Karen Kelsky

Founder and President at The Professor Is In

The Professor Is In: ‘What Is Your Five-Year Plan?’

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Question: I’ve been applying for faculty openings at teaching-oriented colleges, and I’ve noticed that they often ask for a job candidate’s "five-year plan." I know how to answer that for research-focused universities, but I’m a bit stumped how to handle it at teaching colleges. What do they mean by five-year plan?

Kelsky: In graduate school, when people ask about your "five-year plan," they generally mean your scholarly productivity — the arc of your professional development. Doctoral training conditions you to think, first and foremost, in terms of your research pipeline and output. You can easily parlay that into an appropriate answer when you are asked about your five-year plan during an interview at a research-oriented university. You might reply, "In five years, I plan to have my first book out, be midway through the research for my second book, and have applied for two major grants."

But giving that same answer during a job interview at a teaching-oriented campus would seriously disadvantage your candidacy there and would put you completely out of the running at a college focused exclusively on teaching. Such institutions have very different priorities from a research university, and will expect you — or at least the successful candidate — to share them.

So how should you respond? That depends on where the college sits along the spectrum that runs from research to teaching.

Say you are interviewing at a college that is clearly oriented toward teaching but expects faculty members to have some scholarly currency. When the search committee asks about your five-year plan, here are some things you might say:

  • Mention your scholarly goals but do so in a big-picture way: "Five years from now I expect to move on to my next major project on Butterfly Authoritarianism, which comes out of my current project on Caterpillar Authoritarianism." Don’t enumerate the sort of details you would rattle off about your research plans in an R1 interview. Don’t talk about which journals you will target for submission and which editors you will approach with your book proposal. Definitely don’t mention the big national grants that you hope to secure in order to buy you some time free of teaching obligations.
  • In the same breath, talk about the rotation of courses you hope to establish, and how they would serve your department and the college at large. For instance, "I envision developing an intro-level course in our major on ‘Insect Politics’ that can also serve as a gen-ed offering for the undergraduate curriculum. I want to develop at least two electives, ‘Moths and Marxism,’ and ‘The Social Movements of Larvae,’ which can both be cross-listed with political science and sociology courses."
  • Teaching-focused colleges tend to like local research projects — ones that can involve students. Can your research be scaled in such a way? Maybe if you are studying the efficacy of "green" infrastructures, you could use the college campus as a case study. Maybe if your dissertation is on ocean acidification, your next project could focus on runoff from a local river. Maybe if your fieldwork centers around transnational migration, your next focus could be on a local diaspora of the group of people you study.
  • Beyond coursework, it is a good idea to share your vision for some larger curriculum development or program building. Maybe you sensed enthusiasm for a minor in gender studies. Or maybe you noticed, in reading the course catalog, that the college almost has enough courses for a certificate program in marketing management. In describing your five-year plan, say that you hope to develop a niche program that could leverage existing faculty expertise and course offerings and train students in a particular set of skills. Or share your idea for a new film series related to your discipline, yet open to the campus community and the general public. Talk about specific study-abroad program that you have the connections and the desire to foster. All those things are good indicators that your five-year goals match up with the institutional profile.
  • Finally, make sure you mention that you see yourself taking on leadership roles in your discipline. Maybe you would like to be on an editorial board of a journal, or serve in some capacity on the board of a professional association. Always connect such aspirations explicitly with the benefits they would bring to your potential employer (expertise, resources, recognition).

If you are dealing with a college that sits even further toward teaching on the spectrum, your description of your five-year plan should focus almost entirely on the teaching and service you hope to do for the institution, if hired. If you talk about research, make sure it’s the kind that falls under "the scholarship of teaching and learning," so named by Ernest Boyer in 1990 and since adopted by many teaching-centered institutions.

Boyer’s model expanded the definition of scholarship beyond the sort of basic research that he called "the scholarship of discovery." One of the four categories of Boyer’s model was "the scholarship of teaching and learning." The idea was to treat various teaching-related activities as scholarship, so long as there was an articulated intention behind them to promote innovation and "best practices" in pedagogy. The scholarship of teaching and learning includes things like educational research projects, presentations at pedagogy conferences, new approaches to assessment, production of teaching materials (from traditional textbooks to online educational games).

So if you are interviewing at a place that follows the Boyer paradigm (usually it will be reflected somewhere on the college’s website, and/or referenced by higher-ups during the campus visit), learn to speak the vernacular about teaching and learning. Be able to articulate how your career trajectory can fit into it.

On all campuses, teaching-focused and otherwise, remember that undergraduate retention is of critical importance, and loads of research has shown that involvement in faculty research keeps students enrolled. It is particularly essential for underrepresented students. So always have at least one idea ready on how you plan to involve undergraduates in your research, even when you work in the humanities. The Chronicle just published a piece on this very theme.

Remember: A question about your professional plans for the next five years is an opportunity to show that your vision meshes with that of the hiring college in a way that will make you — in order of importance — both (a) tenurable and (b) happy there.

No one wants to hire someone who will flunk the tenure process. It’s demoralizing to a department and a poor investment of a position that — once lost to a tenure denial — may never materialize again. Likewise, no teaching-oriented college wants to hire candidates who view the campus as a steppingstone and hope to publish their way out to a "better" (research-oriented) institution.

As with any aspect of the interview process, you want to show that you are a good fit and that you are thinking about the things that the department and the college want you to be thinking about.

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