The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

Getting a Job at a Small College

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This is my last post before I officially leave the Langkilde Lab. While I’m incredibly sad to go, it’s also very exciting to set up a new lab (an academic child of the Langkilde Lab) at my new home. I will be an assistant professor of vertebrate biology at Wabash College in Indiana, a very small liberal arts college with rigorous academics and excellent resources for research. Maybe some day I’ll return to write a post about what this job is like, but for now I thought I’d share some lessons learned about applying for a faculty position at smaller, teaching-oriented schools. In some ways I’m not all that qualified to give advice on this: I only ever went through this process once, I only had a handful of phone interviews, and I only attended one on-campus interview. But, I did it successfully and learned a few valuable things along the way, both by experience and by reading lots of advice from others.


1. Applying for jobs is going to take time. I sent out approximately 60 job applications, including (in most cases) a cover letter that introduced myself and why I wanted (and could do) the job, a teaching statement describing my approach to biology education, and a research statement delineating my interests and future projects I’d like to undertake. That’s a lot to do, and it has to be done a little differently each time (see #2 below). I applied for everything I could remotely see fitting into because I need to work. Luckily, I didn’t have to accept one of those jobs that I didn’t really want. There were jobs that I seemed perfectly suited for that summarily rejected me without even a phone interview. In some cases they may have already had a candidate in mind, in other cases there might have been some other quality that they were looking for that wasn’t communicated in the job description, and in probably the majority of cases there was someone similarly well-matched to the position who was just much more experienced. So unless you are really at the top of your field, you have to apply for a lot of jobs in order for the right combination of circumstances to lead to a job offer. And you have to increase the number of job applications by stretching into applying for jobs that don’t quite sound like you. I applied for jobs as a vertebrate biologist, an invertebrate biologist, a physiologist, an ecologist, and an environmental statistician. And across all different fields, I had cases where I got past the first round of selecting applicants. I credit this too #2 below …


2. You apply for specific jobs. With small schools, they often have very particular teaching needs, and faculty are generally expected to teach a variety of courses rather than just a single one in the specialty. At Wabash, I will be teaching ecology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, introductory biology, and freshman seminar courses surveying topics from a breadth of perspectives in science, the arts, and humanities. In applying, I had to demonstrate how I was prepared for and what I would bring to each of those courses, highlighting how different experiences listed in my CV make me a suitable candidate for that job. That takes a lot of work because there was an extremely diverse group of courses across all the jobs I applied to. I also spent a lot of time trying to understand the particulars of the school so I could address how I would fit in there. Does the school emphasize certain things like experiential learning or close mentoring relationships? Do they have certain facilities or equipment that I could make good use of? For my research program to function at a smaller school, it is also important that it can continue at low cost, which for me makes local study systems important. To that end, I researched native organisms that I’d be comfortable working with and described natural areas near the school that I could take advantage of. In short, I became very familiar with departments, entire schools, and the surrounding areas with each application, and worked hard to consider how my approach to teaching and research would be realized in that setting and to convey that image in a compelling way to the search committee.


3. Teaching schools have different expectations than the graduate school’s that train us. While high profile research is perfectly welcome and exciting at smaller schools, the primary responsibility is to the undergraduate students. A good research program is one that is practical given the circumstances of the school and, moreover, creates opportunities for students to be engaged in the scientific process as part of their extracurricular education. I don’t need to be pursuing research questions that will draw international renown so much as I need to be a mentor and teacher of those students who work with me. I like to think that I will try to change my field, but my first duty is to change my students’ lives. Fortunately working in the Langkilde Lab prepared me well for this. I have been lucky to work with a number of excellent students, many of whom served as research assistants and some of whom became collaborators/mentees. As I applied for jobs, I had several papers published or in review with student co-authors, and think this was a strong element of my application.


4. You might not know what you want. Many faculty positions appeared rather unappealing at first glance (and some still do!). Researching the school and describing how I would contribute to them often changed my perspective, and I started picturing myself making a great career for myself there. For instance, some areas I never thought I’d want to live have abundant or unusual biodiversity that would support spectacular research projects. The job at Wabash as I first perceived it was not what I had hoped for: anatomy seemed like a less desirable course to teach, an all-men’s college seemed like a strange environment to be in, and a small rural town seemed unappealing. But all of this has changed. I found as I prepared more for teaching comparative anatomy that a dormant curiosity and passion for the topic was ignited, and that I could teach it in an exciting way beyond rote memorization. The students at Wabash are a group of dedicated and academically-oriented young men with lots of respect for the faculty and their school (by and large, at least compared to most schools). The small town is charming, centrally-located with respect to urban areas and large university towns, and has such low cost housing that we could afford to purchase a nice home within a mile of the college right off the bat. They also have uncommon research support for a school of that size; indeed, many much larger schools lack the facilities, equipment, and start-up funds available there. This isn’t intended to be about how great Wabash is, but rather just a way to highlight how the perfect job that I pictured wasn’t what I found (and may not exist). Instead, I found something else that is perfect that I wouldn’t have expected. You can surprise yourself with what you end up liking.


I hope these reflections on the job hunt are helpful to others who might be considering a similar career. And with that, I say goodbye for now to The Lizard Log!


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