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So You Want to Work at a Liberal Arts College? Tips for applying and interviewing at a PUI

April 28, 2019

The job ad popped up in an email, “tenure-track position in molecular microbial ecology at Middlebury College.” Until that moment I'm not sure I could have defined my field of study so concisely. It really felt like the most perfect fit I’d ever seen for a job posting. At the time I was a visiting assistant professor at St. Lawrence University, in a year long position where I was hoping to solve the “two-body problem," i.e. working in a similar location to my partner. I initially thought, if I could get a job offer at Middlebury College, perhaps I could use that offer to leverage a longer term position at St. Lawrence University or one of the other three colleges in the area. But from the time I read the job post, it seemed like a perfect match for my teaching and research interests.

 

The Application

At the time that I applied, I’d had plenty of practice writing my teaching statement, research statement, and cover letter as I’d previously applied for five tenure-track positions.

 

For my teaching statement, I tapped every resource I could to put together my best representation of myself.  Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Ed, and Dr. Karen Kelsky’s blog The Professor is In offer great advice on how to craft these documents. I also had some practice from a course I took in grad school on teaching pedagogy (thanks David Way, and McKeachie's Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers). I am also thankful for my teaching mentors in grad school, Sue Merkel, Dan Buckley, and Esther Angert, who had a major influence on how I think about and implement my teaching.

 

I enjoyed putting together my research statement, a good sign that I was on the right track. I constructed a research plan outlining my expertise that blended my past and present research projects with potential future studies I could complete in Vermont. I highlighted specific faculty within and beyond the department with whom I saw potential for collaboration, and I outlined Middlebury specific resources that aligned with my research. Additionally, since funding is always a big concern, I outlined federal, state, and foundational funding sources that I would target to get my new lab off the ground. My teaching statement broadly covered my teaching philosophy, past experience, and ways that I was excited to engage in the Middlebury curriculum and with Middlebury students. It was also important to me to explain research as teaching, pedagogical professional development trainings I had participated in, and my commitment to continue to improve my teaching.

 

Erin’s Application Prep Tips:

  • Seek out resources to help construct the teaching, research and personal statements.

  • Take advantage of courses and seminars offered at your graduate and post-doctoral institutions that will help strengthen your teaching and pedagogical background.

  • Find people who teach well and learn from them.

  • Consider how your research will blend with other researchers at the institution.

  • Address the research funding question in your research statement.

  • Don’t be afraid to emphasize your teaching as research.

 

Waiting…

After submission, I kept myself busy with teaching and research to calm my nerves. I was teaching a lab section and could not answer my phone when the initial phone call from the search committee chair. Thankfully, she sent an email that made me giddy with anticipation as I waited for my students to finish their serial dilutions for the day. I rushed back to my office after lab to return the call and found out that I was invited for an on-campus interview. In this case,there would be no phone or video interview before my campus visit. I was thankful to jump straight into the face-to-face time with my new potential colleagues.

 

Preparing for the Interview

Before my visit, Middlebury sent me a schedule of all the faculty, staff, and administrators that I would meet on my two-day whirlwind campus visit. I read up on each person’s research and looked up the courses they taught. I made an outline in a notebook that matched the schedule which included key information about each person and specific questions to ask them, as well as blank space to take notes during my interview. I consulted friends who had recently landed faculty jobs at more research heavy schools to get ideas on what kinds of questions they might ask me and what questions to ask. I practiced answering these questions diligently. I wrote out answers and spoke them out loud. This may sound like overkill, but doing this made me confident that I could field anything which helped me immensely on the day of the interview. I re-read my application materials, and prepped my teaching demonstration and research talk. I had taught a class similar to the teaching demonstration, but I made sure I revisited the materials and talked through it out loud at least three times. I tried out my research talk with a small group of colleagues to get feedback, and practiced it aloud several times.

 

I pitched both my research talk and teaching demonstration to the sophomore undergraduate level. This meant I pared back on the complexity of the science that I delivered and provided more background information. My assigned teaching demonstration was a 50 minute lesson on the broad topic of mutualisms and microbial interactions.   My approach combined lecture with two think-pair-share questions, and a small-group activity. My research talk highlighted research from my PhD, but I spent the last five minutes or so highlighting research gaps and new projects that would fit nicely at Middlebury.

 

Erin’s tips for interview prep:

  • You can’t be too prepared

  • Take advantage of friends and colleagues who’ve been through the process

  • Target an undergraduate-level audience for your talks

 

The Interview

I arrived the night before the interview, and was taken to dinner by two biology faculty. I was hardly in interview mode during the dinner, yet  I was asked the most specific interview-like question of my whole visit about one specific sentence in my teaching statement. Luckily, I’d re-read my materials that morning! Back in my room that evening, I

practiced my talks for the next day and re-visited materials and questions again. Even with preparation, I was nervous. The next two days were exhilarating, exciting, and exhausting. The two days were full,  meeting and chatting with everyone, giving talks, sharing meals with students and faculty, and truly gaining a sense of what this position and school had to offer, all the while I was doing my best to put my authentic self forward as a teacher and researcher. Folks were good about checking in to see if I needed restroom breaks, a cup of tea, or snack. I was so nervous I wasn’t able to eat much at breakfast or lunch, but during a 15 min break in the schedule I could manage a banana or bar. After being wined and dined and interviewed to exhaustion, I headed back to St. Lawrence University, with just enough time to to proctor my final exam of the semester. Leaving Middlebury’s campus I felt like things had gone as well as they could have, that I had shown who I was, and that both the school and I could accurately judge whether I was a good fit. I also knew the search committee was planning to be in touch the next week.

 

Erin’s interview tips:

  • Be prepared for the interview to start the second your arrive.

  • Bring snacks like fruit and bars, or whatever you find to be “comfort snacks.”

  • The interview process is too exhausting to be anything else but your true self

 

The Offer

After proctoring my exam I was truly exhausted and went home to take a nap. Low and behold, in the middle of my nap (some five or so hours after leaving Middlebury) my phone was ringing with a 802 area code number. Eek! I roused myself as best I could from a deep slumber and answered the call to find I was offered the job! Despite my sleepy state, I thankfully did not accept the job on the spot, saying something like “I’m really excited by the offer and look forward to seeing the written offer when it was available.”

 

The Negotiation

I received the offer the week before winter break and felt their rush to get this offer together and packaged up with a nice bow before the holidays. As I’m not a great negotiator, I once again called in the troops of friends to seek their

advice on negotiating salary, start-up funds, and the dreaded partner hire. After getting the formal offer from Middlebury, I drafted my start-up funds and had a back-and-forth email exchange with the department chair about infrastructure and supplies and equipment that were already in place that I did not need to duplicate. The department chair became my unexpected ally in this process.  It was clear that they want to see me succeed as a new faculty member, and that these funds would directly benefit the department. It also was very helpful to have someone internal giving me advice as I knew that if I asked for less start-up funding than was a maximum limit, the Vice President of Academic Affairs/Dean of Faculty administrator would not tell me to ask for more. After several emails with the department chair, I put in my start-up offer to the VPAA/DOF.

 

A note on salary, everyone I talked to told me to ask for more but I didn’t feel I could ask for more without a reason. Starting salary is really is important as every subsequent raise is percentage-based off of your starting salary. So, I based it on my salary at St. Lawrence University and the difference in cost of living between the two locations. While it didn’t get me a huge bump, I did manage to increase my salary beyond their initial offer. Both the salary and start-up funds negotiations were pretty straightforward and I was pleasantly surprised with how much start-up a teaching-heavy school like Middlebury could provide. Partner hire negotiations were a whole other story. I tried the bold move, “I won’t take this offer unless there is an offer for my partner too.” No bite. After lengthy email exchanges and a few phone calls I wasn’t even able to get it in writing that the school was committed to helping my partner find a position. The best I managed was to have the support of the dean of faculty in seeking future partner inclusion opportunities. At the same time I tried to leverage my Middlebury offer to St. Lawrence University to counteroffer this Middlebury position, but there were no potential offers at St. Lawrence University or the surrounding schools. It seemed ridiculous to turn down a tenure-track position at such a phenomenal school that was such a perfect fit so on December 23rd, I signed on the dotted line and mailed in my contract.

 

Erin’s tips on negotiation:

  • Don’t say yes immediately even if they offer you the job mid-nap!

  • Seek out allies at the offering institution.  If they offered you a job, they want you to succeed!

  • Negotiate for the things you need, but realize they may not be met immediately.

 

The Right Choice

Since accepting this position, there were many indicators that I’d made the right choice.  Before my start-up funds kicked in my department reached out to let me know there was a great deal on a large piece of equipment that I needed, and they had gone through the hoops to make enough money available to me to buy this piece of equipment before the equipment deal passed. This attitude and welcoming environment has persisted as I establish my lab and develop my teaching at Middlebury. I got this sense when I interviewed. This was not true in some of the other interviews I had.

 

Erin’s final insight:

  • Trust your intuition in the job post and when you’re face-to-face with folks on campus.

 

 

I’d like to add a shout out to Dr. Scott Taylor, Dr. Marjorie Weber, and Dr. Wil Leavitt who shared several helpful materials, and provided useful insight at precisely the right moments. Dr. Thea Whitman also recounted her experience with this process at an R1 research institution. I highly recommend her piece, she was a major role model for my application process, and incredibly helpful in answering my negotiation questions. 

 

I hope sharing my experiences may provide some useful insight for others considering this path.

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