Sunday, May 9, 2010

Getting the job at a SLAC

This year I served on two different search committees, and I learned that what I put into my job application for SLAC was right on target. I likely got the initial interview because of my cover letter, given that I'm sure many people had similar experience. I was surprised by how many applications I read over the past few months that were completely wrong for a SLAC - I know some people just shove dozens of copies of the same materials into multiple envelopes, but there's seriously very little value in spending that postage if you aren't going make even a minimal effort at customizing a letter.

If I was going to give someone advice, based on my recent experience, this is what I would say:

- If you want to work at a SLAC, it helps if you attended one yourself. If you didn't (and even if you did), make a case that a SLAC is where you want to be. How do you know anything about the SLAC environment or values?

- Don't mention graduate students. Don't mention graduate projects. If you've taught grad classes, fine, but don't tell us about your great research directions for Masters students. We're tossing you in the trash as soon as we read that, since you obviously didn't care enough to look up our webpage.

- Similarly, don't discuss online courses or distance learning unless you know we do that. This may not be a trigger for everyone, but at least one colleague I worked with this year sent those applications right out the door.

- Don't make yourself sound like a research superstar, because we'll be thinking, "this person wants to be at a research university". If your research is awesome, that's great, but don't discuss all the fancy external grants you're going to need to get things started. Instead, focus on how your research is accessible to undergrads, and how you're going to get students involved in your fabulous work. The higher-end your science, the more you need to make the case that you really want to focus on the undergraduate involvement.

- In a similar vein, if we do call you, make sure you have a realistic view of the resources that a SLAC can provide. If you need million-dollar equipment, you probably shouldn't be wasting everyone's time with your application (and I doubt you would be), but even lower-end needs can sometimes be outside what a SLAC can do. If you need more than we can give you, be prepared to talk about local options for collaboration.

- Convince us you really want to teach. References to students as keeping you from your research, needing a lot of hand-holding, etc., while definitely true, aren't going to make us think that you'll be a good teacher.

- Thank you notes (or emails) are nice. Follow-up emails that provide more details about courses you could teach, research ideas you had, etc. etc., are not helpful, aren't going to change my mind about you, and make you seem desperate. Even if you are desperate, keep it to yourself.

- Know as much as you can before you talk to us. This may seem obvious, but only a few candidates knew course numbers for our courses, and those who did know the details really stood out.

- When we ask you about what you might be able to teach, there are definitely some wrong answers. It may be tricky: if you can figure out whether this job is replacing someone specific, that would help, but being gung-ho to teach all of Professor X's courses is not a good thing if Professor X is staying. SLACs can't afford a lot of overlap. Be ready to suggest a course that isn't currently in the catalog, and focus on the areas specified by the job advertisement.

- Have questions for us! These may be more related to local things, housing markets, schools, whatever, but having questions makes us think you're actually interested.

Although much of the decision-making depends on the committee, there's a lot you can do to make it to the top of the list at a SLAC, since very few people actually included most of these in their applications and interviews. And if all of the above sounds obvious to you, you're probably fairly well set for the SLAC job market.


Anonymous said...

This is a really nice list. I would expand on two points: 1) you have to be able to really make the argument about why a liberal arts setting, and in particular this one, is a good fit. You can still do that even if you don't come from one, but you'll have to do your homework, and 2) don't assume because we're not an R1 that there's no research requirement or component -- it's easy enough to find out about the publication record of those in your prospective department.

BLG said...

These are really helpful, but I found the 'know the course numbers' to be depressing. If that's what it takes, that's what it takes, but I'm just not willing to spend my time before an interview memorizing that Intro Bio at one place is 113, while it's B102 at another place. Must explain why I've never been offered a job . . .

Liberal Arts Lady said...

Anon, thanks for the additions; I particularly like your #2 - definitely an important thing to add.

BLG, maybe that specific item sounds a little more picky than it needs to be - I think a lot of this kind of thing can be accomplished by keeping the course list open on your computer during the phone interview. A candidate who mentions that they would love to contribute to the departmental intro course, DEPT 102, is going to impress me more than someone who says, "well I think I remember that you have an intro class of some kind..." This alone isn't going to take you out of the running, but knowing details may keep you at the front of someone's memory. Every little thing helps!

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