Questions about science at a liberal arts college

I spent the day Saturday in New Orleans at the Society for Neuroscience job fair, doing my best impression of a recruiter. My department is searching for a new faculty colleague whose research area (ideally) spans cellular/molecular neuroscience and microbiology. Given that there have been some splashy publications in this area lately, we’re hoping we can find a good match. Given the somewhat unusual coupling of neuroscience and microbiology, we felt it would be a smart move to go and make the case to a few hundred potential job seekers, and in retrospect it was time well spent. I spoke personally with probably a half-dozen scientists who seemed keen on our position and planned to submit their materials.

On the other hand, a few of the other conversations were, how shall I put it, less than productive. Any good teacher is always quick to point out that there are no stupid questions. While that may be true in the classroom, or at least express an honorable sentiment, it doesn’t apply to every situation. If you’ve stumbled upon this post, think of this as some advice for what not to ask about a faculty position in science at a liberal arts college.

Q: So how much would I have to teach?

Really? This is your first question? This is a little like inquiring about a job as a personal trainer and asking ‘how much would I have to work out?’ Teaching is what we do at a liberal arts college, almost everything takes a back seat to teaching. That doesn’t mean we don’t do research, but we almost never do it instead of teaching. In an ideal world, your research complements your teaching, allowing you to use it as a tool in your teaching. Most of us could probably advance more quickly working alone our own research than we can with students, but the whole point of being here is to help mentor and train students. So you have to be at least as interested in helping facilitate those A-ha! moments for students as you are in your actual research questions.

(To answer your question, we teach between 10 and 12 ‘contact hours’ — hours spent in front of a class or lab — per week. For example, most semesters that means 2 lecture classes and 2 lab sections.)

Does your department provide TA support for your grad students?

Unfortunately no, because there are no grad students, we are an undergraduate liberal arts college.

But wait, I thought you said you were expected to do research. Who does the research if you don’t have grad students?

Ah, good question (not really, just trying to be nice). Remember how I was talking about mentoring and training undergraduate students? You guessed it, they do the actual research with you. Let me sketch out the picture for you: You are in your lab, doing the research, and they are there with you, also doing the research.

Does this actually work? Do you ever publish anything?

I’m glad you asked! Yes, in fact, this does work. Of the 14 faculty members across the life sciences at OWU, all of us have at least one peer-reviewed publication within the last 3 years. Almost all of those include student authors, some of them include student first authors. Are these in Science and Nature? Not often, no. But if the thought of publishing a student-authored research paper in a respectable journal does not excite you at least as much as a publication in one of the big three, you should probably just move along, nothing to see here. To us, there is simply nothing better than watching (and facilitating) your undergraduate students on their path to becoming independent scientists.

But if I have to be in the lab actually doing the research, who will write the grant proposals to fund all the post-docs and technicians?

I can see you’re really starting to connect (some of) the dots, that’s good. You will not have to worry about carrying 7 post-docs and 2 technicians, because you couldn’t convince a post-doc to come work with you in a million years. ‘The system’ is set up in such a way that post-docs need to make as much data as possible, as fast as possible. Working with you and your undergraduate students is not conducive to fast data-making. Post-docs would take one look at your first-year students re-using the same pipette tip for both primers and the template in a PCR and run away in terror.

Given the large teaching load, how often does the neurotransmitter re-uptake journal club meet?

Even less often than you might expect, given that you would be the only one here who works on neurotransmitter transporters, or signaling in general, or does any form of molecular/cellular neuroscience at all! Take heart though, after you have been here a few years, you can start a journal club with the students you have mentored, the purpose of which will be, you guessed it, teaching.

It sounds like I’ll have to teach a lot. Will I have to teach things outside my main area of interest, which is neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function?

Only if you consider almost every other topic that has to do with cells or molecules to be outside your area of interest.

What do you mean when you say, “…and also participate in service to the department and university”?

This is really not a big deal, it’s just minor work involving questions like should this faculty member receive tenure? and which department has the greatest need for a new faculty position? and how can we work with the administration to find a way to increase salaries, which haven’t kept up with the cost of living in 20 years? And sometimes you’ll be asked to help with student recruitment by attending an event, hosting students in your classes, meeting with parents, or traveling to a college fair, but this doesn’t happen any more than once a week.

Wrapping Up

I don’t want any of this to come across as (entirely) snarky and sarcastic, everything above should be read in good humor. I do think it’s important that you know what you’re getting into with a position at a liberal arts college. Many prospective faculty members have only ever seen the academic job market from the viewpoint of their advisor at a large, research university. Those positions are great and vitally important to the research enterprise, but they are not primarily about teaching undergraduates. Here’s one way to think about it: if you want your career advancement to be tied mostly to your research productivity, don’t come to a small liberal arts college, go to a big university. But if you want your rewards and incentives to be tied to your teaching excellence while still maintaining an active research program, let’s talk. Even if you work on neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function.

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