Last year, the science department I chair conducted a search to fill a tenure-track position, which I described in "How We Did It," an account of successfully sifting through hundreds of applications to find the one outstanding individual who was the perfect match.
Not only did our top choice have a fantastic research record, he also expressed a strong commitment to teaching at a liberal-arts college like ours, making him our dream hire and us, he said, his dream employer. We were ecstatic when he accepted our offer last February.
Several months later, we were awakened from the dream when he suddenly informed us that he did not want to be at a liberal-arts college after all and would instead be seeking a job at a research university.
That was precisely the situation we had feared throughout the search and tried so hard to avoid.
His decision has been devastating to our department. While we had other excellent candidates earlier, it was too late to make any new offers or to request approval for another tenure-track search for this year. It had taken years of maneuvering to get permission to do a tenure-track search, and we don't know if or when we'll be permitted to do another.
I now better understand the suspicion with which I was viewed back when I applied for a position in the same department. At the time, I thought it bizarre how the search-committee members kept asking me if I really wanted to be at a liberal-arts college. Apparently, my strong research record and fancy Ph.D. raised red flags.
I later heard that another college had decided not to interview me because members of its search committee couldn't believe I was serious about their job, despite my cover letter mentioning that a family member of mine was one of their graduates and that their campus was located near my hometown. Their skittishness seemed absurd then but seems rational now.
Search comittees at liberal-arts colleges face a Catch-22: We have to hire someone who is a sufficiently dedicated researcher to get tenure but not so dedicated as to neglect teaching or want to leave for a research university (or industry).
As tempting, and as logical as it might initially seem, we cannot just hire an excellent teacher. As is the case at many colleges, our research requirements for earning tenure have been increasing, without any increase in resources or decrease in teaching load. A new faculty member without research momentum would not get tenure, assuming we were even permitted to hire that candidate.
Based on my experience as a job seeker and a committee member, I would like to offer advice to scientists interested in working at liberal-arts colleges about how to convince them you are serious:
If you have any connection to liberal-arts colleges, say so explicitly in your cover letter. I looked favorably toward applicants who called attention to their being graduates of liberal-arts colleges (even though I am not one).
Read the college's mission and research its history. If it's serving a minority-student population and you have worked with those students, make that connection explicit (regardless of your race). Ditto if the department is at a former or current women's college or religious institution. For example, when I applied to Spelman College, I mentioned an inspiring speech I had heard its then-president Johnetta Coles give on African-American women's education. I was invited to interview.
If you are applying to both liberal-arts colleges and research universities, have separate teaching and research statements, in which you describe specifically how your skills and interests fit with liberal-arts colleges. For example, mention not just your area of specialty but the breadth of courses you would be able to teach and how your research area is conducive to student projects. If you cannot honestly make that case, you should not be applying to a small college.
Have letters of recommendation specifically mentioning your interest in liberal-arts education. While I had core professors send letters to all of the institutions where I applied, I had other references just for teaching-oriented colleges. Later, as head of a search committee, while I did not hold it against applicants when their letters asserted they were highly qualified for a strong research university, it was a plus when letters mentioned a commitment to liberal-arts education.
Harried applicants may object that some of my suggestions require extra time and effort. That's not only right; that's the point.
Colleges judge your interest in them by how much time you spend customizing your letter. When I applied to the college that hired me, I listed which of their courses I would be able to teach using their own names and course numbers. That communicated not just my skills but my investment in the application.
Think of it as a courtship ritual. Ditto for communicating your interest during interviews. This is not a time to play hard to get.
Perhaps because it was so difficult to convince my search committee that I really wanted the job, I was inclined as a member of a search committee to trust candidates' statements and expressions of enthusiasm. After all, I'm glad every day that I didn't go to a research university. Here are some of the reasons why, which I believed then and now:
I find it more rewarding to teach and get to know a small group of students than I would to lecture hundreds of anonymous students. I have never had more than 20 students in a class and often fewer than 10. I get to know not only students' names but their strengths, weaknesses, background, and goals, especially when I have them in multiple classes. One student took four classes from me over the years, enabling me to watch her grow up intellectually. (Indeed, one of the hardest parts of my job is that students I know and care about are continually replaced by strangers.)
When I interviewed at research universities, I was told that teaching counted little, if at all, toward tenure, and thus as little time should be spent on it as possible. I didn't think that I (much less the students) would be happy if I did a poor job teaching.
I knew that external grants are expected of faculty members at research universities, while such grants are considered extraordinary at liberal-arts colleges. The same grant that made me a hero at my college would have been taken for granted at a research university. Even a $2,000 grant I received garnered a letter of congratulations and thanks from my college president.
I wanted to be at a college with enough female faculty members that taking maternity leave would be considered normal, not a sign of a lack of seriousness on my part as a scientist. My own adviser was denied tenure at my prestigious Ph.D. institution, in part because she had children and spent time with them.
In summary, I chose to work (and remain) at a liberal-arts college because I felt I would be rewarded for what I thought was important and in my power (such as teaching well, advising underrepresented students, and doing high-quality individual research) and not penalized if I failed to do things I considered less important or less under my control (such as receiving outside grants or performing high-quantity research, either individually or through students I supervised).
I've asked myself repeatedly what warning signals I missed from our erstwhile new hire but still have not found an answer.
During the search, he had repeatedly stated that ours was his dream position, and he was sure he wanted to teach at a liberal-arts college. One colleague of mine did say "I told you so" when the candidate changed his mind but that was just because of the candidate's strong research record and geographic constraints -- flaws that I, too, had possessed as a candidate. (That same colleague had also been suspicious of me, even for several years after I had accepted the position. I imagine myself retiring decades from now and her shaking a cane and saying, "I told you she wasn't going to stay!")
I asked the candidate why he changed his mind, and he wrote: "As you can probably imagine, my advisors and colleagues were all advising me against accepting a position at [your college]. I went against their collective verdict, since I believed that this was the right thing to do, this is the type of environment I have always wanted to teach in, and so on. As time progressed, it became increasingly clear that it is unlikely that I would be able to achieve the right balance between research and teaching, particularly on the research end." He added: "I will again apply for a tenure-track position in the fall and have until then to figure out what type of a working environment would best suit my seemingly conflicting views on exceptional teaching environment coupled with a research one."
For the sake of the department that next makes him an offer, I, too, hope he figures out what he wants.
Zelda Rifkin is the pseudonym of a science-department head at a liberal-arts college in the West.