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Author Topic: Applying to SLACs  (Read 109823 times)
msparticularity
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« on: January 08, 2012, 1:25:15 AM »

As Larryc has pointed out on another thread, we do not yet have a thread dedicated to the topic of how to craft an application to a SLAC. As he said, too, we were beginning some good discussion on that topic, so I have pasted in those comments--from lyndonparker and me--to start things off.


Remember that SLACs come in many flavors. While you might not be competitive for one that would be considered elite, your background could certainly make you a good fit for one that is less concerned about pedigree. The concerns you will need to address when you write letters to SLACs have to do with whether you understand their mission: do you have personal experience in a SLAC or other liberal arts setting? Does the way you approach your field demonstrate a liberal arts perspective? In what ways does your commitment to teaching align with the priorities of this particular institution?

You will have more homework to do for these institutions than you might for a state institution; you will need to spend time on the websites learning about the individual SLACs, their histories, and their commitments, so you can convincingly describe how you might contribute.


Absolutely. There are 10 or 15 SLACs that are truly elite, and these schools would be more difficult to get a t-t spot at than any but a handful of R1s. Then the next 35 or so SLACs that round out the top 20--these are also difficult positions to obtain but, depending on the quality of your doctoral program a possibility. Once you move to the next tier, say from about 30 to 80, you will find many very good to excellent schools that have tremendous faculty and students, but often also face issues (isolated locations, small endowments, etc.) that may prove drawbacks for some candidates. These types of SLACs all have expectations for research, and many have reduced course loads, leave policies, and other research funds that make this reasonable.

Once you get into the next tier, however, there is a great deal of variance. Some of these places are just about as good as the schools perceived to be at the next level, while others are workhouses with very mediocre students. Think about what you want in a position and what is important to you. For me, having great students and departmental colleagues were non-negotiables and I also wanted someplace with a very good reputation. I got that, so I'm very lucky. You will have to conduct a national search, though, or at least regional (with "regional" referring to areas such as "the Midwest" or "the South") to increase your chances.

I will add here that, while I am not currently at a SLAC, I offer my perspectives on the basis of two job searches that led to offers at SLACs--despite the fact that my graduate work and TT experience have been at RU/H institutions (R2s in the old system). While I had to turn the first offer down for logistical reasons, I am now very happy to announce that I will be moving to a SLAC in the mid-range of lyndonparker's "30 to 80" group this fall! It has really been a matter of the infamous "fit" for me: my undergraduate grounding was in the liberal arts (although at a state liberal arts school rather than a SLAC), and my approach to my field is informed by that background. In addition to my own letter describing my interest in the position, I had publications that made my perspectives quite clear, as well as letters of recommendation affirming both my liberal arts background and my teaching commitments.
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betterslac
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« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2012, 3:36:57 AM »

There was also related discussion on this thread:

http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,85017.0.html
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msparticularity
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« Reply #2 on: January 08, 2012, 4:09:56 AM »

Cool--maybe we can ask the mods to merge the threads. They do that on occasion.
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"Once admit that the sole verifiable or fruitful object of knowledge is the particular set of changes that generate the object of study...and no intelligible question can be asked about what, by assumption, lies outside." John Dewey

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mleok
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« Reply #3 on: January 08, 2012, 5:50:22 AM »

Absolutely. There are 10 or 15 SLACs that are truly elite, and these schools would be more difficult to get a t-t spot at than any but a handful of R1s. Then the next 35 or so SLACs that round out the top 20--these are also difficult positions to obtain but, depending on the quality of your doctoral program a possibility. Once you move to the next tier, say from about 30 to 80, you will find many very good to excellent schools that have tremendous faculty and students, but often also face issues (isolated locations, small endowments, etc.) that may prove drawbacks for some candidates. These types of SLACs all have expectations for research, and many have reduced course loads, leave policies, and other research funds that make this reasonable.

The numbers don't quite add up here. So, the top 10-15 SLACs are truly elite, but the next 35 SLACs would round it up to the top 50 (not 20), and presumably, the next tier is from 50 to 80? The typo could be any number of places, and the advice seems to be hinge rather critically on being precise here.
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theblondeassassin
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« Reply #4 on: January 08, 2012, 6:06:19 AM »

Absolutely. There are 10 or 15 SLACs that are truly elite, and these schools would be more difficult to get a t-t spot at than any but a handful of R1s. Then the next 35 or so SLACs that round out the top 20--these are also difficult positions to obtain but, depending on the quality of your doctoral program a possibility. Once you move to the next tier, say from about 30 to 80, you will find many very good to excellent schools that have tremendous faculty and students, but often also face issues (isolated locations, small endowments, etc.) that may prove drawbacks for some candidates. These types of SLACs all have expectations for research, and many have reduced course loads, leave policies, and other research funds that make this reasonable.

The numbers don't quite add up here. So, the top 10-15 SLACs are truly elite, but the next 35 SLACs would round it up to the top 50 (not 20), and presumably, the next tier is from 50 to 80? The typo could be any number of places, and the advice seems to be hinge rather critically on being precise here.

Presumably lyndonparker can count up to 100 just fine but is making the point that most people agree who the top 10 SLACs are; there are more than 10 candidates who might be listed in the top 20 of SLACs but there is not general agreement who they are; and then there is everyone else.

Another common example would be that people (and rankings lists) mostly agree on the top 10 universities in the world, or top 10 business schools, but when you get to the next 10, there is greater disagreement with a variety of candidates, etc. Eventually you get to the candidates that everyone agrees are at the bottom. 
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lyndonparker
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« Reply #5 on: January 08, 2012, 9:09:09 AM »

Absolutely. There are 10 or 15 SLACs that are truly elite, and these schools would be more difficult to get a t-t spot at than any but a handful of R1s. Then the next 35 or so SLACs that round out the top 20--these are also difficult positions to obtain but, depending on the quality of your doctoral program a possibility. Once you move to the next tier, say from about 30 to 80, you will find many very good to excellent schools that have tremendous faculty and students, but often also face issues (isolated locations, small endowments, etc.) that may prove drawbacks for some candidates. These types of SLACs all have expectations for research, and many have reduced course loads, leave policies, and other research funds that make this reasonable.

The numbers don't quite add up here. So, the top 10-15 SLACs are truly elite, but the next 35 SLACs would round it up to the top 50 (not 20), and presumably, the next tier is from 50 to 80? The typo could be any number of places, and the advice seems to be hinge rather critically on being precise here.

My tongue in cheek suggestion is that there are anywhere from 30 to 50 SLACs I have heard referred to as "top 20." Many of us with SLAC backgrounds have that now nearly extinct quality, a sense of humor.

Perhaps I should simply say that rankings of SLACs, such as those in US News & World Report, are highly suspect (see, e.g., Reed College being ranked 57th by US News). There will also be discussion regarding precisely what the definition of a "SLAC" is--does the "S" refer to "selective" or "small?" A discussion that is further confounded by the trend of medium-sized public universities to claim they are their state's "liberal arts college."

A discussion of terms might be helpful, especially for the uninitiated.
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tortugaphd
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« Reply #6 on: January 08, 2012, 12:37:51 PM »

For job-search purposes, it may be more useful to focus on what the teaching load of a SLAC is rather than where the SLAC sits on any given rankings list.

SLAC's with teaching loads of 2-2 often require a book (in "book" fields) for tenure while SLAC's with 4-4 loads require very little research, if any.

The SLAC I taught at had a 2-3 load, and most people did not have a book out at the time of tenure but some had one under contract.
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scampster
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« Reply #7 on: January 08, 2012, 12:45:49 PM »

I am now very happy to announce that I will be moving to a SLAC in the mid-range of lyndonparker's "30 to 80" group this fall!

I'm not a SLAC person, but I just wanted congratulate MsP on her new job! They are lucky to steal you away!
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jknagle
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« Reply #8 on: January 08, 2012, 1:04:27 PM »

I agree with mostly everything that has been written here so far.

I'm in a tenure-track position at a decent SLAC in the Midwest, in that 50-80 range of schools. My teaching load is 3/2. Here's what I think helped me to get an interview.

  • Show a clear understanding of the mission of the college to which you are applying.
  • Describe any previous experience with the liberal arts college environment.
  • Have a referee who can comment on your commitment to teaching and advising. Make sure this referee has observed your teaching and can say something positive about it.
  • Describe any activities and/or experiences with mentoring, advising, and working with undergraduates outside of the classroom. Mention any kind of work related to undergraduate programs.
  • Discuss your research, of course, but point out how you might be able to involve undergraduates or how you might be able to bring your research into the classroom.
  • Create a teaching portfolio (with syllabi, assignments, graded essays, evaluations, and so on) and write a good teaching philosophy as part of your dossier.

We can talk about the campus interview at some point in this thread too. The teaching demo as well as conversations with the faculty are the most important parts of the interview process for schools in that 40-80+ range. One part speaks to teaching and the other to collegiality. (I imagine the teaching demo is important at most liberal arts colleges, but at elite SLACs, the job talk has to be stellar too.)

For SLACs in the 50-80 range, I think it is paramount that you have a strong response to the following question: "How do you deal with students with various skill and preparation levels in a small class?" This question is important for the application process as well as your own teaching. I was never asked this question at an interview, and I didn't really have an answer, but I had to find an answer quickly during my first semester when faced with this reality. Arguably the variation in skill and preparation among students is one of the real drawbacks of teaching at my SLAC, which is considered selective, but is not really. [I'd be happy to have a discussion about this too since it's still a struggle for me in the classroom.]

Also, congratulations to msparticularity on your new position!
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lyndonparker
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« Reply #9 on: January 08, 2012, 1:10:06 PM »

Congratulations, Ms_P, on crossing over from the dark side. I think that successfully searching for a t-t job at a SLAC, and then being successful once one gets a position, depends upon a candidate's understanding the culture at SLACs generally and at the place you are targeting specifically.

Understanding SLACs, however, is apparently more difficult for some than others. I always feel we are much like Montessori schools in that regard—you “get it” or you don’t. SLACS are much more common in some parts of the country than others (the Midwest has many, the West has few), so it is also important to consider regional differences between institutions. As Ms_P noted above, SLACs come in many flavors and it is vital to understand that one person’s experiences may vary from those of another.

I grew up as a child three blocks from a SLAC, went to another SLAC, and teach at a SLAC, all located in flyover country. From my experience, there is a circuit of like-minded fans of SLACs across the country. Many of us end up working at this type of a school because we love it. I personally feel a good SLAC offers a certain type of student the best undergraduate experience going in the US.

I think the first thing to decide is whether one wants to work at a SLAC. Do you get it? Do you understand the culture of the SLAC to which you are applying? I think it’s key to believe that just because a SLAC is “small” doesn’t mean it is insignificant. The demands for working at a SLAC often surpass those at many R1s. We are student-centered places, and thus spend much more time on campus than peers at other schools. Students drop into our offices wanting to talk about classes, life, relationship problems, and the like. The kids will also invite us to their plays, concerts, games, and other activities. You reap the benefits if you attend. You will also spend a lot of time advising clubs, fraternities, student research initiatives, and the like. Does this sound like you? Would you enjoy this? We can’t tell you precisely who will approach you, because this is all very organic. But the students will ask.

Next think about teaching. I work at a very good SLAC that draws students from all 50 states and internationally. We have about 1,250 students. What this means is that our largest department has about a dozen members, and most have 4, 5, or 6 members. Some have 3 and a couple only 2. That means you need to be prepared to teach almost EVERYTHING to our students. If you are an American historian, that means you need to be prepared to teach colonial history, modern US history, a methods class, survey classes, the whole shebang. And enjoy it. It is also important that, if you are a sociologist, you understand how English, philosophy, psychology, and economics relate to your field. Does this sound exciting to you? Appalling? It will show through in your interview, so thinking about how you will relate information to perfectly nice, bright 18 to 22 year olds is something that is important.

With regard to research, we have some support, but it is relatively minor compared to many bigger places (maybe $5,000 per year). How will you scale your projects to a place like this? Can you include undergraduates? The dean will love to hear about that last one. Can you work independently or collaborate with people from outside your field? If you come here, you will never be the president of the MLA, AHA, AERA, or APA. But you can publish a lot and have a great reputation in your field. Plus, you will be a star here. The research expectations at many SLACs has increased greatly over the past two decades. You need to publish to get tenure. And we won’t hire you if we don’t think you can get tenure.

Some people fit in here. Some don’t. If you show us you are a nice, fun, hard-working person, that will go a long way. At the better places (and I would include most of the top 100 in this), your pedigree will matter. We are asking parents to not gasp at our sticker price of $50,000 (and this is offset by generous financial aid) by emphasizing that their children will be studying with faculty holding terminal degrees from the best schools in the land. Our former president made quite a point of emphasizing, “You will not be taught by TAs or adjuncts.” This doesn’t mean one has to have a degree from an Ivy, but I think all of my colleagues attended an AAU school. It matters, at least here.

Look at our web page. The College spends a lot of money on it, and most of our initiatives and signature programs are mentioned. Explain how you would fit in with and support these. I suggest spending at least an hour (but probably not much more than that) tailoring your cover letter to reflect the personality and mission of a particular SLAC. If you have some connection with SLACs, mention that, but always emphasize your desire to teach undergraduates.

Others will have more to say.
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ruralguy
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« Reply #10 on: January 08, 2012, 3:19:57 PM »

From a bunch of previous posts, I gather I am at a somewhat less selective institution than Lyndonparker, but it probably doesn't matter as much as you might think. At least not so much in terms of mindset of the candidate. Thats is, whether applying to Lyndonparker's or mine, you'd more or less have to have the same mindset (perhaps somewhat different accomplishments...but even so, the candidate mindset would be about the same).

I'll emphasize:

-being willing to be flexible with how much time you need to or want to spend with students
-being very attentive to teaching: making sure lessons are clear and complete, tweeking level of difficulty, being flexible, etc.
- getting adequate teaching experience before coming here (both to see if you like it, and then just getting experience doing it)

-mentoring students in research

-being willing to have a cheap but doable research program

-getting along with, and trying to care about, all of your college colleagues
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2clueless
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« Reply #11 on: January 08, 2012, 3:46:13 PM »

I am not sure if this belongs in a separate thread, but I was wondering if anyone has suggestions for grad students interested in positioning oneself for a SLAC. How does one obtain experience teaching at a SLAC prior to going on the market?
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ruralguy
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« Reply #12 on: January 08, 2012, 5:20:16 PM »

Teach (and I mean being in charge of the class, not TA).

Also, if you can position yourself to be in charge of an undergrad research group, that would be a plus.

Also, cultivate a good attitude in working with others, and VISIT some SLACs!
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systeme_d_
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« Reply #13 on: January 08, 2012, 6:00:43 PM »

I am not sure if this belongs in a separate thread, but I was wondering if anyone has suggestions for grad students interested in positioning oneself for a SLAC. How does one obtain experience teaching at a SLAC prior to going on the market?

When I was a grad student, I adjuncted at 2 SLACs and a CC.  Also, when I was near finishing, I was offered a dissertation fellowship at a SLAC, and my choice to accept the award was based just as much on my interest in getting a job at a SLAC afterwards as it was based on the desire to finish my dissertation.

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lyndonparker
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« Reply #14 on: January 08, 2012, 6:09:06 PM »

At my very good SLAC, having completed a VAP at a peer institution looks very good on a CV and will move your application closer to the top. Experience teaching introductory classes (French 101, PSYCH 101, etc.) is also very helpful.
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Lyndon always has such a nice succinct way of putting things.
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