Are you interested in applying for a position in psychology at a small liberal arts institution? Here's some advice, based on my involvement in about 13 searches over 15 years (at Union College and Skidmore College).


A successful application typically includes the following:

1. Cover Letter

2. Curriculum Vitae

3. Research Portfolio

4. Teaching Portfolio

5. Letters of Recommendation

I will talk about each of these parts separately. For other sources of information, you might take a look at:

Brems, C., Lampman, C., & Johnson, M. E. (1995). Preparation of applications for academic positions in psychology. American Psychologist, 50, 533-537.

Zanna, M. P. & Darley, J. M. (1987). The Compleat Academic: A Practical Guide for the Beginning Social Scientist [Available through SPSSI ]

One general piece of advice is to check your application carefully for spelling and grammatical errors. You'd probably benefit from having someone else read over your materials before sending them out.


Cover Letter

First of all, the cover letter is vitally important. You'd be amazed at the number of applications that include either a very uninformative one-paragraph cover letter or a cover letter that is not at all tailored to a small liberal arts institution. Here's what you should be doing in your cover letter:

1. Indicate that you are particularly interested in working at a small liberal arts institution. If you graduated from a small liberal arts institution, you might want to talk about your experiences as a undergraduate and how they have led you to apply for faculty positions at similar institutions. Give a clear indication that you understand the priorities of small liberal arts institutions (i.e., the emphasis on teaching). You might consider highlighting the reasons that you prefer a position at a small liberal arts institution to a university position, for instance. We've had applicants state that they are looking for a position that will allow them to relax, after working in a high-powered position for X years. Not exactly the most endearing tactic, and a clear indication that the applicant did not understand the nature of small liberal arts institutions.

2. Briefly highlight your teaching experience, with some indication of your success in the classroom. I would save most of the details for a separate statement of teaching philosophy, etc.

3. Briefly describe your research program. Keep in mind that the small size of most departments will mean that most of the people reading your application materials will be (far) outside your research area.

4. Research the college/department to which you are applying. If aspects of the college/department are particularly attractive, talk about them in your cover letter.

5. This is the least formal portion of your application materials. Thus, it is here that your personality is most likely to shine through (for good or ill).

6. People will read your cv carefully, but don't hesitate to highlight those achievements that you think are particularly noteworthy.

Curriculum Vitae

I don't have a lot of advice about the cv. I do have a pet peeve. Some people with few publications try to hide that fact by putting conference presentations, drafts under review, drafts under consideration, etc., all together in one section. No one is fooled by such a tactic, but if you manage to annoy someone by doing so, that won't help your chances. [See Brems, et al., Table 3]

Be sure that your cv reflects a balance between teaching and research. A cv with lots of publications, lots of information about research interests, etc., but nothing about teaching is perceived as a statement of the applicant's priorities. At minimum, you should indicate the courses that you've taught and the courses that you are prepared to teach.

Research Portfolio

At minimum, your research portfolio should include:

1. Reprints of publications

2. Preprints of papers, grant proposals, etc.

3. Research statement

The research statement can be very useful to a reader who is not well versed in your research area. (And that's the reader you should have in mind as you craft your statement.) Try to give a clear sense of what is important about the research you have done thus far in your career. If you have been involved in a number of different research projects, indicate which projects are likely to remain active. Talk about the directions that you plan to pursue in the future. Be sure to indicate that undergraduates are attracted to your research, especially if you've worked with undergraduate research assistants in the past. If undergraduates are co-authors on any of your publications, please point that out somewhere in your materials.

If you don't do so in your cover letter, be sure to address the issue of your ability to initiate and complete a research program on an independent basis. If you have technical skills (e.g., computer, electrical) that allow you to function independently, be sure to mention them. Try to indicate that you are ready to function independently &emdash; especially if you're applying directly from a graduate program. Remember, you will no longer have the cohort of similarly oriented and similarly trained people around you that you enjoyed in graduate school, nor will you have the technical support staff. Can you make a case for your ability to get a research program off the ground in the context of a small liberal arts institution?

Teaching Portfolio

At minimum, your teaching portfolio should include:

1. Course syllabi

2. Course evaluations (numerical ratings and student comments)

3. Teaching statement (teaching philosophy, teaching strategies, etc.)

Course syllabi are often quite informative, so including a few representative syllabi.

If you've taught successfully in the past, any evidence that you can supply to a prospective employer is going to help your case. Student evaluations are useful, both numerical ratings and open-ended statements from students. Faculty evaluations are also useful. Our ads always ask specifically to have applicants include such materials, yet they often fail to do so. Even if the ad doesn't ask you to send evaluations, it is likely to aid your case if you include them.

In your teaching statement, indicate the courses that you are interested in teaching (even though these should also be in your cv). Highlight those that you've already taught. Check to be sure that your teaching interests are consistent with the courses mentioned in the advertisement. Because teaching is so central to the mission of small liberal arts institutions, you should use this section of your application to clarify your love of teaching and the success you've enjoyed to date. If you have a particular style of teaching, you should address that in your statement. Do you use one style in one course and a different style in another course? What is your teaching philosophy? (If you haven't given that issue much thought, you might not be cut out for a small liberal arts institution.)

Most applicants have relatively little teaching experience. If, however, you are a more senior person applying for a position, I would include only the most recent information about teaching in your portfolio. That is, only a few recent syllabi, and course evaluations from the past year or two.

 

Letters of Recommendation

For the most part, the faculty writing letters act as though they are recommending you for a university position. I can't tell you the number of letters of recommendation that contain the phrase, "Although I've never observed X teach..." Huh? Why not? I know that you can't control the behavior of your faculty mentors, but try to nudge them to observe you teaching. Their letters will be strengthened considerably if they address your teaching abilities.

In reading over thousands of letters of recommendation, I can only remember reading two that were negative. Thus, evaluation of letters of recommendation is tricky (at best), with the reader trying to determine if the letter writer didn't address a particular issue due to an oversight or due to an attempt to sidestep the issue. It's always entertaining when the same person has written letters of recommendation for several different applicants.

If you have a student (or two) who can write a strong letter for you, I would have them do so. This approach can be a bit dicey, because a vacuous or poorly written student letter may actually hurt you. However, a well-written and informative letter from a former student can be very useful to your application.


I'm sure that you recognize that the job market is extraordinarily competitive. I've never seen fewer than 100 applicants for any of the searches with which I've been involved. If you are unsuccessful in your pursuit of a suitable position, try to get some honest feedback on your application materials. The solution may be relatively simple (get more teaching experience, get more publications, your cover letter created a mistaken impression of your interests, etc.). If your package is without obvious flaws and you're still not getting any nibbles, I can only imagine that you are looking for work in an area that is filled with even stronger applicants. All you can do is work to strengthen your cv and try again.

I guess that's about it. Good luck! If you can think of some advice that I should add to this compendium, drop me a line.

Hugh

(Thanks to Sue Frantz, Max Gwynn, Brenda Smith, and Karen Smith for suggestions.)