When pursing science and a career in academics, the institution is extremely important. Choosing a small liberal arts college, formerly known as a baccalaureate institution is different from a large research university. Liberal arts colleges focus on the education of undergraduates. Offering a broad education with excellent teachers and research opportunities, there are two main tracks that can be pursued; the tenure track and the non-tenure track.


Tenure Track

The tenure track was originally created to protect valuable faculty members from the unpredictability of funding and various administrative decision-makers. Making tenure is one of the most common goals of a young scientist pursuing a career in academics. In general, it is seen as guaranteed lifetime employment.

In the tenure track, positions have the most freedom and more access to funding. Periodic performance reviews take place at designated intervals. Making tenure means job security, but a negative review can have an effect on salary and level of access to certain institutional resources – such as laboratory space.

Non-Tenure Track

Working in the non-tenure track also has its benefits but does not have completely permanent job security. Positions in this track often follow the varying needs of an institution or department. Some teaching positions can be long-term and can seem very much like a tenured position. However, these are less dependable as jobs.

The main benefit of the non-tenure-track is that due to the lack of permanency, young researchers are able to give the field of academics a try and determine if they would enjoy a lifelong career. That means that if they dislike the profession, they can leave if they so choose. Small liberal arts colleges have many of these opportunities because of the focus on undergraduate education – they need teachers.


Necessary Skills

Do you need a postdoc for a job at a liberal arts college? This is one of the questions most asked by young scientists searching for academic jobs. In short, for a tenure-track position, a Ph.D. is mandatory and some postdoctoral experience is preferred. But, it really depends on the institution – its standing, size, goals, etc. Keep in mind that a strong publication record, even in places where postdoc experience doesn’t seem as necessary, gives candidates a leg up on the job competition.

Do you need specific teaching experience for a job at a liberal arts college? Similarly, postdoc experience really depends on the institution. Mentoring undergraduates is the goal of liberal arts colleges, so candidates need to show their enthusiasm and commitment to doing so – even if teaching experience is lacking.


How to Get Your Foot in the Door

First and foremost, you need to apply for the job. Keep watch on all the institution websites and Science online Science Careers site. When reading job ads, remember that the more specific the ad, the less likely an applicant outside the field will be considered.

Once applied, a search committee will review applications. This committee composition will vary depending on the institution, some may even include undergraduate students.

Prepare teaching and research statements that outline enthusiasm, potential, and project ideas. It is important to mention how you can contribute to the development of undergraduates – as this is the primary goal of small liberal arts colleges. Information on developing funding and resources could also be included.

If invited for an interview, be prepared to deliver a research seminar or even a class. If asked to do so, gather information about expectations – are they first-year students, faculty members, and which department? The more information you have the easier it will be to prepare a presentation and the greater the chance of calmness on the day of the interview.

Interview questions might include information about the development of research, courses, and other efforts. When answering questions, remember to relate answers back to undergraduate education.


Career Progression

Think of career progression as a series of job interviews (that should get easier and easier). A career in academics, regardless of the institution, will involve regularly scheduled performance reviews. This is often used as a chance to reevaluate goals and trajectories.

Typically, a three-year contract is first with the title of assistant professor. Two or three years later comes a review and if reappointed, the new title is an associate professor (sometimes accompanied by tenure). After three or more years, another assessment for promotion will come for the position of full professor.

During evaluations, teaching and research are the most important aspects, but service is also discussed. This includes contributions to committees, outreach efforts, and others.

  1. Teaching

As a teacher at a liberal arts college, the first two years will be about finding your style and developing your teaching rhythm. It is extremely important for all teachers, but especially those who are just starting out, to engage with students and make time for them. They will be the main evaluators and their success in class will reflect on you.

  1. Research

Research expectations vary by institution, but it is important to know what is expected of you. Search out for funding sources, and seek out institutional support.

  1. Service

Some committee work will be expected. This can be valuable, especially as a young professor looking to make connections with colleagues and find resources and experiences.

  1. Work-Life Balance

One benefit of working in academics at a small liberal arts college is the “family-friendly” aspect. It is said that a smaller institution can become a welcoming community for faculty members and their families. However, grading, course development, mentoring, research, and other aspects of your career may slip over into family life.

The life of an academic in a small liberal arts college is very different from the life of a researcher at a huge institution. However, just like all jobs in the academic world, there are benefits and struggles. Evaluating what you need from your career and your life will determine if a small liberal arts college is for you.


Journal Reference

Punt, J. (2017). A career at a small liberal arts college. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a032789