Applying for a Job at a Liberal Arts College
David Allen Harvey, September 2003
From the Professional Issues column of the September 2003 Perspectives
Graduate students entering the academic job market often receive conflicting advice, or worse, no advice at all, on how to present themselves to prospective employers. In a Sunday morning session at a recent AHA annual meeting, a small group of graduate students and faculty discussed the issue, and the efforts of an AHA initiative, the Preparing Future Faculty program, to remedy it. One common problem noted by all participants in the session was that graduate students trained in large research universities often assume that they will find employment in such institutions, while in reality, most will instead be employed in smaller colleges with heavier teaching loads, lower (if any) research budgets, and, of course, lower salaries. Senior faculty at major research universities, particularly the elite private ones, often ignore this reality in training and advising the faculty of the future, whether because they themselves had found positions before the job market crisis set in, or because they believe that other forms of academic employment are somehow beneath their students. In our discussion, many participants noted that this narrowly focused research-university mentality causes many graduate students and new PhDs to make serious errors, often inadvertently, which sabotage their candidacies at other types of institutions. This complaint was particularly strong from community college faculty, but is equally valid for small liberal-arts colleges, the educational environment I know best. I attended the AHA annual meetings of 1999 and 2000 as a job candidate in modern European history, and more recently, at the 2003 meeting, I sat on the other side of the table as a member of a search committee for my current employer, New College of Florida. I would like to share with all prospective applicants to liberal-arts college positions what I have learned from my own experience.
Liberal-arts colleges are very different kinds of institutions from large research universities and the demands and rewards faculty can expect are different as well. Salaries are often lower than at major research universities and sabbatical leave and institutional funding for research are generally harder to come by. On the other hand, small college faculty come to value the intimacy of small classes, the opportunity to teach broadly across various fields, and the powerful sense of community between students and faculty. Many professors who teach at liberal-arts colleges prefer them to larger, more impersonal research universities because they feel that, in small colleges, teaching and research exist in their proper balance, and people, whether faculty or students, are valued as more than their resumes or their test scores.
My current institution, New College of Florida, is highly distinctive. We are a public honors college, an anomaly in a state of sprawling mega-universities, and our focus rests squarely on the liberal arts, rather than on pre-professional training or intercollegiate sports. New College was founded as an experimental private college in 1960, dedicated to the principle that "each student is responsible for his or her own education." Consequently, New College gives students written evaluations rather than letter grades and measures progress by the completion of semester contracts rather than the accumulation of credit hours. This unique system was maintained when New College became part of the State University System of Florida in 1975, and led to its designation by the Florida Legislature as the state's honors college in 2001. While research is certainly expected and valued, the primary responsibility of New College faculty is teaching. Service and advising obligations are also heavier than is the case at many larger institutions.
First, find out about the institution
Almost all liberal-arts colleges have web sites, and these often contain valuable information about the history, mission, and culture of the college. In our own recent search, for example, those applicants who showed familiarity with the unique character of New College and expressed an interest in it stood out from the crowd. Those who sent us a form letter, occasionally with the wrong school's name on it, also stood out—but in a very different way!
Be specific about teaching
Spell out exactly what courses you would be willing and able to teach, and offer syllabi or abridged course descriptions wherever possible. Stress any teaching experience you have had, whether at your graduate institution or elsewhere, and discuss your teaching philosophy and expectations of students. Play up any teaching fields you may have outside your area of specialization; for a liberal-arts college, a well-rounded generalist is more attractive than even the most productive narrow specialist. If senior faculty have observed your teaching, ask them to refer specifically to it in their letters of recommendation. If you have a brief, easy-to-read summary of student evaluations of instruction, you may wish to include it in your application materials, but avoid sending masses of evaluation forms, which committee members will not have the time to read, and which they will naturally suspect of partiality.
Don't lie about your interests or abilities, or feign a strong desire to join an institution to which you would not wish to go. Such behavior wastes everyone's time and is usually fairly transparent. Don't be bombastic in proclaiming your qualifications with phrases like, "I believe I would be an excellent choice..." and don't simply parrot the language of the job advertisement. Instead, state your full qualifications, express a sincere, informed interest in the position, and let committee members draw their own conclusions.
Few candidates manage to win job offers at convention interviews, but many manage to lose them there. The interview is your first opportunity to give prospective employers a sense of who you are as a person (they have, presumably, already examined your qualifications and concluded that you look good enough "on paper" to justify a face-to-face meeting). Opinions vary on whether candidates should present search committees with new materials during the interview (copies of publications, course syllabi, teaching portfolios and the like). Personally, I think that these materials should be sent prior to the convention. You may wish to bring some extra copies of your c.v. to ensure that each interviewer will have one at hand. You do not, however, want interviewers to be leafing through a stack of unfamiliar paperwork rather than listening to your answers to their questions. Search committees have plenty of opportunities to familiarize themselves with your written record. The interview should be an opportunity for them to listen to you, to get a sense of how poised and articulate you are, and how well you are able to communicate orally your scholarly ideas and interpretations (a good, though not infallible, predictor of your future effectiveness in teaching).
Never assume that search committee members are not active scholars, or that they will not understand or appreciate your scholarly interests. In fact, most small-college faculty are graduates of the same major research universities as are applicants, and many of the former are accomplished scholars in their own right.
Don't be obscure
Faculty at smaller colleges usually have to cover very broad areas, and if there is an open position in your field, it probably means that no one in the department shares your area of specialization (except, perhaps, a senior scholar whom you may be replacing). Search committee members will therefore be less likely to take interest in the arcane details of your dissertation than in the broader historical issues it illuminates. An ability to discuss the big picture and the general relevance of your work will not only convince scholars from outside your field of its importance, but will also demonstrate that you are comfortable discussing the broader contours of the history you study and therefore will be able to teach it to undergraduate students.
Liberal-arts colleges are small, close-knit communities, and no one wants to be stuck with an unpleasant colleague for the next 30 years. Stress what you are able to contribute to the campus community, particularly your ability to teach broadly, both within and outside your field, and your willingness to serve the institution, especially in areas such as mentoring and advising students. Other interests or abilities, such as theater, music, or intramural sports, may be mentioned as well, though these should be clearly subordinated to strictly academic pursuits. When search committee members ask themselves the inevitable, "Do I want to work closely with this person for the next x number of years?" you should ensure that the answer will be "Yes."
—David Allen Harvey is assistant professor of history at the New College of Florida.