A Guide for Applying to Jobs at SLACs

A Guide for Applying to Jobs at SLACs

You received your PhD from a major research university. Your advisors work at a major research university. Your placement director works at a major research university. But if you are on the job market, you are likely applying to some jobs that are not at major research universities. Among the various other institutions of higher learning you might be applying for jobs at are SLACs: Selective Liberal Arts Colleges.

Of course, you and your advisors and your placement director may be familiar with SLACs, but still, it could be useful for you to hear—directly from the people working and doing the hiring at SLACs—what they are looking for in job candidates.

So, what follows is a guide for applying to jobs at SLACs, written by philosophers currently employed at SLACs (first tip: don’t call them “SLACkers”). The idea was prompted by last month’s guide to applying to jobs in the UK.

The original version of this document was drafted by Barry Lam (Vassar). It then was modified and supplemented with extensive commentary from Nathaniel Goldberg (Washington and Lee), Daniel Groll (Carleton), Amy Kind (Claremont McKenna), Mary Kate McGowan (Wellesley), Nishi Shah (Amherst), J. Aaron Simmons (Furman), Susan Stark (Bates), and Erik Wielenberg (DePauw). A big thank you to all of them for contributing to this guide.

Others employed at SLACs are encouraged to contribute their thoughts in the comments below.

SLACs are only one of the various kinds of non-major-research-university. Look for similar guides for other kinds of institutions of higher learning over the next couple of months.

 A Guide for Applying to Jobs at Selective Liberal Arts Colleges

1. Research Matters: Research is important at SLACs, but perhaps in different ways than at research universities. SLACs expect that successful job applicants and candidates for tenure have a strong research program where they attend conferences every year, present papers regularly, and publish articles in strong journals or books with excellent publishers. While the research requirements at SLACs are less intense than they are at top research universities, at the same time, there is the expectation (and support for) scholars to be highly engaged with their research program, to have their teaching informed by their research program, and to be engaged with other experts in their field. Emphasis on research tends to vary inversely with respect to teaching load – the higher the load, the less emphasis on research.

Generally, SLACs are not worried about people being from schools that are “too good,” fearing that they will leave. SLACS don’t count it against someone that they are from a “top” school. Nor are they generally  scared away by publications in tippy top journals. SLACs consider themselves philosophically worthy of the best and brightest research-wise. Having said that, they are on the lookout for signs that someone really wants to be at a research university or doesn’t get that teaching is really the top priority at a SLAC (who doesn’t get that? You would be surprised!).

Consequently, beware of subtle or not-so subtle signaling about the relative importance to you of teaching versus research. While we are looking for a colleague that does serious research and wants to be professionally active, we also want someone who does not see teaching as a (major) obstacle to achieving research goals. So, red flags go up when (real life example) the first question a candidate asks in the “Do you have any questions?” portion of the interview is, “How easy is it to miss classes to go to conferences?” or when a candidate expresses, however jokingly, disdain for teaching introductory level classes.

It is also important for you to be able to show that your research is philosophically valuable and accessible to others. You should be able to show how you can make your research comprehensible to your students, usually through advanced seminars. You should be able to convey to your potential colleagues, who are likely not experts in your area, the value of your project and its value in the research tradition in which you are working. Most importantly, however, is that you are able to speak about, motivate, and understand your research with respect to philosophy generally and to non-experts (including colleagues in other fields at the institution). In other words, if you are too caught up thinking about every last counterexample or response to a response to a response, you will seem narrow even if your research is very important internal to the literature in which you are an expert.

It is a good idea to learn about the specialties of your potential colleagues in the hiring department, at the very least, to prepare yourself for the kinds of questions you might get at your talk and in conversations during your interviews. If possible, it may help to focus your job talk on philosophical questions or problems, rather than solely on particular figures, as this helps to avoid the appearance of insularity that can be off-putting not only to other faculty members, but especially to students, who at many SLACs attend the job-talks and give feedback on them to the department faculty. Your job-talk will likely be read as reflective of how you would be as a teacher and so making complicated things understandable, without making them seem too easy, is another important skill to display.

2. Teaching Matters: Quality teaching is a high priority for these jobs. As an applicant, you will be required to show evidence of teaching effectiveness, experience, and enthusiasm. These may include numerical evaluations, narrative evaluations and observations, sample syllabi, and teaching awards. In your interviews, job talks, and conversations over lunch and dinner, the interviewing committee will seek evidence of a commitment to teaching; of thoughtfulness and creativity in constructing courses, assignments, grading and evaluation; of your interest in the development of more general student skills, such as writing and research; and of quality of interaction with students such as ability to explain basic ideas clearly and effectively.

Stories  describing your effective interaction with students, or your learning from your teaching missteps, are important for showing your qualities as a teacher—they are more memorable than mere numbers, and they can show you are able to engage meaningfully with your students, developing with them the kind of relationships often stressed at SLACs.

SLACs also highly value thesis and other independent-study supervision. So be prepared for non-classroom teaching to matter, whether you are asked about it or not. In fact you might score points by asking about it yourself.

Additionally, many SLACs will include a teaching demonstration/mock class as an important part of the on-campus interview process. Hiring departments at SLACs will be looking for an outstanding teaching performance, as well as a demonstration of your ability to elicit student interest and lead discussion effectively.

Pay special attention to the nature of the tasks you’re asked to perform on campus visits. Have you been asked to discuss your research with the faculty as well as to give a job talk? If so, then the job talk may not be geared toward professional philosophers but rather (smart) undergraduates. That means that that killer paper you would give as a job talk at a major research university will not make for a great SLAC job talk because your audience will be lost. When in doubt ask who the audience for the job talk is, and then change things up accordingly.

3. Curriculum Matters: Whether you are a person who fits the teaching needs and desires of the department, as well as the overall college curriculum, matters much more at SLACs than at research institutions. A department at a SLAC typically seeks someone to teach a certain profile of courses and may prioritize people without too much overlap with existing members of the department in terms of teaching expertise. You should be conversant with the interests of others while adding new interests into the mix. Additionally, you might be asked to teach a wider range of courses within your area than you would at a research institution, since you might be the only faculty member working in an area. At the same time, SLACs also often assume that, eventually, you might be ready, willing, and able to teach courses outside your area. In short, coverage of what the department deems to be essential to the curriculum is a very high priority: in this manner, both actual fit and potential flexibility matter.

4. Interactions with Students Matter: Some of these places have undergraduate students come to job talks and/or teaching demonstrations, or have a student-interview process, or may even elicit a report from students on their evaluation of a job candidate. How much such evaluations are rated depends on the institution, but some institutions take them very seriously.

Do not talk down to students are act as if their opinions do not matter. Their teachers will generally take very seriously reports that someone is patronizing to, dismissive of, or ignoring their concerns.  If you meet with students, you should try to get them talking about what they want out of the position to which you’re applying. Then, you can try to incorporate their interests and hopes for the new position into your own narrative of what you would bring to the table. This way, you are responsive to the students as important voices in the departmental community.

5. Contributing to Departmental Life and the School Matters: Showing (genuine!) enthusiasm for bringing something extra-curricular to the department can be particularly helpful for your interviews with SLACs. Convincing your interviewers that you would like to start a philosophy club or plan a speaker series, etc., makes you an attractive candidate. Providing evidence, if you can, that you’ve done this kind of thing already helps even more. More generally, hiring committees at SLACs may be more interested than those at major research universities  in ways in which you can be of service to the department and the college, particularly in regard to student activities (e.g., as an advisor to student clubs).

6. Extra-Departmental Considerations Matter: At research universities, your colleagues would be largely, if not entirely, philosophers. At SLACs, some might be in cognate and perhaps even non-cognate departments. This means at least three things for interviewing. First, if the hiring department is small, there may be non-philosophy faculty on the search committee. Second, regardless of the hiring committee, there may be non-philosophy faculty at your teaching demonstration and job talk. Third, you might be asked about how your teaching would contribute to interdisciplinary programs; while research universities could ask this also, SLACs really mean it. Keep all this in mind during the interview.

7. Career Stages Matter: There is little to almost no hiring of senior people at SLACs, save for the very well-endowed schools. Such places almost exclusively hire junior candidates as they are cheaper and thought to be more adaptable to their teaching environment, and there is considerably less priority for senior research distinction than at major research institutions.

8. Tenure Matters: Such places WANT to hire someone whom they expect to tenure. They do not generally envisage the tenure-track as a performance test for candidates with the greatest promise. With that in mind, it is important to find out about research expectations for tenure. Ask about how teaching quality is evaluated within the college and within the department. These are things that are in the back of the mind of those hiring at such institution. Also ask about the tenure procedure generally. The department vote might be secondary to the college vote. Moreover smaller departments might have non-philosophers, or philosophers from other colleges, on the “department” tenure committee.

You are unlikely to change an institutional culture and so “fit” should run in both directions. Are you willing to have teaching elevated over research in the institutional narrative, as it is as many SLACs? Are you willing to see an incredible amount of service as simply part of what it means to be a good member of the community? Are you comfortable with the relational dimension of the SLAC culture being something that might expect you to be available to students in ways that don’t fit neatly into scheduled office hours? SLACs are absolutely amazing places to spend one’s career and live one’s life, but they are different sorts of institutions than where most folks will have gone to graduate school and so demonstrating to the faculty at the SLAC that you understand and are invested in that distinctive culture is important.


Some possible interview questions for positions at SLACs:

  • Tell us about your research program.
  • What is your approach to teaching introduction to philosophy?
  • How would you aim to get students who might have no background in philosophy interested in the discipline?
  • What text have you used in a previous course that did not work well?
  • What is the one text that you think you would nearly always want to include in an intro course?
  • How do you understand the role of advisor?
  • How does your research inform your teaching, and vice-versa?
  • What ideas do you have for generating excitement about philosophy across campus?
  • What do you think are the primary characteristics of an excellent undergraduate philosophy program?
  • If you could teach anything, what is your dream course?
  • What is the benefit of studying philosophy even if a student decides to major in something else?



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