Ok, you went to Oberlin or maybe Swarthmore or Bowdoin or Haverford or Macalester. It was your first experience away from home — your first real intellectual stimulation, the drugs, the sex — it was a total mind blowing experience. You had dinner at a professor’s house and then stayed late into the night discussing the Russian Revolution. You experimented with Marxism, liberation theology, or maybe even poetry. From the moment you left college, you knew you would get your Ph.D. and become a liberal arts college professor.
Sorry to burst the bubble, but let me be blunt here. You can’t get it back. Seriously, you can’t. When you finish your Ph.D. and land that job in a liberal arts college – you are not a student experiencing new and “fresh” ideas for the first time in your life. You are an untenured assistant professor. (With an emphasis on untenured and assistant). There is nothing “fresh” about being untenured and assistant (emphasis is still there). And, there is no more experimentation.
And for those of you interviewing for a job in a liberal arts college and planing to tell us all about how “the liberal arts education transformed” your life. Don’t. Really.
OK, perhaps this is a bit too blunt. It actually is a great gig. I’ve been one for the past 13 years – as a Five College professor in western Massachusetts – with a tenured joint appointment at Amherst College, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. And, while I’m pretty satisfied in my position, I recently toyed with making a lateral move to a prominent research university. A very interesting and eye-opening experience. Throughout the deliberation process it really struck me that there is a big gap between the two types of institutions. Yes we all teach, research, write, and do some administrative work but we do so in really different ways. The profession in a liberal arts college is very different from the academic profession in a research university. It is also a very different profession from the one for which we are trained as graduate students.
So, I thought I’d write up a few observations and hence, this is the first in a series of posts, on academic life in a liberal arts college (I’ll also add a post or two on holding a joint appointment across five different institutions – four liberal arts colleges and a state university).
Today’s post: research in the liberal arts college.
First, it’s probably somewhat obvious, but the research expectations and support at a liberal arts college are significantly different from a research institution. Twenty years ago, and after decades of pleas from faculty, many of the top-tier liberal arts colleges moved from 3-2 to 2-2 teaching loads with the expectation that the faculty would increase their research profiles. (Curiously, the deans and trustees got this new religion just as faculty research production and reputation became part of US News and World Reports ranking methodologies…) And, somewhere along the line many of these colleges re-designated themselves as liberal arts research colleges. Yet, let’s not fool ourselves. The reality is that with all of the pressure on liberal arts colleges to demonstrate their relevance (and justify their price tags), teaching and individualized undergraduate advising are the most important missions to these institutions. Research is clearly secondary.
Don’t get me wrong, good research is expected – usually a book from the dissertation plus three or so refereed journal articles and misc. other publications — for tenure. But, there are clear differences between a liberal arts college and a major research institution. Here are my top three:
1. Research support. Even at the top-tier liberal arts college, there is only very modest support for research and travel – and it pales in comparison to the institutional support, budgets, and leave policies at major research universities. Most liberal arts colleges have small or non-existent offices of sponsored research so grant writing and support is a self-help and labor-intensive enterprise here. I had a recent conversation with an NSF program director in the social sciences who wondered why she receives so few NSF grant applications from liberal arts college faculty. After I explained our institutional research support structures, her response was an apologetic “oh.” Furthermore, departments are small and with teaching the priority, most institutions discourage or simply don’t allow faculty to buy out courses with external money. Not only is it difficult to replace courses with graduate students (we don’t have them — see below), large numbers of visitors lead to dings in the rankings.
This isn’t to say that there is no research support. Money does flow into these institutions. You just have to be flexible, innovative, and aggressive — and you have to plan ahead. There are several foundations like Mellon and others that provide generous support for a variety of institutional initiatives. At a small institution, there are usually plenty of ways to help structure these institutional initiatives and build in various pockets of money for travel and summer stipends to support research — especially if the research can be tied broadly to new course development or pedagogic innovations.
Also, if your research agenda is flexible, research support can come from fulfilling other institutional commitments — I’ve been to China six times in the last eight years including a summer in Beijing and a summer split between Shanghai and Seoul to set up and support college programs. I parlayed those trips into a focused research project, extensive interviews, and ultimately, produced a co-edited volume on China. This was not something on my radar ten years ago, but it came up along the way.
2. No graduate students. It probably goes without saying to many of you that this can be a really good thing. I get it. But, not having graduate students also has its drawbacks – really, hear me out on this. No graduate students means no graduate-level survey seminars; no advanced seminars built around specialized research projects; no comprehensive or qualifying exams to read/grade; and, no lengthy dissertation lit reviews to read and mark-up. Obviously, there are a number of plusses to all of this, but without teaching and working with graduate students, there is little in the day-to-day teaching routine in a liberal arts college to keep one up to date, challenged, and engaged on the latest scholarship in the field. It is rare to assign an I/O, ISQ, Security Studies, APSR or even an I/S article – they are often too narrow and specialized for undergraduate instruction. And, with more content and specialized publications it is particularly hard to keep up with literature that can’t be integrated into the classroom. I really could use a decent continuing education program for routine updates on new trends in the literature.
3. Breadth over depth. We live and work in very small departments with only a handful of IR faculty to teach a wide range of courses. I teach courses on IR theory, international security, regional conflict, American foreign policy, human rights, and human rights advocacy and fill in with courses on international organization, international law, and methods when needed. Prepping and maintaining courses across such breadth is great fun, but it does sacrifice depth and it does consume a lot of time that might otherwise be used for research. This isn’t unique to liberal arts colleges — there are plenty of universities with small numbers of IR faculty. But, in liberal arts colleges, we are also expected to advise half a dozen or so senior thesis projects every year as well as a number of other independent studies projects on topics that are not covered during the normal course offerings.
All of these – limited research support, no graduate students, and lack of specialization – have implications. First, if not for
the drinking and poker the professional networking, ISA would probably really suck. The profession is becoming increasingly more specialized and I sit in on plenty of ISA panels wondering how folks have the time and support to do the work they do. It triggers a certain amount of anxiety watching the field seemingly pass one by.
But, more broadly, faculty at liberal arts colleges appear to focus on a different kind of research and produce at a different pace than those working at research institutions. A few years back at a conference coordinated by Stacey Goddard at Wellesley, Sue Peterson reported on some initial findings (unpublished) from the TRIP data in which she looked specifically at the data on security studies and the liberal arts. The data appeared to suggest that liberal arts college faculty tend to publish more review essays and book chapters (presumably because these can be easily fed back into the classroom for instruction) and are generally underrepresented in publications in the top tier and more specialized journals. I don’t want to overstate this – there are plenty of highly talented scholars in our midst — but generally, liberal arts faculty produce at a slower rate and in different forms of publications.
Finally, research is only one part of our job description as a liberal arts college professor – and, it is probably the part of the job in which we spend the least amount of time during the academic year. Even with a 2/2 teaching load, most of us are doing increasingly more work on enhanced advising, more work on independent studies, more work developing an experiential learning component to the curriculum, and more engagement in the shared faculty governance of the institution than ever before. When the workload is increased on teaching, advising, and service something has to give — at least in part. In the liberal arts colleges, that tends to be the research side of the equation. I’ll admit that for me there is a certain degree of envy watching others produce their scholarship faster and speak more fluently about the literature.
Overall, though, there are a lot of other differences – in teaching and throughout the institutions — that led to my decision to stay in the liberal arts – at least for now. I’ll address some of them in my next post in the series. In the meantime, I’d love hear if this matches any of your experiences. Comment away…
As a graduate student who is a) a graduate of a liberal arts school just under the Swarthmore/Bowdoin class (though don’t tell the administration) and b) would like to end up at a liberal arts school I find this very interesting and look forward to future posts.
I do have one question though. If I ever get an interview at a top tier liberal arts school is there a way to sell myself outside of the ‘life transformation’ schtick? I do believe in the mission of liberal arts schools (had it drilled into me at an early age) and would really like to continue this mission. How can I (or any other grad) convey this without seeming schmaltzy?
Again, looking forward to future posts!
@MAS, I think we are all looking for job applicants to have experience and a good understanding of the liberal arts colleges and to have a strong commitment to teaching. I appreciate candidates who tell us about what motivates their commitment to, and philosophy on, teaching. Clearly having gone through a liberal arts college helps shape that commitment and philosophy and should be brought into an interview. But, keep it professional. I’ve seen some real disasters when candidates come in and go on about their student experiences. I had one colleague remind an applicant that we were interviewing for a faculty position, not for admission. That interview didn’t end very well.
I’d also recommend that you build up a teaching portfolio as early as possible — most teaching institutions want to know whether or not you can teach and they want to know if you can hit the ground running in your first year. We tend to ask for sample syllabi — so start thinking about them early. If you TA, your’re teaching evaluations become part of your portfolio — most hiring institutions look for demonstrated competence and growth over the period in which you TA. Adjunct teaching or visiting positions are given a bit more weight because you are in charge of the entire class.
I really enjoyed this essay and it mirrors my own experiences as a newly minted associate professor at a liberal arts school (Hollins University). Like the author, I miss the interactions with graduate students and feel my own research suffers from this lack of connection to the new material. Also, grad students provide a vibrancy and intellectual challenge that you simply don’t get from undergrads. We have a MALS program, but most of the students are part-time and are not looking to advance beyond the masters level.
I am actually at a school that requires a 3-3 load—I expect this is a bit more common across the liberal arts spectrum. I also direct the international studies program and advise 20 or so majors each year. This seriously limits our ability to do extensive research, especially given how paltry the financial support for our research from the university has become. I am curious about how professors at other LA schools negotiate tenure; our requirements are so vague and unclear and depend greatly on the make-up of committee members from across the university, not just ones own discipline.
@JD, I agree that 3-3 is probably more the norm across the liberal arts spectrum. I’ve been getting a bunch of backchannel messages with a number of comments about the wide variation in work-loads, research expectations for tenure, and service commitments even within liberal arts colleges. With respect to tenure expectations, I think much of the ambiguity comes from the differences among the senior faculty within a particular liberal arts institution. We have a lot of senior faculty who emphasize teaching excellence over research — while others want the bar raised on research. I find these internal debates very helpful for departments and it usually keeps us grounded in our mission — but they definitely raise anxiety levels for junior faculty.
My approach and recommendation to my junior colleagues is to use the annual review conversation as a tool to get expectations down in writing. At my institutions, each junior faculty member meets with the chair and a couple of other members of the department at the end of each year. The chair then writes up the conversation for the record. I recommend that every senior member of the department attend at least one of the pre-tenure annual conversations — this gives the junior faculty an opportunity ask everyone with a vote to articulate and clarify their expectations.
There is also a lot of debate in my institutions about incentive structures for post-tenure research agendas. In short, there really aren’t many incentives. Another post forthcoming on this….
Thanks for the response, Jon. Your advice on the importance of the pre-tenure review is spot on. I was a lot less anxious about where I stood b/c I had very good guidance from our provost and department heads regarding my candidacy (was just granted tenure in December). I might also add the importance of transparency in your tenure file. Any embellishment on your c/v or summary of teaching evaluations will be rather severely frowned upon. The last three faculty members at my school who were denied tenure were all found to have misrepresented themselves in some way. As others have noted, tenure at liberal arts schools requires you to be a good citizen across the college. As such, a c/v embellishment is viewed as a true breach of trust.
This post is a great public service. Grad students unaware that not all colleges are the same should take note, lest they fall prey to exceptionally insulting interview questions.
Comprehensive institutions are another species as well here that suffer from their own particular institutional schizophrenia. More on this here: https://www.apsanet.org/media/PDFs/PSJan11Hendricksonetal.pdf
I actually teach at one of the liberal arts colleges listed at the top of this post. And I found this to be largely accurate and insightful.
What I would add is that the differences can really vary not only among institutions but among departments. There are some departments here which require a book with a university press for tenure. There are other departments where you can get away with 2 articles in no name journals or edited volumes. The reason for this variance, as was alluded to, is that everything at a liberal arts college is personal. Not that tenure decisions are based on whether people like you but that the culture of various department can vary greatly based on a department’s own history and personnel.
Also things vary greatly based on what institutional resources you need–generally speaking, people who only need money to travel have the potential to stay much more current in their fields than people who require lab equipment and/or grad students to do anything serious. This creates an odd tier system within the institution.
Another thing: thank YOU for mentioning how annoying it is when people talk about how much they loved their liberal arts college experience and how they seem to want to recreate it now. I hate it in job letters and I hate it in interviews. We actually make fun of these people in department meetings to discuss job candidates. This is not to say that we/I don’t care about teaching, we do. But we/I want someone who approaches teaching as a grown-up and not like some fanboy looking to relive his youth.
We make fun of the schmaltzy cover letters too– about how much they want to recreate their own liberal arts experience and how much they understand the mission and culture of a liberal arts institution. We laugh hard mostly because it looked like our cover letters decades ago. After the jokes about how terrible the “beauty contest” letters are, we hire them.
Thanks for posting this. As someone who has happily spent the last 12 years or so at a small liberal arts college, I can identify with these challenges and would like to agree with others about the vast difference between liberal arts colleges in terms of teaching loads and research resources and support. I would also like to add one more point. In the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to talk with graduate students at two different PhD granting institutions about a career at a liberal arts college and one of the things I have emphasized is the fact that many liberal arts colleges have “location disadvantages” for both singles and couples. The remote/rural locations and limited labor market in some communities makes it difficult for the trailing spouse to get gainful employment. For single faculty members rural/remote/small location also translates into difficulty in finding people to date, irrespective of people’s sexual orientation.
I would like to see another post about the changing nature of research institutions and obligations in a world of the neo-liberal university and shrinking state funding. There are obviously downsides to LACs but are the advantages in public research universities shrinking?
As a professor at a non-elite LAC with a 4-4 load, your article resonated with me. In particular, at mid-career, I really feel the frustrations you mention about watching the field ‘pass you by’. I struggle with feeling part of the broader discipline as it is represented at our major conferences and I struggle to have the resources (including the proper statistical training) necessary to produce high-quality ‘cutting edge’ research appropriate for peer review. Hence there becomes a growing isolation from the mainstream of the discipline. This isolation can be exagerrated at one’s own institution–you may be one of only a small handful of faculty in your discipline, and especially in political science, in your particular expertise you may be the only one. By virtue of necessity there is a pull toward interdisciplinary work and teaching and valuing the cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas, but research expectations in the discipline still exist for tenure and promotion. The impact of this isolation and lack of compatriots was something I did not fully appreciaet until I had lived with it for several years.
I heard that some people working at LACs chose to go down that path because they actually have more time for research than they would at some research institutions, since not all of their time is spent writing grants and keeping grad students happy. I am under the impression that LACs vary greatly in quality and mission, so the latter is probably just a small fraction.
As a (long ago) grad of a major research university and the father of two sons nearing college, I found this post quite interesting. From our family’s perspective, the things cited as disadvantages of LACs sound more like features than bugs. Isn’t it better for my sons (and possibly for society) if they are taught by profs rather than grad students, if their profs have a broader command of their field rather than a very narrow focus, and if faculty energies are mostly channeled into teaching?
To a tax- and tuition-paying parent, in fact, this “research” often seems abstruse and unimportant, although I recognize the need for scholars to remain active and engaged in their field–something I’d think would be easier than ever in this day of the Internet. Can there be really good teaching without research? I imagine so, although I admit I’m not qualified to answer that question. But your posting and the subsequent comments have perhaps nudged me a little more toward the LAC side in our family’s college planning. I’ll be interested in what else you’ve said about the subject.
One difference between LACs and research intensives in the sciences is that at a liberal arts college, if you pull in a big federal grant, you receive the adulation of the administration and a nice pat on the back. At a research intensive, if you don’t pull in a big federal grant, you get denied tenure. This is not a small cultural difference.