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Getting hired at a liberal arts college


Because I am a faculty member at a small liberal arts college—specifically, Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts—I was surprised to get an invitation to give a presentation at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Farm Research Campus in Ashburn, Virginia, an elite, prestigious research institution where no formal classroom teaching occurs. I was invited to talk alongside more senior liberal arts faculty about life at a liberal arts science department and how to get hired at an institution like mine. Apparently, some early-career scientists at Janelia Farm are interested in work beyond science’s most prestigious (and research-focused) institutions. During my visit, many people expressed curiosity about jobs where the focus falls squarely on educating undergraduates, and where research is performed in a very different environment than they’re used to.

Many of the Janelia Farm scientists who joined us for a roundtable discussion probably were surprised to learn that their training isn’t unsuitable for jobs like mine. Search committees at institutions like mine are quite interested in candidates with high-powered research programs—as long as they make the case that they can translate that research to an undergraduate environment. In fact, high-quality research is being done at small liberal arts colleges, and the importance of undergraduate research experiences in preparing future scientists is widely recognized.

Search committees at institutions like mine are quite interested in candidates with high-powered research programs—as long as they make the case that they can translate that research to an undergraduate environment.

Here’s some of what I said at Janelia Farm about getting hired at a liberal arts college (LAC). Much of the advice should apply to those seeking jobs at other types of undergraduate-serving institutions as well.

Know the job you’re applying to, and don’t apply for a job that you don’t want.

Succeeding at an LAC means balancing teaching and research, and different LACs weigh teaching and research differently. Some value research opportunities for students more than others, and if you are most comfortable doing envelope-pushing research with the best gadgets and resources, then you may not be comfortable with the limitations inherent to LACs.

That’s not to say that you can’t do thoughtful, creative, and potentially important research at an LAC; you can. Just be sure to recalibrate your expectations and look at the situation with clear eyes. Working closely with undergraduates requires significant patience, both as a teacher and a research mentor. If you have difficulties with this, or if you don’t enjoy and value small victories, then you probably will have a hard time adjusting to the speed and scale of research and rewards at an LAC.

So try to answer these questions honestly: Do you enjoy teaching? Do you like designing courses? Do you enjoy doing experiments yourself? Do you enjoy it enough that you’re willing to do it without graduate students and postdocs? Do you value mentoring the next generation of scientists at a formative stage of their development?

If you’re unsure about your answers, you should sort that all out before you apply. If your application or interview betrays ambivalence or naiveté—if it seems you don’t know what you’re getting into—you probably won’t get an offer, no matter how impressive your research credentials are.

Tailor your application to the job.

If the committee members can’t see why you’re a good fit for the job—for that particular position—they won’t hire you; it’s as simple as that. So make your application a specific response to the job posting.

Do your homework. Study the departmental ecosystem. Figure out who works there. Look at the department’s website and get a sense for what research is being done. Read some of the faculty members’ papers, focusing on those most relevant to what you plan to do there. Notice what classes they teach—or don’t teach; are there holes you can fill? Generally, consider how you would fit in with that department.

The cover letter you write for a research-focused university or a research institute will not get you a job at an LAC. You have to show the hiring committee that you know what the job entails and that you are committed to teaching and doing research in that environment. LAC hiring committees like to see that the candidate has some knowledge of the LAC life and is prepared for the specific challenges associated with such a job, so highlight any relevant experience.

While a focus on teaching is the characteristic that sets an LAC apart from other institutions, don’t assume the committee wants to see a lopsided treatise on your excellence as a teacher. People get better as teachers, and many committees are not expecting excellence straight out of the gate; they just want to see plenty of potential. You need to make an equally compelling case for the research program you would bring. The hiring committee wants to see that you can hit the ground running with a smart, attractive research program that appeals to undergraduate students and can thrive with them as a driving force.

Tim Lebestky

Tim Lebestky

Courtesy of Tim Lebestky

In your research statement, highlight your past accomplishments and your current research interests. Present a concise vision of your specific goals for your future lab. Show that you have good ideas that you are capable of executing—at that institution, with their students.  Describe the work undergraduates would perform in your lab and how your expectations would vary with the level of experience of the student: Undergraduate students range from absolute beginners to sophisticated, smart, independent researchers with good lab skills. You need to have a plan to keep all of them busy, doing meaningful work in the lab.

Be prepared for phone interviews.

Small colleges have limited recruitment budgets, so often a shortlist of candidates is interviewed over the phone or through video-conferencing to narrow the pool before in-person invitations are issued. All interviews are hard, but phone or video interviews pose additional, technical challenges. If you can’t hear a question clearly, ask the committee to repeat it. Don’t be shy about it; you can’t give good answers, if you don’t understand the questions. A good headset can reduce echoes, but if you’re doing a video interview, avoid using a headset that covers up your face. If there’s latency—a significant delay over the line—practice and get used to it.

Be ready to describe why you want this particular job, and to speak clearly about your research program. If you feel like your application or candidacy has particular flaws or soft spots, be prepared to address them. There’s no need to be defensive. There’s no such thing as a perfect candidate, and if they’re talking to you, they’re already impressed.

Ace the job talk.

The job talk is what will make or break your campus visit, so be sure that you’ve rehearsed it and know the timing and transitions precisely. Practice—a lot. You absolutely need to run through this talk several times, ideally with your mentor at least once—and with a handful of trusted colleagues, preferably from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. Don’t dismiss criticism from people outside your field if they say an explanation was unclear or that “you kind of lost me when … .” In small departments like the ones you’ll find at an LAC, most of the people you’ll be talking to—including the members of the hiring committee—will bring similar nonspecialist perspectives. So, if those generalist critics point to flaws, fix them.

Structure the context, background, and analysis in your talk in a way that invites your audience in—not just the faculty in attendance but also (and especially) the undergraduate students you’ll be working with. This does NOT mean that you should “dumb-down” your talk. The hiring committee will be on the lookout for precisely that attitude, not only during your talk but also during individual meetings and chats. After all, if you assume the students are not capable of comprehending your work in a deep and interesting way, why would the department hire you to mentor those students on their journey to become scientists themselves? And why would those students want to work with you?

Banish negativity.

To be effective at institutions like mine, it’s not enough to be a good researcher and a competent teacher. You also need to be able to capture students’ imaginations, harness their energies, and inspire them. Consequently, visible anxiety and self-doubt can be especially harmful to your chances of getting hired. So do your best to banish them. Do whatever you can to ease your negativity and show up to the interview full of enthusiasm. Engage with friends, family, pets, exercise, yoga, meditation, video games—whatever helps to relieve stress. Focus on the positives, focus on your science and the students, have fun, and let the committee see you at your best.

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