Saturday, August 15, 2009

Preparing graduate students for jobs at small departments

My first year on the job market, I was very close to getting a campus visit at a small (2-person) philosophy department at a good liberal arts school in the midwest. I wasn't invited to campus, and the department chair told me that the reason was that I did not have any experience at a small college: I didn't attend a small college as an undergraduate and, clearly, as a graduate student I was at a large university. It being my first year on the job market, I had no experience teaching at such colleges. I can't remember his exact words, but his point was that working in a small college, as a member of a small department, requires an understanding of the nature of small colleges and since I didn't have that, I wasn't going to be invited to campus.

At the time, I thought this the height of injustice, but now, having worked at a small college for 10 years, I can see that he was right. The demands of working at a small college require a certain set of skills, and, unless a job candidate has small college experience, it can be difficult to tell if he or she has those skills.

All of this leads me to ask what steps, if any, are graduate departments taking to prepare their students for jobs at small colleges? What suggestions do faculty who teach at small colleges have for our colleagues in Ph.D. programs? What would you like to see in potential job candidates? What do job candidates think about their preparation for jobs at small colleges? Do you feel well-prepared for such jobs? What could be done to make you more prepared?

I can offer one suggestions--perhaps readers will have others. For the last few years I have been helping out the big university down the road from mine by mock interviewing their students as they enter the job market. Very few, if any, of the faculty there have experience at a small college, so while they conduct mock interviews from the perspective of a research university, they are unable to accurately simulate what an interview with a college like mine would be like. So I come in and mock interview the students. This has been, from the reports of both faculty and students, incredibly helpful. Are others doing anything like this?


  1. Well, the issue is not whether the candidate has that set of skills (just out of graduate school) but whether they can develop them. Not magically, but through on-the-job training. I agree with you that there is nothing at all unfair about considering whether someone will work well in that particular workplace, but it is idiotic (though, I admit, common among academics) to think that someone should already have the skills needed.

  2. I think I would like teaching at a small college some day. But this post makes me think that that's impossible. I've only been at big research institutions, both in my studies and in my jobs -- I currently am a postdoc at a big research university. What does one do so that a search committee thinks you might be a good fit at a small college?

  3. That's a great question, anon. Here are a few ramblings of mine. Take them as you will.

    One of the things we look for on search committees at my institution is attitude. If you've been given an interview, then your skills aren't in question. What we want to know is whether you are here to simply impress us with your accomplishments, or are you here honestly to help our department become better? Are you going to bail when you find out that faculty development funds are on hold, and you can't go to more than one conference a year (and only if you are presenting)? In other words, we want to know where your heart is. At my institution it is terribly difficult to get a search approved, and committees really want to hit the mark. We'd like to have some indication that the candidate is in it for the long haul, and would be happy working in the classroom primarily. That's a hard one to feel out, and we get it wrong sometimes, but it's top on our list.

    Some other issues to consider: Do you want to develop new classes (possibly even outside your AOS/AOC)? Are you a hospitable person, really? We want to know if we can work with you or not. Most likely your AOS will be completely unique in the department, so no one will be able to "shop talk" with you. We do, however, want to know if you can step outside your comfort zone and be a team player. We know you hate teaching practical thinking, but well, it needs to be rotated every now and then, etc.

  4. I would echo these "ramblings". We look for the same qualities in potential hires at our department. One has to impress a search committee with one's desire to put the well-being of one's students ahead of one's desire to make a big splash in the scholarly world. It's not that scholarship is actively discouraged (though I have heard tell of that sort of thing at other departments) but rather that stepping up to serve the department and its students--whether that involves teaching a course outside one's area, spending time mentoring students, engaging in committee work, etc.--is what needs to be one's priority.