So, You Want to be a Liberal Arts College Professor: Life inside the Liberal Arts edition, Part II

2 May 2016, 1042 EDT

MIDDLEBURY, VT (August 31, 2010) - Students and Faculty meet to discuss the book "Tortilla Curtain" during the 2010 Orientation week, Middlebury College, Vermont. (Photo © 2010 Brett Simison)

MIDDLEBURY, VT (August 31, 2010) – Students and Faculty meet to discuss the book “Tortilla Curtain” during the 2010 Orientation week, Middlebury College, Vermont. (Photo © 2010 Brett Simison)

[Note: This is the second of two guest posts on life in the Liberal Arts Colleges from Sarah Stroup and Amy Yuen, both Associate Professors of Political Science, Middlebury College]

According to the 2014 TRIP survey, at least one in six IR faculty in the United States teach at a liberal arts college.[1] If you want one of those jobs, how do you get it? In this second post (part I here), we identify a few steps, gathered based on our own experiences and those of colleagues at other colleges, that are likely to help you in the liberal arts pool.

There are at least three things to know about how you are being evaluated on the liberal arts job market. We will focus on teaching, because candidates get extensive guidance on how to sell their research to a search committee.

Demonstrate your potential to build meaningful relationships – with students, colleagues, and the community.

At all institutions, political scientists may be more successful if they can turn arcane social science jargon into ordinary language. But the ability to make information accessible is only half of the recipe for success at institutions like ours, where professors also need to be able to listen. Professors engage in conversations with students, not just presentations to them.

Aspiring liberal arts faculty should consider the following:

  • Before job season: If you think you might want to work at a liberal arts college, try teaching first. Keep your syllabi for your job file.
  • Cover letter: Begin the letter with an explanation of your interest in, and approach to, teaching. Highlight evidence from your file that you know how small classrooms work (and not just from the glory days of college). If teaching is at the bottom of the list of things you discuss in your cover letter, you’ll find yourself at the bottom of our pile.
  • Interview: You will not live and breathe only research at a liberal arts institution – conversations with colleagues will take many forms. You should practice professional discussion about subjects beyond your dissertation (e.g. mentoring, town/gown relations, and teaching/research collaborations among faculty).
  • Demonstration: You may be asked to give a teaching demonstration during your campus visit. The point is to show you can engage students, not that you are the smartest person in the room. To do so, think about general questions in your subfield and their real-world importance. Don’t be afraid to let students do a little group work – a short think-pair-share exercise can quickly wake up an unknown group of students.
  • Campus Visit: you may go to lunch with students or meet them at your job talk. These interactions are a serious part of the interview process, as we ask for student reactions to job candidates.
  • You will find out about the precise teaching load during a campus visit. Asking if you can buy out of teaching sends the wrong signal.

In general, all kinds of political scientists are welcome.

Across the IR paradigmatic landscape, liberal arts faculty look very similar to our R1 peers. We have slightly higher percentages of constructivists and slightly lower percentages of realists, but a similar cluster of faculty who claim no paradigm at all.[2] Methodological approaches are similarly varied – Amy does game theory and Sarah does interview-based comparative case studies.

There are three caveats. First, the substantive interests among liberal arts faculty overlap very little – we are trying to fill gaps in breadth. Second, small departments can have strong personalities that privilege certain approaches. Third, the work of political science comes in more varieties at a liberal arts college. You can do research in your subfield, speak to policy concerns, be a great teacher, or any combination of the above.

Tips for the interview:

  • Distinguish yourself (politely) from current faculty. Identify holes that you see in the curriculum and discuss specific courses or topics you could address.
  • In a small department, ask about how faculty choose their courses. This will give you a sense of the freedom faculty experience and whether the department is marked by a division of labor or by fragmentation.

We like to see synergy between teaching and research.

Think about how your research program will go without graduate students, and ask faculty for examples of how they integrate students into their own research programs. Is there institutional support for collaborative research? Is it common to publish with students? Does the curriculum expose them to research design and techniques? Describe your own ideas on this in your cover letter.

Tread carefully when discussing recent developments in the field. You want to show you’ve done your homework on the research profiles of faculty. A quick question like “have you been following the discussion about the practice turn in IR?” offers a neutral way to understand how to proceed with your conversation. 


 We have seen many potentially great colleagues fail to demonstrate that potential in their job file or during their interview. While the usual caveats apply – every department and campus is different – the above pointers might make the path to a liberal arts job a little easier.

[1] Thanks to Katie Paulson-Smith at the TRIP Survey project for providing these data.

[2] According to TRIP data, 27% claim no paradigm at LACs compared to 34% at R1s.