. Tenure Matters. SLACs want to hire someone whom they expect to reach tenure. They do not generally envisage the tenure track as a performance test for candidates with the greatest promise. With that in mind, it is important to find out about research expectations for tenure. Ask about how teaching quality is evaluated within the college and within the department. These are things that are in the back of the mind of those hiring at such institution. Also ask about the tenure procedure generally. The department vote might be secondary to the college vote. Moreover, smaller departments might have nonphilosophers, or philosophers from other colleges, on the department tenure committee.

You are unlikely to change an institutional culture, and so fit should run in both directions. Are you willing to have teaching elevated over research in the institutional narrative, as it is at many SLACs? Are you willing to see an incredible amount of service as simply part of what it means to be a good member of the community? Are you comfortable with the relational dimension of the SLAC culture being something that might expect you to be available to students in ways that don’t fit neatly into scheduled office hours? SLACs are absolutely amazing places to spend one’s career and live one’s life, but they are different sorts of institutions than where most folks will have gone to graduate school and so demonstrating to the faculty at the SLAC that you understand and are invested in that distinctive culture is important.

Some possible interview questions for positions at SLACs:

  • What is your approach to teaching an introductory course in your discipline?
  • How would you aim to get students who might have no background in that discipline interested in it?
  • What text have you used in a previous course that did not work well?
  • What is the one text that you think you would nearly always want to include in an intro course? What text would you nearly always include in an upper-level course in your area of specialization?
  • How do you understand the role of academic adviser?
  • How does your research inform your teaching, and vice versa?
  • What ideas do you have for generating excitement about your discipline across campus?
  • What do you think are the primary characteristics of an excellent undergraduate program in your discipline?
  • If you could teach anything, what is your dream course?
  • What is the benefit of studying your discipline even if a student decides to major in something else?
  • Tell us about your research program.


The original version of this document was posted on Daily Nous, a philosophy news and discussion site edited by Justin Weinberg. It was drafted by Barry Lam (Vassar College), and then was modified and supplemented with extensive commentary from Nathaniel Goldberg (Washington and Lee University), Daniel Groll (Carleton College), Amy Kind (Claremont McKenna College), Mary Kate McGowan (Wellesley College), Nishi Shah (Amherst College), J. Aaron Simmons (Furman University), Susan Stark (Bates College) and Erik Wielenberg (DePauw University).

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