This spring I gave a presentation at a conference in which I aimed to help graduate students determine if life at a liberal arts institution is something that they should consider pursuing. In a lot of ways, the talk encapsulated my experiences through two years as a faculty member, touching on many of the themes I have highlighted here but in a (perhaps) more coherent way. The majority of the talk is below:
I’m John Smith and I work at a private liberal arts school with about 2000 students. Right now, you’re thinking, “I saw the name of your school in the program and I’ve never heard of it,” which brings me to my first point: a liberal arts school is not the place to go if you want or need status. Even top-ranked liberal arts schools do not have the status of top-ranked research schools – Picture telling your grandfather that you got a job at Williams College (Williamstown, MA), the top-ranked liberal arts school by US News vs. telling him that you got a job at Harvard, the top-ranked research school. I’m guessing that most people would get a much bigger reaction from their friends and family if they got a job at Harvard than at Williams.
So, if liberal arts schools aren’t for people who want status, who are they for?
The primary answer to this question is: people who really enjoy teaching and want to be good at it.
At a liberal arts school you will be working closely with students both in and out of the classroom, so it is important to mention that not all private schools have the same type of students. While some have nothing but privileged students, my school has a diverse student body from a wide variety of backgrounds and with a wide variety of abilities. During class discussions I am typically glad for this diversity, even if I wish that the ability levels of the bottom students were a bit higher when I’m grading papers and exams.
Still, the student body overall is similar to what you might experience as a graduate student teaching at a large state school. This means that there are some weak students but there are also some excellent students, with most students somewhere in between. At more selective schools there are probably more excellent students but less demographic diversity.
At my school I have a 3-3 teaching load, which means that I teach three classes per semester. In general, my classes range from 25-35 students but this is partly because I am in a popular department. Faculty in some departments have fewer and faculty in other departments have more. I also advise 45 students, which differs a lot from department to department as well.
The range of students at a liberal arts school is important when thinking about your plans for research (or scholarship, as it is often called at liberal arts institutions).
People who want to work at a liberal arts school should not need an army of graduate students to be productive researchers (or to do their grading) and should enjoy the challenge of doing research with undergraduates, which often involves a lot of teaching about the research process.
It is also important to recognize that research can take a number of forms, even at highly ranked schools. This may include things like conference presentations in addition to peer-reviewed publications as demonstrations of the “continued scholarly activity” that is necessary for tenure in addition to service and good teaching.
Given a higher teaching load than most R1 faculty and the fact that you will be grading exams, papers, and quizzes yourself, the reality is that you will not have as much time to spend on research as those at other types of schools. This typically leads to fewer concurrent projects and fewer publications.
While there are general differences in research productivity, there can also be differences between departments on the same campus. In my department, for example, everybody has a research agenda but research is rarely the main topic of conversation because it is not what people spend the majority of their time on during the semester. In another department, however, the faculty publish much more frequently. I’m not sure if this is a result of the types of graduate programs that the faculty in each department came from or the stages they’re at in their academic careers, but there is a definite difference and it can be difficult to go against the norms of your department. For example, others in your department may not have much experience applying for grants or publishing in major journals, which can make it difficult if you want to do these things. This is also something to consider if you are being hired into a department in which the standards have changed since the current faculty members have been granted tenure.
Obviously, I could work into the night and complete more research during the semester but the rewards for doing so are relatively small. In the summer and over breaks when I focus mostly on research, however, small amounts of money are available if I am working on my own and larger amounts are available if I am collaborating with a student. So research is definitely valued and supported but it is not my primary responsibility.
Continuing on the topic of research, something that I never heard anybody mention about liberal arts schools when I was in graduate school, and one thing that I found myself missing in my first year as a faculty member, was the community of those with similar interests that arose through departmental colloquia.
Because you will almost certainly be the only person with your specialization in your department, if you end up having a choice between jobs (however unlikely that may be in the current job market) you may want to consider the proximity of other schools that would allow you to form reading or writing groups. There are a large number of schools in my area and I was able to join a reading group consisting of faculty from a wide range of research and liberal arts schools. This helps me keep up with current research and it also gives me a connection to people who are more active in research than the other members of my department and can give me advice in those areas.
Beyond these teaching and research concerns, people who want to work at liberal arts schools should have a willingness, if not a desire, to be deeply involved in the workings of their institution and interact regularly with administrators and faculty in other departments.
To give you some perspective, the entire faculty of my graduate institution has met twice in the past 25 years. At my current institution, there are monthly meetings of all faculty, and this is where major decisions about the curriculum are made.
The final group of people who should consider working at liberal arts schools are those who are searching for the mythical work-life balance. As I’ve said, during the semester you will be busy with teaching and over breaks you will likely be busy with research, but the ability to focus on these things at different times, and the corresponding emphasis placed on each when making tenure decisions, allows you to work without spending every waking hour worrying about whether you will be able to publish enough to get tenure.
Despite wishing for a higher level of scholarly engagement in my own department, I have never regretted my decision to work at a liberal arts school and, just as some likely have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to teach three courses per semester, I have a hard time imagining why somebody would want to work somewhere that gave journal editors and reviewers so much control over their futures.
How Can You Get Here?
Now that you have a better sense of whether you want to work at a liberal arts school, you are probably wondering what you can do to end up at a place like this.
The first thing you can do is go to a liberal arts school as an undergrad. Because of the differences between liberal arts schools and the research schools where people get their Ph.D., schools see the fact that somebody attended a liberal arts school as a sign that they understand what is involved in this type of job.
With that said, I didn’t go to a liberal arts school and I still work at one, so there are some things you can do if you missed your opportunity to go to one of these schools yourself:
These include spending time working to become a good teacher. This means assigning papers, essay exams, and involving students in class discussions. Obviously, this takes more time and effort than lecturing from a textbook and giving multiple choice exams, but if you think of a class of 60 students as similar to teaching three classes of 20, you can get a sense of what a full teaching load at a liberal arts school is like.
Another thing you can do is teach classes that are likely to be in demand – schools are always looking for people who can teach classes like statistics, research methods, and social theory, so the ability to successfully teach one of those classes in graduate school gives you a valuable skill on the job market. The fact that I had taught both statistics and research methods, for example, was a factor in each of the interviews I had.
In the end, the type of institution you want to work at comes down to what you want your daily experience to be like.
If you are interested in teaching, interacting with students and colleagues, and collaborating on research with students without intense pressure to publish, you should consider applying at liberal arts schools.