Updated August 1, 2018
As the annual job market season rapidly approaches for sociology, you may be wondering if you want (to apply for) a job at a liberal arts college. None of us earn our PhDs at liberal arts colleges and if you did not attend one for undergrad you may just be relying on myths about what it means to be a liberal arts professor. Some of those myths may come from people who don’t know much about liberal arts colleges either or want you to only apply to large research institutions.
Like so-called R1 institutions, professors at liberal arts colleges are responsible for and assessed based on their research, teaching, and service, but at liberal arts colleges, the emphasis is different. The best way I have heard it said is that at R1s when you are evaluated (possibly for tenure) they start by looking at your research. If that is not up to their standards, they don’t care how good you are as a classroom instructor. At a liberal arts college, they first evaluate your teaching. If your teaching does not reach high standards, they don’t really care if you are a rock star researcher. Occasionally, you will see a news story of students at an R1 in an uproar because their favorite professor was denied tenure, even though they were incredibly engaging and inspiring, readily available for advising in office hours, and taught them how to think critically unlike anyone else.
This doesn’t mean that you are free to completely focus on teaching at a liberal arts college.
Most liberal arts colleges that hire tenure-track positions still want/require you to be engaged in your field of research. However, this may mean they expect that you will publish 2-5 articles or a single book before tenure (applied for in year six), not per year. Additionally, some R1 departments have expectations that your work will be published in a very limited number of top-tier journals (AJS, ASR, etc.). Liberal arts colleges want you to publish your work in double-blind, peer-reviewed journals, but many will provide much more leeway regarding the journal’s rank.
Some liberal arts colleges are better at facilitating research than others. What is the teaching load? Are you required to teach two, three or four classes a semester? If you teach a 2:2 you should have ample time to also engage in more research and you will likely be expected to produce more. A 3:3 load? Well, you can crunch things out in the summer. A 4:4 load? Forget it. Does the college provide a pre-tenure research leave or course reduction? Some now give tenure-track faculty a semester without teaching responsibilities in their fourth or fifth year. This can be a huge help in getting new projects underway or finalizing revise and resubmits. Are there internal research funds available? Can you hire students as RAs? When considering these jobs, look for the signals the liberal arts colleges are sending regarding the importance of your research. Are they setting you up for success? Do the resources they provide align with their expectations of productivity? Hopefully, the Dean of Faculty is professional and clear regarding their expectations. I was fortunate enough to have a very clear picture from a Dean of what was expected of me to increase my chances of tenure (a ballpark number of articles, positive or improving course evaluations, and being an engaged member of the faculty/campus community). I know of others who are not as fortunate. Sometimes a new Dean wants to raise the ranking of the college and places the responsibility on the faculty to publish in the highest ranking journals, even though there is no other institutional support to help you make that happen. Others I have talked to get only vague, even opaque responses when asking about the expectations for tenure and one colleague even said her Dean wouldn’t count publications from her dissertation!? Of course, the Dean of Faculty is not the only one contributing to that decision, but can certainly be a hurdle.
Thinking about the tenure process, they are offering you a job for life. They likely want to make sure you are not a “one-hit wonder” in regards to your research. Did you squeeze a book or a few articles out of your dissertation? Great. That’s definitely the first step, but then before tenure, your department and if you have a promotion committee will want to see that you have at least taken the initial steps in establishing another line of research. What else can they expect from you?
In the past six years at a liberal arts college, I have had numerous research assistants (paid for by the college), received money from the college to help collect survey data and travel to distant research sites, and had a semester free of teaching to work on new projects and wrap up articles from my dissertation. This institutional support matches their expectations that I publish from my dissertation and begin new projects.
At a liberal arts college, you will need to take teaching seriously.
They want you to do more than give a multiple-choice midterm and final exam. You will spend a lot of time grading paper assignments, essay exams, and other more engaging assessment tools. You will not be able to use TAs to help you grade. Fortunately, your class size at a liberal arts college is typically much smaller than what you have seen or experienced at an R1. Introductory courses may be as many as 30 students but advanced undergraduate classes may only have 10-12 students. I typically run upper-level undergrad courses more like a graduate seminar with lots of discussion, more extensive research papers, and, at least in part, the direction of the course led by student’s particular interest in the topic. Faculty at R1s that teach undergrad courses with hundreds of students are understandably limited in their pedagogical choices.
Service at a small liberal arts college is also more extensive than at an R1. Many liberal arts colleges are extensively faculty governed.
Our entire faculty, of the college, not just the department, meet once a month to go over policies and other college business. Depending on the size of your department, you will also likely serve as the advisor to at least a dozen, maybe several dozen students. Other examples among the numerous committees include a sustainability committee, human subjects research committee (in lieu of a full IRB), disciplinary judicial committee, curriculum committees, and MANY more. Expect to spend more time in meetings as part of being a liberal arts professor. Committees I am on meet once a week throughout the entire school year.
What are the students like?
Coming into the job, I held onto the myth every student at a liberal arts college was well-prepared, dedicated, and politically engaged. Nope. I have both amazing students and I have some that are clearly still not sure they want to be there. I have some that are intellectually curious and some that the class assignments are a low priority on their long list of things to do. My point is, just like the R1 students you may have served as a TA for, at liberal arts colleges there is a mix of students. A professor from Northwestern University once told me that he thinks that the top students at every college are fairly similar, there are just more of them at elite institutions.
Additionally, like larger R1 classrooms, your students will come to college with a wide range of educational experiences. Some will have attended college prep high schools and be ready to write a research paper from day one, others will not have been exposed to or given the opportunity to develop the skills needed to succeed in the college classroom. Be prepared to spend some time teaching writing, reading, and critical thinking skills.
What kind of colleague do you need to be?
At a liberal arts college, you will likely be in a small department, sometimes VERY small. In my department, there are four other faculty members. Collegiality serves a prominent role in such a small group. You don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but you need to be professional and expect to see plenty of your colleagues. You will likely be THE expert in your subfield. Nobody else in my department teaches (or does research on) globalization, environmental sociology, or social movements. My colleagues are engaged scholars and can often offer a completely different angle in discussing my work with me, but if I want to get into the nitty gritty depths of ecosocialism or world society theory, I need to reach outside of the college and stay in touch with others by attending national and regional conferences.
What can you do now to qualify yourself to be a professor at a liberal arts college?
You need to teach. A CV without ANY teaching experience will get quickly passed over as an applicant. If you have the opportunity, teach as many different classes as possible while in graduate school. Yes, course prep is difficult and takes time away from your dissertation, but you need to show how you will contribute to a small department. This may be contradictory advice from what you receive from your advisor who wants you to focus on research. In just my first four years as a faculty member, I taught 9 different courses! You will be expected to teach foundational required courses like Introduction to Sociology (and maybe anthropology) and maybe a methods or theory course.
Additionally, you can’t just teach the same elective course over and over every semester. You can’t just be an instructor of a single subfield. Electives may rotate back into the schedule in a small department only every three years. I teach three courses a semester. Every spring I teach Survey Methods and Analysis with a lab, and I usually teach one, maybe two sections of Introduction to Sociology and Anthropology every year. That leaves me as many as three other courses per year. So, for example, since leaving graduate school, I added Race and Ethnicity to my repertoire of courses and developed a first-year studies class on climate change. I also regularly teach Environmental Sociology, Social Movements, and Globalization.
If you have limited opportunities to teach during graduate school, you can show that you take teaching seriously in other ways.
For your application to a liberal arts college, prepare a few additional course syllabi for classes you are prepared to teach, even if you have never taught them. This demonstrates that you are thinking about teaching. Additionally, you can attend teaching related sessions at ASA and indicate that on your CV. If your university has a Preparing Future Faculty Program, participate in the seminars. Find a liberal arts college near you and approach a faculty member about being a mentor or shadowing them so you can say that you have a good understanding of what it means to be a professor at a liberal arts college. While I was at IU, I shadowed someone from DePauw and went to IU’s PFF conference every year. You should also customize your CV and cover letters to each school. When applying to liberal arts colleges, be sure you talk about teaching first in your cover letter and do not bury any teaching experience deep in your CV. I usually list it very early – right after my educational credentials.
Teach well, it matters.
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Alex M — October 4, 2018
As someone preparing for the job market next year, this is so absurdly helpful and encouraging. Thank you!
Alex J — May 18, 2021
Thanks for article guys!