The PUI Job Search – an Overview

Welcome back! This spring semester we will be considering (among other things!) the process of searching for a “Teaching and Research” academic position at a PUI. To kick us off with an overview of the process is guest-blogger Dr. Kenneth Mills from College of the Holy Cross. 


Congratulations! You have decided to apply for a science faculty position at a liberal arts college.

you will need to discern what mix of teaching and scholarship would be the most satisfying for your career.

The hiring season starts early, with many advertisements posting in August. Check resources like the Chronicle of Higher Education, C&E News (for chemists) and HigherEdjobs. Before beginning, you will need to discern what mix of teaching and scholarship would be the most satisfying for your career. It is reasonable to apply to a variety of schools and use the application process to learn more about your preferences, but you will want to tailor your applications to individual schools. As you narrow down your choices, be certain that the expectations for research productivity are reasonably matched to the resources offered, both in terms of time and of funding.

Read the instructions

procedure-20clipart-clipart-panda-free-clipart-images-jksptu-clipartIt is important to follow the requirements for the application. Many schools will ask for a cover letter, research plan, teaching philosophy, statement on diversity, letters of reference, C.V., and transcripts. Be sure to meet the deadline, which may note that “applications will begin to be considered on date X.” Also, ensure that your recommenders have time to submit their letters. The search committee will have many applications to review – don’t make yours late. It’s an easy reason to discard it.

Parts of the Application

Research plan

A good application gives a sense of the program you plan to build: what interests you, why it is relevant, and how it can carry your research group forward.

For the research plan, it should be clear that you have a sense of the appropriate scope of research. You can learn by looking at the research websites of other faculty members in the department or by reviewing their published work. A good application gives a sense of the program you plan to build: what interests you, why it is relevant, and how it can carry your research group forward. The application also should give a sense of projects: what would students do in your lab and what are your first few 20090430_x-ray_diffract_049-optpublishable projects? For a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), it is important to consider how undergraduates could be involved. The best research proposals could be submitted almost as-is to a funding agency for a starter grant proposal. If your work resembles that from your graduate or post-doctoral lab, it is good to acknowledge that and note how you will be independent. (It doesn’t hurt for your advisor to note that in their letter too.)

Start-Up Costs

gty_stock_cash_pile_money_dollar_bills-thg-130726_33x16_1600The department may ask for an estimate of start-up needs. Different schools have different resources. Ultimately, you need to be supported by your new PUI institution such that your research program can produce publishable results and grant proposals without outside funding; you don’t have long to get your work started, and while you can control applying for outside funds, you can’t control getting your proposals funded. If a school can’t support you to that degree, either your research isn’t a good fit for that type of school, or that school isn’t a good fit for you. If you are unsure what the range of support could be, don’t be reluctant to just ask. Alternatively, you could reach out to recently hired faculty (or their department chairs) at peer schools, particularly nearby schools where you could meet for an informational interview. Most PUI faculty love to talk with future colleagues and will be happy to give advice.

If a school can’t support you to that degree, either your research isn’t a good fit for that type of school, or that school isn’t a good fit for you.

Teaching philosophy

Many teaching philosophies are generic and unmemorable. The key is to be specific. If you have any teaching experience, be sure to note what you’ve learned from it. If you are unaware of current trends in active pedagogy, this is a chance to do some reading and learn! If your prospective department is well known for a particular style of pedagogy, you should be aware of that. It is good to address your teaching interests and qualifications. If you seem to be an organic chemist, and the teaching position is for general chemistry, either you are applying for the wrong job or you need to describe why you would enjoy being an excellent general chemistry professor. The best statements include specifics about how you fit into the department and how your teaching repertoire and elective courses could complement those offered by the faculty. You also should address your commitment to fostering diversity in STEM. Ideally you have concrete examples of what you have done so far, and/or what you plan to do to broaden participation in STEM in your career.

If you seem to be an organic chemist, and the teaching position is for general chemistry, either you are applying for the wrong job or you need to describe why you would enjoy being an excellent general chemistry professor.

Letters of Recommendation

For letters of recommendation, give your recommenders a sense of why you are applying to a PUI. Hopefully your recommenders have a good sense of life at a PUI and the value of both research and teaching and can calibrate their recommendations accordingly. If you don’t have a letter from your PhD and post-doctoral advisors, committees are likely to wonder why.

Cover Letter

For the cover letter, you have an opportunity to tell us a little about yourself. If there is a reason that our school really matters to you, you should tell us. If you are from California, went to school at every level in California, and are applying to a school in New England, we still will strongly consider you if you are a top candidate, but we’d feel better about it if you say why our school in particular is attractive to you.

Interviewing

Skype or phone interviews

Treat your Skype interview like an in-person interview. Dress well, have a nice, simple background, make sure your computer works

Many schools will pre-screen via Skype or at meetings. Be ready to have brief statements about your research and teaching interests. It is best to have short, digestible answers (the “elevator talk”) and let your interviewers follow up with questions to facilitate a conversation. If you can’t be enthusiastic about your own candidacy, no one else will be either! Treat your Skype interview like an in-person interview. Dress well, have a nice, simple background, make sure your computer works and that you have a quiet, private place reserved.

On Campus Interviews

Once you get your interview, you may have a very full schedule. (Although it should be fun!) If a potential colleague is picking you up at the airport, remember that the informal part of the interview starts as you leave the plane. Every interaction is part of the process, and every person you interact with is equally worthy of your respect and goodwill.

The campus talk

We ask candidates to give a job talk; some departments also require a sample teaching lesson. At a PUI, the job talk is a chance for us to learn about your scholarship, but also your teaching. If you lose the students immediately (and probably faculty members outside of your field too), it doesn’t reflect well on your communication skills. You should ask the chair about the audience, and spend time at the end of the talk giving an overview of what you plan to do as an independent scholar. (Some PUI’s will do a separate chalk talk to discuss your research proposal; some will not.) If you are asked to do a teaching demonstration, it might be a set topic so that all candidates are giving the same lesson, or might actually be a day in a particular class. In either case, it will be awkward with the faculty there; that just is what it is. Do your best to teach in the style you would use in a class, including remembering that it is just one class…don’t try to fit too much in. In an actual class, there is always tomorrow. For both talks, practice! Practice with your labmates, practice with your roommates, practice in an actual classroom, practice for timing. It is reasonable to ask the chair when you arrive to see the room where you will give your lecture; make sure you know how the boards and audio-visuals work (it’s not always obvious!) and that you have the right adapter for your laptop.

Do your best to teach in the style you would use in a class, including remembering that it is just one class…don’t try to fit too much in.

Meeting with Faculty

You will meet with many faculty members, some of whom may ask you the same questions. This is the first time they asked it, so treat it as though it were the first time you were asked, with enthusiasm. That said, learn from people’s responses to your questions; it is possible you are being asked the same question over again because someone was concerned about your answer the previous day. Be prepared to be invited to ask a question; it is good to have one ready. Ideally have questions that are not easily answered by the website and are not about compensation. For example, you might ask how the faculty member set up their lab or handles the balance of teaching and research. If you ask multiple people those types of questions, you learn something new each time.

Meeting with students

Learn from the time you spend with students; if they aren’t on your schedule, you might want to ask to meet some! They may not get a vote, but we do listen to them and strongly consider their opinions. You will meet with deans as well. The dean will have read your materials, but may not be an expert in your field. If the college has sent you something to read about the school, such as the mission statement, the dean might want your thoughts on it. You may also meet with faculty for meals; these opportunities are less formal, but still part of the interview. Faculty members should be well trained not to ask inappropriate questions. You aren’t just choosing a school, you also are choosing a place to live, so you might want to learn something about it while you are visiting.

Negotiating

As you leave, feel free to ask questions you have about the interview. You may want to give the chair a sense of your time frame. If you are a good candidate, we know you will have other interviews and other offers. The best result is that both you and the school make a good match, so honesty about time frame usually is the best policy. If you don’t hear right away, that isn’t necessarily a problem. Even if you are the “second choice,” you are still the choice!

When you negotiate an offer, some things are negotiable, and some things aren’t, which varies from school to school. Again, it pays to be respectful and to try and find the best match you can.

As stressful as this is for you, it is stressful for the hiring department too. It is likely that tenure track lines don’t come available very often, so we are probably as nervous about the process as you are. There are many good applicants for most jobs, and it is hard to know why you get an interview at one place and not at another. PUI’s intend to hire for tenure; we want to find someone who we can support for a long successful career, who will bring new ideas and perspectives to the department, and will be a good colleague. Good luck in your search!


~Dr. Kenneth Mills is a a Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of the Faculty at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA where he studies protein splicing and the enzymology of extreme thermophiles with undergraduates. 

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