Professional Issues

Using the Annual Meeting to Win a Position at a Small Undergraduate College

Steven A. Leibo, December 1995

The excellent AHA pamphlet Becoming a Historian: A Survival Manual advises interview candidates to prepare to "provide capsule summaries of the dissertation . . . [and] at least hint at, if not cover, sources, theoretical content, and what is new and important about the work." In addition, candidates "should be prepared to discuss a long-term research agenda" (Becoming a Historian, p. 48). This is certainly good advice for those who aspire to work in large departments with specialized programs, but less so for the many who interview with and eventually establish themselves at the smaller undergraduate colleges around the county. My own first small college interview impressed this upon me.

It was more than 12 years ago that, with a freshly minted Ph.D., I waited in a hotel for the arrival of the department chair of a small Midwestern undergraduate college. When my potential employer arrived and invited me to follow him for the first round of interviews I, prepared by years of graduate-school mentality, gestured back to the end table where my dissertation lay and asked, "Would you like to see my dissertation?" Without losing a beat, his eyes wandered to the far side of the room and, finally alighting on the newly bound volume, he uttered the unforgettable word "thick."

It was in that ever-so-casual response that I began to understand the realities of interviewing and serving at the nation's smaller undergraduate colleges—institutions whose needs and values so often differ from what we are trained to expect in our doctoral programs. Now more than a decade later, having been involved in interviewing scores of times at the AHA and the Organization of American Historians annual meetings, from both sides of the interview table, I have noted a few things one's dissertation adviser rarely mentions.

The Small College Environment

First let's deal with the all-too-common misconception about the small college environment and the job search: that a college professor is a university research professor without graduate students. In fact, the most successful undergraduate teachers at the nation's smaller colleges are often completely different types, with very different ideas about what constitutes an intellectual challenge. Although the otherwise fine AHA survival guide suggests emphasizing your dissertation research in interviews, you should do so at your own risk when seeking a small college position. At a small college, the dissertation is more often than not merely a work permit and potential publication line in a later tenure application. Perhaps small college professors would all like to be Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., or Barbara Tuchman, but they are usually too busy working as they do in a world of heavy teaching loads without teaching assistants and with only minuscule financial research support from their institutions.

What today's nonelite small undergraduate colleges usually need are broadly trained historian-teachers who think an intellectual challenge is learning new fields and doing comparative, non-Western and world history rather than insisting on delving deeper and deeper into their original subspecialties. In fact, there is a good chance you will eventually be called upon to teach outside the discipline itself. If candidates sound too committed to their narrow field, they may never get to an on-campus interview. A small college professor afraid to take on new areas and broad intellectual challenges can become more of a departmental "paperweight" than a worthwhile colleague.

Each new hire is significant for a large department in the sense that his or her accomplishments can shine on the entire department, but the reality is that any one assistant professor in a large program is not that important to the lives and careers of his or her colleagues. The failed assistant is merely one of 20 or 30 department members. On the other hand, in a small department each failure can potentially destroy the program, driving away majors and killing otherwise popular courses. Thus the hiring decision at a small college can have far more serious repercussions on a personal and professional level for those involved.

Submitting Your Vita

Study the catalog carefully. Know everything about the college, especially the courses taught and the areas covered. Highlight how your background fits the department's needs and, as an added benefit, fills gaps in the department's program. In the new world of word processors there is no excuse for not doing so. Don't apply to academic jobs--apply to the specific academic job. My own academic field is the relationship between Asia and the West. Before the age of world history and multiculturalism, I was considered odd. So I had two vitae, one that emphasized the European part of my background, one the Asian. Dishonest? Of course not. Both were true, and a job candidate has to be careful about confusing overworked professors who are forced to go through stacks of vitae after a trying day.

Be flexible. Do not assume that the job description exactly parallels what a department needs or even what faculty members think they need. More often than not the advertisement is a compromise--sometimes between friends, sometimes between enemies. Make sure your letter emphasizes their requirements, but remember that the ad is not likely to be printed in stone. Prepare to be mildly surprised by the contrast between the actual comments at the interview and what was said in the posted position.

Make it incredibly easy to get hold of you. There is no excuse for not having an answering machine, and an e-mail address is especially helpful. Remember, in the weeks before the conference, the chair of a search committee may have a list of 10 top candidates in front of him or her. All of the candidates would probably do a fine job, but the chair might have only five interview time slots. Do you want to be the person that can't be traced down for an interview? Do not call complaining that the department has been slow in acknowledging your application. Large departments have the clerical help that smaller departments can only dream about.

The Conference Interview

Interviewing under the trying circumstances of a national conference will probably be new to you. Unfortunately, it may well be just as new to those on the other side of the table. The smaller department is likely to put the burden on one--or with luck two--professors, and while both may be sincere and committed, neither is likely to be experienced in interviewing. Indeed, considering how infrequently departments, especially smaller ones, make new full-time hires, it may have been a generation since the department last hired anyone.

The timing of the interview poses an interesting dilemma for a candidate. If you're one of the department's first interviews, you may get someone less able to discern your strengths. But perhaps 20 candidates later you will find a more experienced but half-giddy interviewer unable to remember one candidate from another! When the time comes, walk up to the table and put down a vita for each person there. They may all have one already--or they may not. Just make it easy and avoid the situation in which an embarrassed interviewer is trying to remember which candidate you are while fumbling for your vita and perhaps--God forbid--grabbing the wrong resume!

As a candidate, you should assume that the interviewers have no idea about how to elicit your strengths; never assume the people interviewing you know anything about your dissertation. In fact, if there were anyone in the department with even a halfway decent understanding of your field, you probably wouldn't be there. Small college faculty regularly teach far beyond their original fields. So assume that if the faculty members have managed to justify a new position to their administration it is because they really have no one who could take on the absent field. Because they probably know nothing of your area, you will need to figure out a way to explain your work in terms of some larger context, say that of world history or perhaps of historiography in American or European history. In short, make your work significant to those outside your field, not within it.

Never assume the people interviewing you like each other because there is a pretty good chance that they despise each other. Thus any effort to develop a too-obvious rapport with one may send the other into panic about the "enemy" having another vote in the next department meeting. In modern marriage there is divorce. In academia there is frequently only tenure. You may well be interviewed by two people who in any sane world would be caught in a vicious custody battle. Never attempt to prolong an interview; doing so accomplishes nothing. Always remember, the interviewers need time to collect and record their thoughts about how wonderful you were and to prepare for the next candidate.

Sadly, the conference is not the place to cinch a job. More often than not it is a place to eliminate people who look good on paper but seem less appropriate during the interview. The on-campus interview is what really matters, and that is later on. Your conference goal is simply to remain in the field of candidates and to generate a favorable impression. Although I have been offered many jobs over the years and hired many people, I have never obtained a job from a convention interview, nor have I hired anyone from one.

Concerned about affirmative action? Of course it is an issue. Sometimes only an affirmative action candidate will be hired; at other times, an affirmative action candidate is preferred but not mandatory. As a candidate you will usually not know that. What you can do is make sure you have something extra special going for you that might make you stand out. Having grant-writing skills (colleges love outside money), or additional fields beyond those specifically requested, can further enhance your candidacy.

When they choose someone else, always keep in mind that there are almost always several candidates who are equally qualified for the position. Objective criteria cannot really distinguish them, so more often than not, the decision will be a lot more subjective than anyone would like to admit. In the end, it will be tied to issues completely beyond the candidate's control. Some candidates will drop out after accepting better offers--thus leaving others to receive the final offer. The first-choice candidate and the final candidate are only occasionally the same person. Remember, it's not over till it's over, and keep smiling. There are a lot of jobs out there, and you only need one.

Steven A. Leibo is associate professor and chair of the history and philosophy department at the Sage Colleges and a lecturer at the State University of New York at Albany. He has been associated as student or instructor with 14 different institutions, including three community colleges, five major universities, and two undergraduate four-year colleges. At one time or another, he has interviewed at most of the rest.