• August 29, 2015

How to Get a Teaching Job at a Liberal-Arts College

Last summer I served as one of three faculty respondents at a dissertation workshop. A dozen graduate students from universities around the country presented their dissertation proposals and preliminary research.

At the end of the two-day workshop, we started talking about job prospects. As I listened, I realized how little the students knew about liberal-arts colleges and how much my views on the job-search process differed from those of the other two faculty members at the workshop, both of whom came from large research universities.

I'm not sure how many of the 12 graduate students ended up seeking jobs at liberal-arts colleges, but here is what we discussed. Perhaps it may be of use to recent Ph.D.'s and graduate students who are considering a career at a small college.

Start by thinking about how you present yourself.

Learn about undergraduate education. You are not ready to write your letter of application to a liberal-arts college until you spend some time learning about recent developments in undergraduate education. Start with the following organizations: the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the Annapolis Group, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the Council of Independent Colleges, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

If you are applying to a college that is a member of a particular consortium, look up that organization as well: GLCA, ACM, ACS, ACA, COPLAC, ASIANetwork. Put ".org" after most of those initials and you'll find organizations that provide professional-development and networking opportunities at liberal-arts colleges. As you explore those Web sites, note the colleges' distinguishing features, such as the high rates of alumni earning Ph.D.'s and the disproportionately high representation of our graduates among scientists.

About 600 or so baccalaureate institutions refer to themselves as liberal-arts colleges, even though many of them are officially classified otherwise. Using the standard definition—a liberal-arts college is one that grants at least half of its undergraduate degrees in arts and sciences—the number becomes 200 to 300. The terms and criteria are confusing. Make sure you know the differences in meaning among liberal education, liberal arts and sciences, general education, and liberal-arts colleges.

The letter of application. Study the job posting and the college's Web site, looking particularly for information about its teaching philosophy as represented in the mission statement, its learning goals, a description of the major, faculty bios in the department, and so on. Mention what you have learned in your letter.

Generic letters do not capture our attention. Neither do letters that spend paragraph after paragraph describing your dissertation and its importance to the field. We know that you're writing (or have written) a dissertation. What we want to hear about is your teaching: What courses you have you taught? What have you learned from that experience? Besides transmitting content, what do you hope to achieve with your students?

We also want to hear a little bit about ourselves in your letter: What is it about us that attracts you? Have you ever lived in a community such as ours, in this geographic location? Had you heard of us before you saw the job posting?

Your curriculum vitae. Position your teaching experience toward the top of your CV. List the courses you've taught (with a brief description of each), your role in the course, the number of students, and perhaps the required texts. If you have teaching evaluations, include a few copies with your application materials, or make reference to them in your letter, vitae, or separate statement of your teaching philosophy. Your publications and presentations do not need annotations; a mere list will suffice. Along with your professional memberships, list the conferences you've attended, even if you were not a presenter.

Letters of recommendation. Tell your recommenders that you are applying to liberal-arts colleges and ask them to tailor the letters they write on your behalf to a teaching institution by including information about your teaching, communication style, and work with people in professional contexts. Of course, your recommender should mention your dissertation, too, but we don't need a lot of detail. We're most interested in the projected date of completion.

Teaching experience as a graduate student. Teaching a course on your own is a good credential, but serving as a small-group teaching assistant can also be a wonderful opportunity. At our colleges, most classes are relatively small and include time for discussion, a variety of writing assignments, meetings with the professor, small-group work, and student presentations. We also provide feedback to students early and often. Straight lecture courses with a midterm and final exam just don't work for us. Experiment with various pedagogical techniques in your graduate teaching and tell us about them.

If your graduate program doesn't offer teaching opportunities, you might ask your professors to allow you to present part of your dissertation research in their courses. You also can ask to observe them teaching undergraduates, especially in courses that include a variety of teaching strategies. Ask for a copy of the syllabus, handouts, and assignments. Talk with your professors about teaching, and, if your college offers workshops or courses for new instructors, take advantage of them.

If you're lucky enough to get an interview, there is a lot you can do to prepare.

The schedule. We typically interview three or four candidates. You can tell a lot about a department by the materials you receive and how well your campus visit is organized. You should receive a detailed schedule that includes the names and position titles of the people you will meet, along with phone numbers for your main contact person and information about lodging. The college will most likely provide a travel-reimbursement form when you arrive, but if you are concerned about who is paying for your travel costs, you might tactfully raise the issue when you are scheduling your visit.

Once you have your schedule, look up each person on the college's Web site. Memorize their names and learn something about them. These people are on your schedule for a reason: The librarian might be the liaison to the department; the IT person might be involved in a new departmental program. Don't be afraid to ask about anything that you are unsure of. If you have a special interest or expertise outside of the department, perhaps in an interdisciplinary program, you might want to request a meeting with a representative of that program. Here, too, you need to be tactful, especially if it is something your contact person already should have thought of.

Your presentation. Most liberal-arts colleges require candidates to make presentations of some sort. Ask about the audience, the time allotment, and the search committee's expectations. You probably don't want to present your dissertation research, especially if it requires a lot of background understanding in your field. Instead pick a topic you enjoy that will be of interest to undergraduates.

We are most interested in you as a teacher, so you should pay as much attention to pedagogy as to content. If it is impossible to create opportunities for student involvement in your talk, then spend a little time talking about your approach to teaching. Make sure you leave the group with the sense that you are passionate about the subject and about teaching.

Questions. The people you meet will have questions, and you should have some, too. Start by making a list of things they might ask. Then create brief responses. Read those over and over ahead of time. Also reread your cover letter and other materials, so that you say the same things in person as on paper.

Your questions for the search-committee members and others should be specific to the college or the person. Since you'd be a member of a small department, you should find ways to inquire about how well the faculty members work together. For instance: How often does the department meet? Who is invited to attend? What are some recent initiatives? What changes are on the horizon: personnel, curriculum, etc.? Who teaches which courses? A successful department at a liberal-arts college needs everyone's participation. Each person should teach lower-division courses, serve on campus committees, and take advisees. Beware of situations in which you are asked to take on all of the less-desirable tasks.

Now make the most of your interview.

The search committee. It will probably include all of the department's faculty members and a student or two. Small departments might add another professor or administrative-staff member. In most cases, the search committee will make a hiring recommendation to the academic dean, who typically will support the choice. Everyone who has met you, including meal companions and shuttle drivers, will be asked to provide feedback to the committee. Remember that you are always on. Casual comments on the way to the airport inevitably find their way back to the search committee.

The chief academic officer (provost or dean). The CAO's job is to sell you on the college and the local community. During this meeting, the best approach is to listen. A seemingly offhand comment about departmental tension or an unfavorable aspect of the position is probably an attempt to prepare you. Remember those comments for later negotiations. Also remember the positive comments, such as "We'll find your spouse a job." The CAO is a good person to ask about interdisciplinary or other opportunities at the college. If you are offered the position, you should explore all of those issues further before signing the contract. (More on that later.) But remember that the interview is not the time for such negotiations.

Staff members and students. You may meet students and staff members only in passing, but take those interactions seriously. Introduce yourself to the department secretary and give a greeting or smile whenever you pass by. Our colleges are communities, and we want to know that you value each of us. The same is true for interactions with students. How you handle casual conversations gives us insight into what you'll be like as a colleague and teacher.

Committee representatives. You may meet with representatives of the faculty-governance, personnel, or other committees. They typically provide details about campus policies and procedures that sometimes become hard to follow. You don't have to understand everything now. Use the opportunity to get a sense for what faculty members take pride in and how they represent their colleagues and the institution to you.

Repeat, repeat, repeat. Make sure each group you meet takes away a good impression of you. If you have specific strengths to highlight, they bear repeating to everyone you meet.

If a job offer comes, be ready with some questions.

A conversation with the chief academic officer. The provost or dean of academic affairs is typically the person who calls to offer you the job. The expectation is that you will ask some questions and then take a few days or a week to make your decision. This conversation is the time to clarify any conditions that you may have discussed while you were on the campus. Some of our colleges will consider spousal hires or joint teaching positions. Now is the time to get a commitment, perhaps in writing. Also ask about start-up money for your research, especially important in the sciences. If you don't have any specific needs, ask for a budget for library or technology purchases for your department. Your future colleagues will appreciate it.

The endowment. You may already have noticed information on the endowment while searching the college's Web site. Now is time to take another look. Colleges with small endowments are tuition-driven. Without a consistent supply of students, they struggle. Larger endowments provide a cushion for everything, including faculty salaries. For a college of about 1,200 students, a $150-million endowment offers some financial stability. Double that amount leads to less financial tension. Half as much requires penny-pinching. The other factor here is student enrollment. Check the numbers for first-year enrollment, retention, and graduation rates. If this is your only job offer, the information may not matter. But if you are choosing between colleges, money—yours and the college's—is an important consideration.

Salary and benefits. The CAO will have some discretion in determining your salary and will very likely expect you to counter. Ask whether there is room for negotiation—but remember that many of our colleges have set salary scales across divisions and within faculty ranks, so don't expect much movement. The rationale for a larger salary should not be made on the basis of your qualifications. The college already knows your background and has offered you the job because of it. Instead, focus on things such as cost of living, your spouse's loss of income, and other offers. You also can bargain for moving expenses and other benefits.

On the other hand, you are beginning a relationship with the dean and will no doubt be making other requests in the years ahead. Tact and grace go a long way no matter what the negotiation. You also should avoid asking for things that might have a negative impact on other members of your department, such as course reductions, leaves, or exemption from committees or advisees. You want to be a team player from the start.

Tenure processes. It may seem early to ask about tenure, but it is not too early to clarify procedures. Since many of our colleges encourage participation in interdisciplinary programs in addition to departmental work, you should ask the dean which department or program will have the most input regarding your tenure decision. If your interest is in women's studies, but your department (say, psychology) will provide most of the documentation for your tenure file, you'll have to consider carefully the depth of your involvement in women's studies. Clarify those things before you sign the contract.

Pull it all together for your first year on the job.

Get off to a good start. Draw on the professional expertise and good sense that got you the position. Enjoy your classes. Talk with your colleagues. Attend campus events. Exude positive energy. Be humble. Get enough sleep.

Gary DeCoker, a professor emeritus of education at Ohio Wesleyan University, is now a professor and chairman of Japanese studies at Earlham College and director of several Japan-related programs there. His first essay for "The Chronicle" was "Advice for a Rookie Staff Member."


1. neniaf - August 12, 2009 at 06:12 am

Sorry, but this wasn't my experience in over 20 years at liberal arts colleges. Our candidates were primarily hired for their research - yes, they had to be able to teach, but research held at least equal sway. No one would ever have been expected to look up that alphabet soup of organizations to understand our institutions - a look at the mission statement on our website would have served them much better. And I've never been at a college with the type of endowment he mentions, but we were never "penny-pinching". I have no doubt that this advice represents the author's own experience and preferences, but a candidate would have to know that these are not universal at liberal arts colleges.

2. tjfarrel - August 12, 2009 at 07:08 am

neniaf offers a good correction. The issues DeCoker raises as universal are very often locally driven and so likely to vary from place to place. A simpler set of suggestions would focus on remembering that while the importance of your current and ongoing scholarship will vary with the institution, teaching will always be crucial at a l-a school and must be addressed. Disciplinary issues also matter: in English candidates will usually go through a preliminary interview among a pool of 10-12 before the campus interviews, and the likelihood of regular faculty teaching introductory writing courses is much higher than at the typical public university.

3. jmittell - August 12, 2009 at 07:55 am

I think DeCoker downplays the importance of research at a top-tier liberal arts college (where I teach) - we expect junior faculty to publish significantly for tenure, and hire only promising, active researchers. However, it's important that teaching be framed not as the "day job" to fund your research, but rather as an equal & vital (and enjoyable) aspect of a candidate's professional life. Successful candidates should convey how teaching matters to them, not that research doesn't matter.

4. anthonymiccoli - August 12, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Having just gone through the process myself as an inside candidate (moving from visiting status to a tenure-track assistant professor), this seems pretty spot-on. I agree with the above posters regarding top tier colleges and research; but for anyone applying to non-top tier institutions, this really nails the process. I would add, however, that if the applicant/candidate has a solid publishing background or has a manuscript under contract, he or she should find ways to link that personal research to the classroom and show how it can be worked into an undergrad curriculum. This is especially important to those applying to liberal arts colleges that do not have graduate programs.

5. kimbruce - August 12, 2009 at 12:39 pm

The article and comments are both very useful. I've spent (and mainly enjoyed) over 30 years at two top-ranked liberal arts colleges. I would add to the advice above a few things. 1. Always read the faculty handbook, especially where they talk about tenure. It will be more vague than you like, but you will get a sense about the balance between teaching and research. Teaching is always a top priority. The top-ranked schools often have research as a nearly equal priority, while many others do not. Also look at the websites of departmental faculty, especially those recently tenured. Their research productivity will give you some clue as to what is expected. I find that strong research expectations (quality, though not the same quantity as R1 universities) keep faculty more interesting, interested, and (usually) more effective in teaching, all other things being equal. For my schools, indications that all you are interested in is teaching will disqualify you. 2. Write a good cover letter. Three line cover letters transmitting credentials or talking about applying because of our top notch research and grad students get tossed. You need to show you understand our sort of institution and what we are expecting (and that you have it). Do your research before applying. If you are not sure what is involved in teaching at this kind of school make contact with someone at a good liberal arts college and "interview for information" about what they look for in a faculty member and what life there is like. I've even had grad students send me their credentials so that I could give them advice on what to do to strengthen their backgrounds and their applications. 3. You have to have some teaching experience and have someone who can talk about how well you teach. Answering questions in a lab or giving good seminar presentations on your research generally won't do it. We and our students have very high expectations. Volunteer to teach for free if you have to in order to get experience. You need to prove that you are up to it to even get us to bring you on campus, particularly in this job market. 4. Especially if you are in the sciences, be prepared to explain how your research can impact students, both in the classroom and in getting students involved in research. An important part of the undergraduate experience for many students is getting involved with faculty research. Think about some projects where students can play an important role (beyond washing out test tubes). 5. For finances, the key is endowment per student and the acceptance ratio. Look for a bigger number for the first (though keep in mind that it's probably fallen by 20-30% over the last year), while an acceptance rate well under 50% should provide a buffer for the college to get through tough times -- I know some schools where the entering class is down this fall and that will hurt finances badly. Good liberal arts colleges can be a great place to spend one's career. It's not a soft life, but it can be a stimulating and very rewarding one. And these days, being at a private school can be a lot safer than being at a public one (though there are a very few public liberal arts colleges).

6. saintmaur - August 12, 2009 at 02:10 pm

As a faculty member at an institution more or less comparable to OWU, I would agree with the readers' comments equating scholarship and teaching as more or less equal componants of the interview. We in fact usually ask for one presentation on the candidate's research (suitable for uniformed undergrads and faculty) and one "mock class". These presentations have often proven crucial to our decision about a candidate. I would add that in retention and tenure reviews, candidates are more likely to get through with significant weaknesses in their scholarly record than with mediocre teaching evaluations from students and other faculty.

7. gmontell - August 13, 2009 at 03:41 pm

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8. gdecoker - August 14, 2009 at 11:41 am

Thank you to everyone for your comments. I had not intended to downplay the importance of research, and I agree that most liberal arts colleges consider carefully the scholarship of candidates for teaching positions. As a committee member on various searches, however, I have read many letters of application and recommendation that consist almost entirely of a discussion of the candidate's research. From my experience, candidates who give equal attention to their teaching are more likely to rise to the top of the applicant pool.

9. phikaw - August 14, 2009 at 12:55 pm

At least at my institution where undergraduate teaching is the mission of the liberal arts college component of the university (we also have professional graduate programs, but none to speak of in the liberal arts and sciences), good teaching is a necessary condition for getting tenure. Research is as well, but there is much greater latitude regarding the latter when it comes to tenure than there is with regard to the former. Research matters, however, at the time of hire in a couple of respects: (a) area(s) of expertise needed in the department; (b) contributions to the intellectual life of the faculty and the university; (c) expected contributions to the scholarly work in one's professed area. It's just that for the purposes of tenure evaluation (b) and (c) are weighted with greater latitude than is the quality of one's teaching. So, in our experience anyway, there is some difference in the importance assigned to research and scholarly interests at the time of hire and how they are actually weighed in a tenure evaluation process. That there would be more emphasis on research in the search and hiring phase is probably inevitable, both for the reasons noted above (people are also looking for a colleague, for coverage in curricular areas) and because it is hard to evaluate teaching until it's happening in the context of the specific institution with particular types of students and other responsibilities. (While it varies from department to department, the research standards for tenure are usually pretty well understood within the department and there are frequent evaluations during the tenure probationary period in which any necessary improvements in teaching are noted and communicated and ditto, with respect to research.)

10. rightwingprofessor - August 24, 2009 at 09:29 am

It's very important that you have good research for these jobs. It's also very important that your research not be toooo good or you will never get hired. After all the deadwood on the faculty does not want some young gun who has stellar research and is an superb teacher to show them up. There is nothing more threatening to these types that someone winning research grants and university-wide teaching awards.

11. reallyrosemarie - September 02, 2009 at 12:48 pm

I'm in the process of applying at an out-of state school for a position (foreign langauge instruction) that I'm definitely qualified for and am very serious about. I've sent in everything, but still need advice on following up. The search committee is continuing to receive cvs & applications until the end of the year for this position. Should I follow up? What is the best way to do so? I would appreciate any advice.

12. reallyrosemarie - September 02, 2009 at 12:49 pm

I'm in the process of applying at an out-of state school for a position (foreign langauge instruction) that I'm definitely qualified for and am very serious about. I've sent in everything, but still need advice on following up. The search committee is continuing to receive cvs & applications until the end of the year for this position. Should I follow up? What is the best way to do so? I would appreciate any advice.

13. systeme_d - September 08, 2009 at 11:44 pm


You do not "follow up." That is a fine thing to do in the business world, but it is not the way things are done in academia.

If they wish to interview you, they will contact you.

Best wishes to you.

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