Small Science? The facts and myths about science careers in liberal arts colleges

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Small Science?

  • The facts and myths about science careers in liberal arts colleges
  • Karen F. Greif, Ph.D.
  • Bryn Mawr College

What we’ll discuss

  • Liberal arts colleges: what are their features?
  • Preparing for a career in a liberal arts college
  • What search committees look for
  • The interview
  • Funding your research: special opportunities
  • Life at a liberal arts college

Some statistics

  • According to US News and World Report, there are over 200 residential liberal arts colleges in U.S.
  • They award 3-4% of all baccalaureate degrees in U.S. However, 16% of undergraduate degrees in the natural sciences are earned at baccalaureate institutions.
  • They have the highest per capita production of graduates who go on to earn Ph.Ds (data from NSF)
    • 15% of recent Ph.Ds in science and engineering obtained their baccalaureate degrees at L.A. colleges.
    • The top 25 colleges awarded baccalaureate degrees to a third of these science Ph.D.s
  • Graduates of liberal arts colleges are disproportionately represented in the leadership of the scientific community
  • Albion College
  • Alma College
  • Amherst College
  • Bates College
  • Beloit College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Bucknell University
  • Carleton College
  • Colby College
  • Colgate University
  • College of the Holy Cross
  • College of Wooster
  • Colorado College
  • Connecticut College
  • Davidson College
  • Denison University
  • DePauw University
  • Dickinson College
  • Earlham College
  • Franklin and Marshall College
  • Gettysburg College
  • Grinnell College
  • Hamilton College
  • Harvey Mudd College
  • Haverford College
  • Hope College
  • Kalamazoo College
  • Kenyon College
  • Lafayette College
  • Lawrence University
  • Macalester College
  • Manhattan College
  • Middlebury College
  • Mills College
  • Mount Holyoke College
  • Oberlin College
  • Occidental College
  • Ohio Wesleyan University
  • Pomona College
  • Reed College
  • Sewanee - U of South
  • Skidmore College
  • Smith College
  • St. Olaf College
  • Swarthmore College
  • Trinity College
  • Trinity University
  • Union College
  • Vassar College
  • Wabash College
  • Washington and Lee University
  • Washington College
  • Wellesley College
  • Wesleyan University
  • Wheaton College
  • Whitman College
  • Whittier College
  • Williams College
  • (one of several consortia of leading institutions)

Characteristics of L.A. Colleges

  • Total enrollments of 3,000 or less. The leading institutions are highly selective.
  • Focus on teaching undergraduates, including non-science majors, by regular faculty.
  • Expectation of breadth in teaching and interdisciplinary program participation.
  • Small class sizes, individualized attention to students by faculty members
  • Undergraduate students and faculty collaborate in original research.
  • Summer and sabbaticals provide most research time.

How much teaching is there?

  • Formal requirements usually expressed in “courses” taught each of the two semesters.
  • Ranges from 1/1 to 4/4.
  • Most loads are between 3/3 and 2/2.
  • Class size will vary from a high of perhaps 150 to classes of 5-8 students
  • How are “courses” calculated?

What is a “course”?

  • If a course has a laboratory, does that count as a separate course? Sometimes.
  • If you have X UG doing independent research in your lab, does that count as a course? Sometimes.
  • Is there a mechanism (formal or informal) to give more credit for teaching large courses (e.g. intro) or non-major courses? Sometimes.
  • Do you have a smaller number of courses that repeat every year, or do you have to update multiple courses that are each only offered occasionally?
  • Other commitments: advising majors, advising non-majors.

Research at LA Colleges

  • Levels of research will vary. A few institutions have graduate programs, but most do not.
  • Top-tier LA institutions expect faculty to be actively engaged in research, publishing and seeking funding
  • Lower-tier institutions will have lower expectations for research productivity

Preparing for jobs at Liberal Arts Colleges

  • Get teaching experience!
    • Take “teaching seminars”
    • Volunteer to teach sections
    • Teach a course at a local college
    • “Teaching” postdocs
  • Develop research plans that are undergraduate-friendly

Undergraduate-friendly Research

  • Overall project can be broken into smaller projects.
  • Can be done in relatively short blocks of time – students are all taking other courses at the same time, and thus have less time and fewer long blocks of time to devote to their research projects than graduate students.
  • Projects are not likely to be ‘road kills’ by competing big labs.
  • Projects can be done with available equipment or items that will be purchased as part of faculty start-up.
  • Ongoing costs for student projects modest.
  • Projects must match resources available.

Some questions to ask about research activities

  • What have recently tenured faculty accomplished at the institution?
  • Do most faculty have funded research programs?
  • Do faculty work on their research during the summer?
  • How much money does the institution provide for research (in-house grants for research supplies, travel, undergraduate stipends, etc)?
  • What is the sabbatical policy? Range: 1 semester every 7 semesters to never. Some institutions have a pre-tenure junior leave.

Applying for Jobs

  • Know your institution. Visit websites, become aware
  • Apply for jobs that fit you
  • Cover letters
    • Cover letters should indicate awareness of institution
    • Stress relevant experience/knowledge of LA environment
    • One-size DOES NOT fit all! Avoid generic letters, especially those you use for research universities

What Search Committees Look For

  • Different tiers of colleges have different expectations and may weigh different components quite differently.
  • All look at the same characteristics of a candidate: experience and promise in both teaching and research.
  • Awareness and understanding of the liberal arts environment. Any suggestion that this is an “easy” alternative career is fatal

Evaluation of teaching potential

  • Motivation and enthusiasm for teaching
  • Efforts to gain teaching experience
  • Teaching philosophy well-thought out. (These tend to be superficial and unoriginal)
  • Some awareness of current trends: active learning, case studies, inquiry-based learning, supplemental instruction (reaching all students), etc.
  • Interest in teaching in the laboratory as well as in the classroom.

More on teaching

  • Experience: preference for those having taught a complete course, but generally quality TA experience is sufficient.
  • Breadth of experience and of courses in which candidate has both the interest and experience to teach. Be specific about courses you are interested in teaching and/or developing.
  • Potential to teach new and appropriate courses, especially interdisciplinary courses.

Research Expectations

  • Most, but not all, institutions will prefer or require postdoctoral experience
  • Publications: 1-10, at least some first author, in high quality journals
  • Grant support: Potential for future funding; previous grants not expected for entry level positions. Postdoctoral fellowships a plus!
  • Research area to complement but not overlap with other faculty in the department. (Given small faculty sizes, this is amongst the top criteria.)
  • Research program amenable to undergraduate participation—both conceptually and technically

Letters of recommendation

  • Get letters that assess both research and teaching potential.
  • If you don’t have a letter from your graduate or postdoc advisors, search committees may wonder why. Provide an explanation if you can.
  • Strong letters from individuals who have some awareness of the LA environment are particularly helpful.

Additional Expectations (some assessed at interview)

  • Clarity of written expression (as a measure of communication skills).
  • Ability to interact comfortably with students (and other members of the faculty).
  • Clarity of presentation of research seminar – at a level appropriate for an undergraduate audience.

The Interview

  • Generally, your expenses will be covered
  • Typically 1-2 grueling days (12 hours per day not unusual!)
  • You will meet department members, some senior administrators, students, outside members of search committee
  • Be prepared to talk about both research and teaching AND ask questions about the department and institution. The interview is a two-way street!
  • Do your homework! Familiarize yourself with departmental research and curriculum
  • Research talk: aimed at an undergraduate audience (THIS IS CRITICAL)
  • Some institutions will also ask you to teach a class
  • Interactions with students are important; if the students don’t like you, you will not get an offer

Employment packages

  • 9 or 10 month guaranteed salary
  • Summer salary must be picked up on grants
  • First appointments are generally for three or four years, with review in the third year
  • Subsidized health insurance coverage and spending accounts
  • Other benefits: life insurance, retirement (TIAA-CREF or other); disability; mortgage plans; tuition plans; faculty housing (varies)

Negotiating a package

  • Small institutions often have less flexibility in starting salaries
  • Start-up package:
    • May or may not include renovated lab/office space
    • Generally, don’t expect the level of support you would get at a major research university!
    • Ask for what you really need but don’t pad
    • Don’t count on being provided with a technician or other professional personnel
  • Major Sources
  • National Institutes of Health (AREA, R03, R01)
  • National Science Foundation (RUI, REU, CCLI, MUE, MRI)
  • Other Sources
  • Whitehall Foundation
  • Sigma Xi
  • Psi Chi
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute (Institutional Programs)
  • Council on Undergraduate Research
  • Institutional
  • Funding your Research Program
  • NIH Academic Research Enhancement
  • Award (AREA) Grants - (R15)
  • Maximum funding level = $150,000 (direct costs) over 3 years
  • (requested in $25,000 modules under NIH’s Modular Budget Program). P.I. can submit “competing continuations”.
  • R15 Awards 2005
  • Reviewed Awarded Total Funds success rate
  • 2005 NCCAM 8 2 $273,645 25%
  • NCI 59 20 $4,033,242 34%
  • NCRR 1 1 $210,750 100%
  • NEI 11 3 $563,594 27%
  • NHGRI 2 0 0 0%
  • NHLBI 43 21 $4,191,938 49%
  • NIA 37 12 $2,250,420 32%
  • NIAAA 2 0 0 0%
  • NIAID 74 19 $3,771,145 26%
  • NIAMS 22 5 $1,028,365 23%
  • NIBIB 9 1 $195,000 11%
  • NICHD 36 7 $1,387,215 19%
  • NIDA 12 4 $721,195 33%
  • NIDCD 18 6 $1,249,472 33%
  • NIDCR 5 2 $397,145 40%
  • NIDDK 38 10 $1,823,511 26%
  • NIEHS 17 9 $1,778,121 53%
  • NIGMS 142 49 $10,196,158 35%
  • NIMH 20 0 0 0%
  • NINDS 41 11 $2,349,337 27%
  • NINR 64 15 $3,320,523 23%
  • 661 197 $39,740,776
  • Research Project Grant (R01)
  • (usually following AREA or R03; For well-established programs.
  • Hard to get in this time of tight money)
  • Direct costs of ~ $150,000 – $1,000,000, depending on
  • the Institute (over 5 years). P.I. can submit competing continuations.
  • Small Grant Program (R03)
  • Direct costs up to $50,000/yr for two years (depending on Institute rules).
  • Generally less than $100,000 per year. Institution must meet certain
  • eligibility criteria.
  • Home page -
  • Also
  • Collaborative Research in Undergraduate Institutions (C-RUI)
  • Fosters interdisciplinary collaboration between P.I.s within a college
  • or between colleges, following RUI guidelines.
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Research in Undergraduate Institutions (RUI)
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Faculty Early Career Development Program
  • (CAREER)
  • CAREER Program Goal:
  • New investigators with clear plans for successful integration of research and teaching.
  • • Five-year funding period with minimum budget of $100,000/yr.
  • Home page -
  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates
  • (REU)
  • Funds mentored summer undergraduate research
  • Two forms of funding:
  • REU Site (departmental or institutional) ~ 10 students/yr.
  • REU Supplement (individual investigator generated) Home Page –
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) –
  • Equipment Programs
  • Multi-User Biological Equipment and Instrumentation
  • (MUE)
  • Major Research Instrumentation (MRI)
  • • Grants to fund major research equipment (usually shared).
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) – Course,
  • Curriculum, and Laboratory Improvement
  • Equipment for new undergraduate laboratory teaching and research instrumentation and equipment.
  • Division of Undergraduate Education

Life at a Liberal Arts College

  • Challenges:
  • You wear many hats! Teacher, scholar, advisor, faculty member, committee member (not counting your family….)
  • You are pulled in many directions: finding a balance is often difficult
  • You work very long hours to fulfill your goals
  • Rewards:
  • Small size permits you to have close interactions with students
  • Small size permits you to have interactions with faculty in other disciplines (Have lunch with a philosopher or political scientist! Join a faculty seminar on “time”, etc)
  • You will have considerable flexibility to pursue new teaching and research interests as they arise

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