How to Apply for a Position at a Small College
Samuel Huston Goodfellow, February 2010
Many graduate students seem surprised when a significant percentage of the available jobs are not at research universities but at small colleges. Their academic training is at a large research university, and that is the environment most comfortable to graduating PhDs. The goals of a smaller college, however, are not exactly the same as those of the larger universities, although they are close enough to lull the job seekers into complacency. This essay enumerates the general job search process at a smaller school and, more importantly, provides some insight into what smaller institutions are looking for.
Obviously, each school has its own process, but in general, applying for a job runs through three stages: (1) the application, (2) the short interview, and (3) the campus interview. At each stage small-college search committees look for particular pieces of information that can distinguish a candidate and which are somewhat unique to small colleges.
As an applicant, you must understand that the search committee consists of faculty members who might teach between three and four courses a semester, have extensive faculty governance responsibilities, and are trying to do research. Reading applications is extraordinarily time-consuming. Therefore, it behooves the applicant to be concise and to the point in the cover letter. A letter that is more than a page and a half (and even that is pushing it) is too long and will often be read with an increasing sense of irritation. We all sympathize with the need to state as thorough a case as possible, and yes, we do read them. The reality, however, is that your case must quickly strike the significant points that pertain to the institution to which you are applying. The place to be thorough is in the c.v., where the format allows the committee members to quickly scan and absorb what you have done. The letter should do one main thing—tell us why we should consider your application further. The best way to do that is to convince us that you have an interest in teaching at our institution.
So what information will be convincing? . The job description is the starting point. Although it can disguise departmental divisions over the nature of the job, you must let it guide you. If the ad asks for someone who does African American, women’s, and Latin American history, then you need to address these elements. Ignoring one or more, is fatal. Even if you acknowledge that you have little expertise in one area, the reader can at least be reassured that you paid attention to the ad. Once that is done, tell the readers what additional interests and talents you have. Look at the job ads in Perspectives on History or online, and you will see that asking for a wide, almost bewildering, range of areas of expertise is not uncommon. The reason for this is that small-college history departments are small and, moreover, historians have to play key roles in other programs and departments. The college may have some flexibility about the areas, but members of the search committee are acutely aware that the personal strengths and interests of whomever we hire will shape the future curriculum. The smaller the institution, the more this is true.
Next you want to know something about the school. The internet makes it inexcusable to not make a minimal attempt at checking out the school. At this stage, you do not need to know quite as much as you will for the short interview and the campus visit, but you should be aware of a few things. The size of the school and the department are important. You might also want to look at the school’s mission statement to figure out what the school sees as its unique contribution to higher education. Is there a notable program, museum, or other campus entity that you might be interested in? Weave this information into your general statement. You don’t need a lot, just enough to let the committee know that you know what you are getting into.
Framing the letter is important. Teaching is the main focus of a small liberal arts college and your letter should reflect awareness of that fact. Starting with a discussion of your teaching credentials is a good idea. Small schools obviously want teaching experience, but more subconsciously, committee members want to know if you understand the nature of the teaching demands. Although all graduate students who get a PhD have a strong work ethic, search committees have concerns about the ability to transition from a research environment to a teaching one. Also important, particularly at smaller institutions, is some sense of flexibility. Is the candidate willing to take on courses that are not necessarily in their areas of expertise?
In writing about their research, applicants frequently go on at great length about how significant their research is. What is important at this juncture, however, is that you distill what is interesting about it and make the readers appreciate what you have to say. The letters of your referees usually contextualize your work, so your main goal is to grab our attention quickly. Write about your research more succinctly. Start with a “hook,” lay out the basic question, and point to the conclusion. Also, remember that the committee may not have anybody who knows much about your topic. Make it memorable, not stultifying, and be enthusiastic.
One element that small colleges usually look for is some appreciation for or experience with small, liberal arts colleges. If you went to one, that is fairly easy. If not, you need to draw on some experience or articulate some reason why you are attracted to a small college. This is hard to do without sounding banal, but it is important.
The c.v. is the first place many committee members look for basic information. It should be well organized, thorough, and clear. Make it easy for the reader to find information. Whereas the letter selects and interprets information, the c.v. should act as the reference work.
Some schools ask for a statement of teaching philosophy. It is probably not a bad idea to send one even if the school does not ask for it. The worst that might happen is that the committee won’t read it. It might, however, become useful for the next step in the application—the short interview. Writing about your teaching philosophy is a bit like running in quicksand, but the main thing is to incorporate specific examples and to keep it about a page long. If nothing else, it will help you think through how you want to talk about teaching.
The Short Interview
The next stage is the short interview or phone interview. Colleges use it to assess the top five to ten candidates and narrow the field to two or three final candidates. Typically it takes place at the AHA annual meeting. Increasingly, colleges are opting for the phone interview because it is cheaper. The main focus for this interview is to be professional, respond well to the interviewers’ questions, and expand on many of the key points from your application. For the first time, the committee will get an impression of you as a person.
I do not want to dwell on the obvious, but your demeanor should be professional. Try not to be nervous (easier said than done). This is not yet the place to project yourself as a congenial colleague. These interviews typically last from about 20 to 45 minutes, so you do not have a lot of time. Do not, under any circumstances, feel compelled to say everything. It is not possible anyway. Good candidates have lost ground simply because they nervously talked too fast and tried to overwhelm the committee with as much information as possible. You need to come across as articulate and if you rush your comments, you will not make a good impression. Try to be concise in your answers and have specific examples. In a sense, the interview gives the committee a little bit of a sense of how you might be as a teacher.
Preparation is again critical. You need to know much more about the school you are applying to than in the application phase. Look more carefully at the department information. If possible, figure out whom you are replacing and see what courses that person taught. Find out what you can about the research of the members of the department, which will help you get a feel for the tenure requirements and the balance between teaching and research. Look at the major requirements, as well as the general requirements, so you can talk about what you want to do in the context of their existing program. Is there a capstone course? How much of your teaching load goes towards non-major, general requirements? What areas does it look like the department could use? You might want to get a sense of what courses are already being taught so that you don’t offer to teach those.
As much as possible, you want to prepare for the types of questions you will face. No doubt someone will throw you a bizarre curveball, but for the most part schools are going to ask the same questions of everybody. The questions fall under several categories, all of which concern things that the committee wants to know. The general areas are teaching, research, and fit with the college. Additionally there might be a question having to do with the specific needs of the college or department.
At a small school, teaching is the most important question. What are the most important qualities in a teacher? What works for you as a teacher? What three courses would you like to teach? In my experience, we want to hear more than just a theoretical statement of teaching. Specific examples are important. With the first question, for example, the goal is not simply to list a few teaching virtues, but to elicit an example of how you have applied (or would apply) those virtues in your classroom. Most small colleges are very interested in active learning—how you would engage both non-majors and majors. Always remember, you do not have a lot of time, so be direct.
When tackling the question of what courses you would like to teach, you might want to reach a bit past listing the courses to talk about how you might organize a syllabus. What readings you might include, how you might organize assignments, or how you would lead discussion would be useful to discuss. This is also a juncture when you might demonstrate your willingness to tackle new areas. At the same time, you can show that you understand their program, perhaps by asking a few specific questions. “I see you have a required seminar, how many students typically enroll in the course?” You might also connect your selections with the areas asked for in the ad, or that might be lacking in the course catalogue.
Questions about research can take several forms, but what you want to convey is a sense of balance. The worst thing you can do is make it clear that your entire priority is research; the committee members will decide that you do not want to be at their school. The second worst thing you can do is have nothing to say about your future research agenda. Sometimes the question might be about the balance between teaching and research, sometimes it might be prefaced by a description of the course load and other obligations, and sometimes it might focus on your short and long-term research goals. What the committee is looking for is whether you are likely to get tenure, whether you have a realistic plan for subsequent research, and whether you understand the constraints of the job. Fulfilling research requirements for tenure is relatively easy to dispense with by discussing how you will turn your dissertation into publications. It is useful to have a plan for what you intend to research after you have exhausted your dissertation. Understanding the balance between teaching and research at a small institution is tricky but critical. You definitely do not want to say that research is irrelevant to your future. It would be surprising and extremely negative if you did that and, really, you should have enthusiasm for your research. But you need to indicate that you understand that your future career will not hang solely on the quality of your research, that you have a handle on how to pace yourself, and that teaching is your calling.
The interviewers also want to know how well you will fit into the department and the college. What the interviewers are looking for may be somewhat opaque, but generally they want to see a fit with the ad and perhaps whether you bring something extra to the program. Is your teaching philosophy consonant with the department’s? Another area that might come up here is how you see yourself interacting with other departments. If you are in world history, you might be interested in study abroad opportunities, for example, or if your research is on religious culture, you might connect with religious studies. Unlike universities, small colleges are highly interdisciplinary. Campus politics will not generally revolve around department issues, but around campus-wide issues. Communicate your awareness of this in some way.
Last but not least, make sure you have several good questions for your interviewers. Your questions should derive from the research you have done on the institution. Your research should help you with any specific questions you might be asked about the college’s specific needs. Prefacing your questions with something like, “I see you do (fill in the blank),” is a good way to ensure that the interviewers know you have taken the trouble to look at their program. The perspicacity of your questions goes a long way towards impressing the committee.
The On-Campus Interview
The on-campus interview is the final step. Here the emphasis shifts subtly to the issue of collegiality. It is not supposed to in any overt way, but everyone is looking to see who would be most comfortable to work with. Nobody will ask about this directly, and it will certainly not be the only, or even the main, issue. At this point, the committee has already determined that your research and teaching seem acceptable, but they will want confirmation of this.
Typically, the on-campus interview consists of a number of components. You will probably meet with the human resources department, the academic dean, student groups, the committee, and relevant individuals in the department. You will also most likely give a teaching presentation, in which you basically run a class, and you might give a “job talk” on your dissertation research. There is also usually a dinner, or some other social setting, in which the conversation is more open-ended. All in all, a busy two days.
The human resources representative will talk about the technical mechanics of the job: insurance, background checks, and so on. This is the place to ask about health care coverage and pension plans. Remember the college has to convince you that you should be there. You can ask the committee chair the salary, but the person to ask is usually the academic dean, who has authority over salaries. Administrative officials such as the dean want to get a general sense of you as a person. Go with the flow of the conversation and come prepared with questions about policy. What are the tenure requirements? What is the college’s endowment? Questions about the functioning of the college are appropriate at this juncture.
Student groups are usually comprised of majors and high achieving students with an interest in history. Their judgment is highly subjective, but it is important. For the most part, the students are assessing how well you relate to students. Some ideas about history club activities might be useful. Listen to the students and find out what they are interested in. The search committee will go over much of the same ground it did earlier, but in more detail. The on-campus committee may also include one or two students. The meeting with the committee is a good place to ask more questions generated during your visit.
You have some discretion in picking your topic for your teaching presentation, but it is usually roughly consonant with the existing syllabus. You have your own teaching style, but you probably do not want to do a straight lecture. This is difficult unless you have the opportunity to assign some readings in advance. As much as possible you want to engage the students, who will assess your efforts. Do not overload the class with too much information. The temptation is to show you know a lot, but the real goal is to show that you can clearly direct the students learning.
For the so-called job talk, you must not do a presentation geared towards specialists. Students and faculty members from other departments will be there. Even the history faculty may not have detailed knowledge of your topic. By all means use your dissertation or a conference paper, but pitch it for a general audience. Try not to bore your audience. Do not be disappointed if, at the smaller schools, that audience is small. Be prepared, if that happens, to be more conversational in tone.
The more informal setting, usually dinner, is crucial. Be yourself, but be sensible. Eating and drinking with a search committee is not the same thing as a night out with fellow graduate students. Do not be too intimate; I have seen one candidate implode at dinner by choosing to tell us about his dysfunctional family. Too much information! At the same time, you need to connect socially with the dinner party. The dinner, or its equivalent, plays an important role in establishing whether you will be a good colleague. This can be hard because you will be socializing with an age cohort that has hitherto been mentors and now, suddenly, are looking at you as a peer. You may not be used to seeing yourself in this light, or being scrutinized like that. Collegiality is a category that is not formally part of the process. In fact, it should not be a category at all. Nevertheless, many interviewers have it mind. Especially in the on-campus interview, the interviewers want to see how you teach, how you think (job talk), and how you interact with your peers.
At each stage you have been successful. The search committee has seen something positive and, for the most part all they are looking for is confirmation. Possibly the committee already has a ranking, but possibly not. Either way, you do not want to lose ground by seeming unprofessional or too tense. If you bear in mind that the committee has already decided that it likes your work, then you can approach the interviews with a firmer sense that you are not trying to win the job, so much as reinforce what is already working for you.
The final stage is when the committee meets to select its top candidate. Typically, the committee will discuss the pros and cons of each candidate. Each search committee will have different requirements for the job, many of which you will not be privy to. The decision can come down to small things: an extra area of expertise, a particular technique in the classroom, or a sense of fit with the department. In discussion, the proponents of the candidates must (or should) articulate objective criteria. Then they vote. As Louis Pasteur said, “Luck favors the prepared.”
Samuel Huston Goodfellow is a professor of history at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, where he also heads the Center for Engaging the World.