Landing a job at a PUI – Part 1

In this post, Dr. Alex Norquist uses his own experience at a PUI to speak to graduate students and post-docs looking for that academic job at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution.  His candid advice is a worthwhile read for anyone entering the job market this year. 


As you begin your job search, or are just planning for some future search, it is likely a worthwhile exercise to try to determine in what type of PUI you would be most interested. There is a great deal of diversity between schools, with money dictating most of the differences. Essentially, there is a continuum of school environments, with some schools stressing undergraduate research (with real research expectations for tenure and promotion) and others which are almost solely focused on teaching (with little or no expectation of research productivity in tenure decisions).

The best way to understand where a school falls on the teaching – research scale is to do a quick lit search on the faculty.

My personal experience is rooted in a PUI environment that stresses research productivity, so my advice will come from that perspective. My advice will be divided into a few sections; what to do before you apply, (and next week…) the actual application, and after you apply.

What to do before you apply.

The most important criteria for a specific position depends on the type of school. Teaching heavy schools are more interested in people with more teaching experience, while more research focused schools want to see research productivity. I don’t know where your interests fall on the teaching – research continuum, so my advice will favor a school like Haverford. Teach a bit as a grad student. Extra stuff like ‘super TA’ stuff or the ‘preparing future faculty’ programs are nice and you might think about them as your time allows. However, your graduate career is almost exclusively evaluated on your research productivity so be productive and publish.

When you’re at a PUI, there won’t be anyone to read your papers before you submit them …You need to be able to get a paper ready to submit all on your own …It is really on you.

For a research-focused school, a post doc is essentially required. People want to see that you’ve been successful and productive in a couple different labs or environments. If you are interested in a job at a research-type PUI, I would recommend a post doc that is all about research, at the best school / lab you can find. There is a (usually) unspoken feeling that one can learn to teach at a school full of educators. However, learning to be an independent researcher is not really something you’ll learn at a college. You need to develop these skills before you apply. There are a few ways to do this. First, try to be as independent as possible (without annoying your boss). My post doc advisor was hands-off, and he let me be proactive in guiding some of the grad students and undergrads. This was great practice for what I’m doing now.

Second, write your own papers and don’t rely on your advisor to get them into shape (this takes a bit of time). When you’re at a PUI, there won’t be anyone to read your papers before you submit them other than your students. The other chemists will all have very different research interests, so they will be of limited use. You need to be able to get a paper ready to submit all on your own by the time you take the job. It is really on you. Also, understanding the components of a proposal is important. Your colleagues will be much more useful for this, as an organic chemist’s proposal won’t be too different in structure for your own.Second, write your own papers and don’t rely on your advisor to get them into shape (this takes a bit of time). When you’re at a PUI, there won’t be anyone to read your papers before you submit them other than your students. The other chemists will all have very different research interests, so they will be of limited use. You need to be able to get a paper ready to submit all on your own by the time you take the job. It is really on you. Also, understanding the components of a proposal is important. Your colleagues will be much more useful for this, as an organic chemist’s proposal won’t be too different in structure for your own.

Teaching post docs are less common than they used to be. A post doc that is completely focused on teaching will serve you well in a teaching-focused school, but it will not serve you well in a research-type school. A post doc in which you teach one course (or something similar) can be good, don’t discount such possibilities.

One-year visiting positions are something to cautiously consider. These positions are usually sabbatical replacements, where a regular member of the faculty is not teaching and someone is hired to take over the courses for a fixed term. These positions almost never turn into tenure track jobs; but they can help you get teaching experience (if you need it) and get your undergraduate research program “off the ground”. If you consider this route, aim for a one-year visiting position at a school that is more highly ranked than your eventual “ideal job”.  But proceed with caution. Visiting positions can be a slippery slope. If you do too many (i.e. two), you may find it more difficult to get a tenure-track job.

The Ad

The ad season really begins in mid to late August and can continue into January. When ads appear, you might have only a few weeks or a month to get your package in, so it is important that you prepare everything the summer before you start applying. Be prepared.

The best place to find ads is C&E News; essentially all ads will be here. Other places include Science, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside HigherEd and other specialty journals (for specific subdisciplines). PUIs hire for curricular needs, not because they have extra lab space.

Jobs are usually posted as looking for a certain type of chemistry – for example, an Inorganic chemist or a Physical Chemist. In order to be competitive, you need to appear to be the type of chemist they need. Inorganic chemists usually teach General chemistry, not Organic (unless you are an organometallic chemist…then, maybe…) and a range of upper lever courses including junior/senior level Inorganic. Physical chemists also teach General Chemistry, with other responsibilities in junior P Chem (I and II) and advanced courses. Organic (synthetic, physical or medicinal) chemists and biochemists teach sophomore level organic, biochemistry and sometimes advanced electives. Analytical chemists are most often teaching General chemistry, junior level A Chem (I and II) and other advanced courses as time and space allow.

The ad may not be very clear or specific on their expectations for research. The best way to understand where a school falls on the teaching – research scale is to do a quick lit search on the faculty. If they are all publishing, you will also need to publish to keep your job. If only the younger faculty are publishing, the school likely also has research expectations. If no one (or very few) publishes, then teaching will be far more important. Note, publications in J. Chem. Ed. or Chem. Educator are sometimes different from ‘research’ and do not usually indicate research expectations – pedagogy research can be considered differently than disciplinary work.

Next week…We’ll continue with thoughts on the application package and what to do after you’ve applied. 


Dr. Alex Norquist is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Haverford College where his research with undergraduates investigates organically templated inorganic materials.

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