Wednesday, April 30, 2008

So you want to work with undergrads: II. Job applications

So. You want a job, do you? At an undergraduate college? Ok, then. Let me tell you what I know.

(This is based on being on six different search committees at two different schools. However, I haven’t been part of a search in the past six years – my department has been successful at moving people from job candidate to tenured professor, so that’s no longer my biggest service obligation. So: the job market changes with time, and I may be out of touch.)

A job application is like any other piece of writing: to be effective, it needs to be pitched at the right audience. Except that goes triple (at least) for job applications. In the case of a search committee for a liberal arts college, that audience usually includes the entire department, the dean, other administrators, students (for parts of the application – not reference letters), and possibly a faculty member from another department.

So what does this audience want from the job search, anyway?

1) To find someone to teach certain classes. (Some of those classes will be within the major, and some classes will be part of the college’s general education program. All of them need to be taught. If the new hire can’t or won’t teach them, the other members of the department will have to.)

2) To hire a person who is good to work with. (Departments are small. Jerks are difficult to avoid in a small department.)

3) To avoid having to do this same search next year, or in four years, or in seven years. (The new hire should be someone who will be happy at the institution, and should be someone who will survive the tenure process and continue teaching important courses and being a pleasant department member until retirement.)

The administration may also have its own agenda – maybe to strengthen an interdisciplinary program, maybe to hire someone who can bring in grant money, maybe to straighten out a troubled program. (I wouldn’t want to be hired into the third situation, btw.) The students and the additional faculty are usually there to give a broader perspective – they don’t make or break a candidate’s case, in my experience.

The department members on the committee will probably divide up the application materials (cover letter, curriculum vitae, statements of teaching and research interest, letters of recommendation, and whatever else a candidate sends them) between them, and cull them down to a manageable pool (maybe 20 applications). Then the students and outside faculty and administrators join the process, and everyone narrows the field down to a short list, and then to a group of maybe three or four people to interview. Your application materials have to get you out of that pool of 100 (or more) files and into the interview stage.

So what makes a strong candidate versus a weak candidate?

There is one thing that is sure to eliminate a candidate from consideration: a lack of background in the subdisciplines to be taught. (Sometimes only one subdiscipline is absolutely necessary; in other cases, the list of courses is extensive.)

The other stuff can vary in importance, depending on the applicant pool. But, in general, the following things are good:

1) Teaching experience. (I know I said that research is an important part of the job. But teaching is the thing the department needs right away.)

2) Experience working with undergrads (as part of a mentoring program, or supervising undergrads in a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, or supervising undergrads in a lab, for instance).

3) Enthusiasm about undergraduate education. (The cover letter is important here. Why do you want to teach at this place, anyway?)

4) Enthusiasm about research with undergraduates.

5) Demonstration of ways you would fit into the program. (Look at the web site. What courses are currently offered? Can you figure out who is leaving? Can you show that you can teach the things that the department needs to be taught?)

6) Knowledge about the institution. (What is the administration proud of, and how do they market the school? If you really don’t want the job, talk about all the graduate students you plan to attract to your research program, or leave another school’s name in the middle of the cover letter.)

7) For geoscientists especially, knowledge about the area around the school. (You will need to dive right in and lead local field trips. Do you have any idea what you’ll be able to do? Can you imagine undergrad research projects in the area?)

8) A PhD completed. (Once upon a time, assistant professors were hired before they had defended their dissertation. If industry starts hiring away a lot of geology PhDs, it’s possible that ABDs will be hired again. But I wouldn’t count on it. And that means you need to finish your dissertation. Are you writing? Huh? Huh?)

9) Publications. (Notice how low this is on the list – it’s still helpful to have published, but a small college is likely to hire people who they think will publish in the future, rather than the past. Existing publications, however, can provide evidence of your background to teach certain topics, and show that you can follow through on your research. And they impress administrators.)

10) Grants. (If you want tenure, you will need to do research, and that means finding money. If you’ve been successful at getting grants already, that’s impressive. Especially to administrators. But whether it’s critical will depend on how competitive the applicant pool is.)

If one of the other applicants is perfect – five years of experience teaching at another SLAC, a dozen first-authored publications, successful NSF grants, a record of sending senior research students to top graduate programs, stellar recommendation letters, clear enthusiasm about the position... well, you don’t have a chance. (Unless you are that perfect applicant. In which case, you probably aren’t looking for advice.)

But if you’re up against a lot of other people with a year of teaching experience, maybe a post-doc, maybe some papers in press... well, at that point, you can either stand out or disappear based on how you sell yourself. Use your statement of teaching interests to show that you are qualified to teach the courses listed in the job ad, and that you are a creative and enthusiastic instructor. If you have experience, talk about it; if you don’t have much experience, talk about what you plan to do. Use the statement of research interests to talk about how undergrads can get involved in your cutting-edge work. (And if you need to use instruments that aren’t available at the college, explain how you plan to manage collaborations that will allow you to both work with undergrads and do your cutting-edge stuff.) Arrange your C.V. so that your relevant experience is easy to find. Talk about undergrads in your cover letter, too. Make it clear that you understand the kind of school you’re applying to – if you sound like you belong at a research university, you probably won’t make the final cut.

And make sure your advisor and the other people writing letters for you understand that you’re applying to an undergrad institution. You can’t control what they write, but you can make sure that they understand your goals, and don’t write glowing letters about your future as a research scientist and mentor of graduate students.

Finally, one last piece of advice. Don’t hint that you are applying to a SLAC job because you just couldn’t make it in the research university world. The private SLACs, in particular, consider themselves to be as good as a private research university. If you don’t think much of the type of institution, you probably shouldn’t work at one – they see themselves as communities, and even if your teaching and research are at the right level, you might be miserable dealing with the school’s sense of itself.

For more advice (from a wider variety of people), check out How to Get a Tenure-Track Job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution, from the Council on Undergraduate Research. If you're serious about working at a PUI, you might want to join CUR and go to one of its meetings.


Garry Hayes said...

I appreciate these posts. I want to second the idea of learning about the institution you are applying to. I have "enjoyed" the process of sifting through dozens of applicants, and I was put off to the point of eliminating otherwise good candidates when they showed little evidence of having researched the school they were applying to. It takes a lot of work, especially if you are trying to get a teaching job, period, and are working on multiple applications. But it is worth the effort every time.

My last couple of search committees actually involved dean positions, and one of my peeves was that the school embarked on what they called a "nationwide" search. That brought in a lot of applications from around the country from people who knew nothing about our school, and were essentially career climbers who saw our school as a rung in the ladder. They have great qualifications, but I never felt they had our best interests at heart. And they tend not to stay long.

Callan Bentley said...

I'd second that bit about researching the school you're interested in. One of the first questions they asked me when I was interviewing for my position at NOVA was "How do you see your interests supporting the College's mission?" This is a great question -- because it tests to see if you know WHAT the College's mission is, as well as asking the candidate about themself! So: candidates should spend some time browsing the school's website and whatnot, and have some specific understanding to display when they're in the spotlight of an interview.

Kim, I've really enjoyed these posts too -- this process is (perhaps intentionally) ill-defined and blurry from the perspective of candidates, and it helps to have some insider advice. Not everyone's lucky enough to have a research advisor who can also act as a career advisor, so the web's a great way to communicate some of these basic ideas. Thanks!

Ron Schott said...

I'd like to suggest one more thing to add to the list, but it needs to be done delicately. Before you apply, consider calling the search chair or another faculty member and asking if there's anything that the department is particularly concerned about among the job qualifications listed in the job ad, and whether there are any other concerns that might not have made it into the job ad that the committee might also consider. Understand that the search chair and committee members may have nothing to add or may not feel comfortable discussing details with potential applicants and be prepared to leave it at that if they don't volunteer additional information. Your call (if you handle it professionally) will indicate that you are keenly interested in this particular department and job, and may unearth hidden agendas or specific concerns that were not evident in the published job ad. Remember, you're not muckraking - just trying to get the search chair or faculty members to elaborate on what's already public and what they personally feel are the most important qualifications of the applicant. Knowing what to emphasize in your application packet can go a long way to separating yourself from the crowd.

Kim said...

The private SLACs that I've known choose their deans from their own faculty. That made sure that they were invested in the institution.

The web makes it a lot easier to find out about jobs than it used to be. (Though sometimes department web pages are out of date.)

Kim said...

Ron - yes, I agree. That's not something that I've done when I've been a candidate, and if I were a department chair, I don't think that I would like be called by every single candidate, but I know of cases where a call like that made a candidate stand out. I would add that a candidate should read all the public stuff on the web site before making this kind of call - the candidate should be informed.

I think that asking those kinds of questions is really important before a job interview, though.

C W Magee said...

I think it is both amusing and sad that having any kind of work experience in the fields which your students can expect to be employed is completely absent from this list.

Anonymous said...

I know a bunch of people who have just finished undergrad geology degrees, and about 85% of them are now working in industry. Half of those who are still studying are doing so with the express intent of soon leaving for industry. For at least some of the teachers to have industry experience (about half of them did) was invaluable for the students. Whether or not that experience was relevant for when they were hired, I can't say.

Kim said...

My experience comes from a time when there weren't many jobs in either oil & gas or in mining - and for at least a couple searches, experience in the oil industry was a big minus. (They weren't petroleum-related positions, however - it may have been different if we had been hiring a structural geologist or a stratigrapher/sedimentologist.)

But keep in mind that these are liberal arts colleges, and most of the experience was at a private liberal arts college. I know a number of people who moved from petroleum research jobs into academia at research universities, and I can think of at least one research university prof who worked in mining (though before getting his PhD).

My current institution is much more open to industry experience than the private school was.

Silver Fox said...

Sorry, I think my previous comment was not well-thought out, was more a spur of the moment reaction to something else - and it's been a long day. Most of the profs I've known have developed industry experience as part of their research after getting their academic positions - and as consultants. I don't know very much about people who already have industry experience applying for the jobs I thought you were talking about.

Anyway, I think these posts of yours are invaluable, and I'm sure they will help people.

Kim said...

I know a number of professors (at undergrad schools) who do consulting work, too.

There's one other thing that I thought of. This academic gig. It, ummmm... doesn't pay very well. It pays better than being unemployed during a downturn in a cyclical industry, but when industry's up... the salary for a new B.S. is double the starting salary for a new assistant professor. I've known people with government agency jobs who turned down academic job offers after seeing the salary. That might explain why I've seen so few applications featuring industry experience.