Hunting for jobs at liberal arts colleges

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<ul><li><p>38 November 2006 Physics Today 2006 American Institute of Physics, S-0031-9228-0611-010-8</p><p>As of about a year ago, 764 distinct college-level physicsdepartments existed in the US. Of those, a whopping 513 areat institutions whose highest degree offered is a bachelors.1The vast majority of the schools are liberal arts collegesbywhich we mean institutions that focus primarily on under-graduate education, rather than on graduate education andresearch; this category includes some of the smaller state uni-versities and a few colleges with small graduate programs.Liberal arts colleges represent a significant job market, onethat many PhD-level physicists aspire to join.</p><p>But how does one go about getting a job in physics in aliberal arts college? Whether you are a graduate student, apostdoc, or a working physicist looking for a change, youroptions for getting advice on this topic are probably limited.However good your PhD or postdoctoral mentor may be atresearch, the odds are that he or she knows relatively littleabout the small-college environment. Faculty positions atliberal arts institutions include a much more significant com-ponent of teaching and working with students than do sim-ilar jobs in research universities. Even so, increasing num-bers of liberal arts colleges expect the physics faculty to</p><p>conduct serious research, which usually includes substantialinvolvement of undergraduates. Thus, those positions offerdifferent rewards and challenges from faculty jobs at re-search universities. Your approach to applying for such po-sitions should reflect those differences.</p><p>We are college professors with many years of experiencein evaluating job applications and conducting interviews. Weare dismayed by the number of candidates whose excellencegets masked by inappropriate application materials and poorpreparation for interviews. This article provides our guide-lines for effective job-hunting techniques. Following this ad-vice will not ensure that you will land the ideal job, but itmight make your qualities and unique attributes more evi-dent to those doing the hiring.</p><p>We make suggestions about how to develop your appli-cation materials, prepare for an interview, and make a wisedecision if you are offered a job. If youre not yet in the jobmarket, we give some tips on how to prepare for a future jobsearch (see box 1).</p><p>Before all that, though, lets take a quick look at who isdoing the hiring. Understanding the audience for your ap-</p><p>Hunting for jobs atliberal arts collegesSuzanne Amador Kane and Kenneth Laws</p><p>Four-year colleges offer special challenges and rewards for physics faculty.Two veterans offer advice to physicists seeking to join their ranks.</p><p>Suzanne Amador Kane is an associate professor and chair of the physics and astronomy department and director of the Marian E.Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center at Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Ken Laws is a professor emeritus inthe department of physics and astronomy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.</p><p>PAU</p><p>LD</p><p>LUG</p><p>OK</p><p>EN</p><p>CK</p><p>Y</p><p>The liberal arts college offers special rewards and challenges.</p></li><li><p>www.physicstoday.org November 2006 Physics Today 39</p><p>plication materials is an essential aspect of a good search. Be-cause liberal arts colleges have relatively small physics de-partments, dont assume that your best chances are at an in-stitution with an existing researcher in your field. The fieldsof research found in a given liberal arts college physics de-partment are generally broad and varied because of the smallnumber of faculty. The hiring process is generally conductedby a search committee whose members will review your ap-plication. It is reasonable to expect that the committee willcontain not only physicists outside of your specialty, but alsofaculty from other fields and possibly even student repre-sentatives. As a result, you must not tailor your job applica-tion to a specialized audience in your own subfield. Also,everyone involved has limited time to devote to the hiringprocess, so avoid overly verbose essays and letters.</p><p>Make the application countThe first item search committee members will see is yourcover letter. One of the strongest messages we wish to shareis that a generalized form letter leaves apoor impression. Even worse is blindlysubmitting your application through anonline service that automatically emailsyour materials to various contact ad-dresses [AS MEANT?]. Anticipate thatsuch a lack of effort on your part mightstimulate a similar lack of effort fromthe search committee.</p><p>Pay careful attention to whetherthe hiring institution prefers paper orelectronic applications, and submityour materials accordingly. Committeemembers want to see an applicationfrom a person who is sufficiently intune with the hiring institution to showa familiarity with its character. Theywant to see proof that the applicant isthe appropriate person for that particu-lar position. A search committee mayreceive perhaps 100 applications, whichall begin to look alike except for thosethat speak specifically to the particularposition to be filled.</p><p>Suppose a person is applying for a position teachingphysics at Dickinson College. Much of the departments char-acter is related to its identification with the Workshop Physicsapproach to teaching introductory physics. If the applicantfails to note that association, he or she will probably not beconsidered seriously. Say another person is interested inHaverford College. Undergraduate research involvement isan integral part of its science programs, so the applicantwould do well to reflect on that research tradition in an ap-plication. More generally, failing to at least discuss an inter-est in teaching when applying for a faculty position at anycollege can raise a red flag in the minds of search committeemembers. Similarly, your discussion of research should bespecific to the institution, rather than being a specialized ex-position of your PhD or postdoctoral work.</p><p>A lengthy cover letter is likely to inspire a reaction ofOh, good grief. I dont have time for this. My class starts infive minutes. Again, consider your audience and be concise.A page and a half should be the absolute maximum.</p><p>Consider asking the colleagues and mentors who are writing your letters of recommendation to mention your teaching abilities and motivation in addition to talking about your research skills. It also would be wise tofollow up with them to see that all your reference letters ar-</p><p>rive on time. A missing letter can stall an application, some-times permanently.</p><p>Your curriculum vitae (CV, or resum) should include allthe factual information that the search committee needs. Putit in list form: publications, degrees, positions held, awards,and so forth. Be especially careful to organize the material ac-curately and honestly. For example, it is helpful to list peer-reviewed articles separately from conference abstracts, pop-ular science articles, and other non-peer-reviewed work.Also, be wary about listing manuscripts in preparation,since that designation implies that an actual manuscript in anadvanced stage of completion can be produced for immedi-ate inspection. For liberal arts colleges, you would do well tolist all your teaching involvement, including brief descrip-tions of what you did. For example, Teaching assistant forIntroductory Physics II is uninformative compared withTeaching assistant for second semester introductory elec-tricity and magnetism; conducted two recitations, with 25students per recitation, using exercises adapted from Tutori-</p><p>als in Physics. If you have been a tutor, worked with high-school science students, or performed other work relevant toa career in college teaching, make sure you mention it.</p><p>The teaching and research statementsMany search committees welcome or even require a state-ment describing the applicants approach to teaching. Doesthe applicant seek interaction with students in class or feelmore comfortable lecturing? Should laboratories be an inte-gral part of a course or add-ons that provide distinct learn-ing experiences for students? If a theorist, does the applicanthave enough hands-on experience to teach introductory labs?Your statement should be well thought-out, avoiding plati-tudes while emphasizing strengths, achievements, or ap-proaches that set you apart. The statement will be more ef-fective if it reflects your actual teaching or teaching-relatedexperiences and is as concrete and specific as possible. Whatcourses in the colleges physics curriculum are you comfort-able teaching? Do you have novel ideas to propose for inter-esting courses? Many departments are interested in offeringspecial-topics courses, such as solid-state physics, astronomy,or biophysics, at an advanced undergraduate level. Many areon the lookout for algebra-based courses for non-physics ma-jors. Can you teach a course in the physics of music or offer</p><p>PAU</p><p>LD</p><p>LUG</p><p>OK</p><p>EN</p><p>CK</p><p>Y</p><p>Plan your talk with the audience in mind.</p></li><li><p>40 November 2006 Physics Today www.physicstoday.org</p><p>one on environmental science? If you have interesting ideas,your teaching statement is a logical place to share them, evento the point of including an abbreviated syllabus for an un-usual offering.</p><p>You should learn in advance whether the institution ex-pects its faculty to conduct research, either as a scholarly pur-suit or primarily for the benefit of undergraduate re-searchersor both. In any of these cases, you will probablybe asked to submit a research statement or proposal as part</p><p>of your application. The statement should include not onlyseveral pages of narrative explaining your research, but alsoan estimated and realistic budget, possible sources of fund-ing, a scenario of the time required to establish the researchprogram, and an explanation of the researchs appropriate-ness for involving undergraduates.</p><p>Once again, you will want to craft your research de-scription carefully, keeping the audience in mind: You arewriting for physicists possibly unfamiliar with your subfield.In particular, emphasize the significance of your research inthe grand scheme of physics and beyond. If your research in-volves expensive equipment, extensive travel to off-site fa-cilities, or other specialized elements, you need to pay par-ticular attention to its feasibility at a liberal arts college. Oneway to investigate that is to look at existing research pro-grams at similar institutions where faculty are doing similarwork. Your results from such an investigation are not just forconvincing a search committee about your viability as a can-didate; you need to assess the situation carefully for yourselfto see if you even want the position.</p><p>Theorists may need to focus especially hard on the ques-tion of the appropriateness of their research for undergradu-ates. Existence proofs are again an excellent way to demon-strate feasibility, so note any prior undergraduate researchinvolvement either by you or by colleagues in your subfield.Take note that computational research is more readily incor-porated into undergraduate projects than is most theoreticalresearch. Theorists should also explain how they would stayin touch with a larger communityfor example, through col-laborations, research conferences, or summer schools.</p><p>The visit and job talkIf you are one of the top few applicants, you will get an in-vitation to interview on campus. The purpose of the inter-view is for both parties to gain a deeper understanding of theappropriateness of the candidate for the open position. Youmust plan carefully for that visit, both to create a desirableimpression and to learn what you need to know.</p><p>The institution is trying to discover things about the can-didate that are not evident from the written application. Howdoes the candidate interact with students and potential col-leagues? Are his or her explanations clear to both students andfaculty? How appropriate is the candidates research programfor the institution? Can the candidate realistically involve un-dergraduates in meaningful research projects on a regularbasis? Does the candidate make evident the reasons why he orshe wants to be a part of the institution? Are there any warn-ing signs that indicate potential difficulties in the future? Is thecandidate in tune with the character of the institution? Doesthe candidate have the energy level required to fulfill the manydemands faced by college faculty? An interviewee would dowell to have the motivations of the institutions representativesin mind throughout the interview process.</p><p>While there, what should the candidate try to learn? As-pects of a job that are usually of concern to candidates includesalary, teaching load, research expectations, standards fortenure, leave policies, lab space, computer support, and re-search start-up funding. But weve been told repeatedly thatthe most important consideration, although more difficult toascertain, is the environment. That is, will the new hiree entera department that is congenial and supportive or one that isrife with discontent and discomfort? How well does the col-lege administration support the department? What sort ofrapport exists between faculty and students? What is the sur-rounding community like? Is it diverse? How does the costof living compare with other locations? How are relations be-</p><p>What if you are a year or more away from going on the jobmarket? Here are some ideas about how you can prepare tobe a better candidate for the type of search that liberal artscolleges conduct. Develop your teaching abilities. Make the most of teachingassistantship opportunities and other openings that arise.Keep a journal of your significant experiences and summariesof your teaching evaluations. Get experience giving scientific talks. Present papers atconferences; give talks at research group meetings, at student-led seminars, at other institutions, or at local high-school sci-ence clubs. You can develop your communication skills innumerous ways. Train yourself broadly and deeply as a scientist. Avoid anoverly narrow focus on any one set of research skills; instead,gain general laboratory or theoretical skills. Attend colloquiaon both physics- and nonphysics-related topics, talk withother scientists, and read widely in broad-based journals. Make sure that you get letters of recommendation fromprofessors or others who are familiar with your teaching abil-ities and not just with your research. Visit other institutions and conferences whenever possibleand learn to network effectively. Talk with liberal arts collegefaculty to learn more about their programs. Get postdoctoral research experience if you eventuallywant a position with a serious research component at a liber-al arts college. The school will expect you to generate yourown research program, independent of your graduate orpostdoctoral research, while still teaching and managingother commitments. Postdoctoral research will help you devel-op the necessary skills and maturity. Consider getting teaching experience d...</p></li></ul>