With a new hiring season underway, I have been getting a lot of questions about applying to small liberal-arts colleges. Specifically: Should candidates signal to the search committee if they have personal ties to the local city or region, and how?
For this month’s The Professor Is In column, I decided to combine that question with another one I get periodically from rookie faculty members at small liberal-arts colleges (or SLACs, for short). It presents the opposite predicament: Once hired, can you "get away with" living an hour or more away from the campus?
As with many things in faculty hiring, the answer to both questions is: It depends.
Brochures from small colleges promise an idyllic culture of small-size classes and close mentoring by invested, caring professors. Professorial attention above and beyond class times and office hours is part of the SLAC experience that generally comes with a hefty price tag.
Keep that culture very much in mind if you’re looking to teach at a small college, or just got hired by one. Because they are places where the unspoken but very real expectation is that you, as a faculty member, will:
- Host dinner parties for students at your home.
- Regularly attend student performances, open mics, and teach-ins on the campus.
- Stop to chat when you see students at brunch at the local farm-to-table restaurant.
- And, in general, maintain a very visible presence on the campus and around town.
What does that kind of campus culture mean at the job-application stage?
If you were applying to a large university in or near a big city, my advice would be to tailor your application to the institution, not to the location. Every year, academic clients applying to places like NYU or UCLA send me the first drafts of cover letters declaring that part of their motivation for applying is that they would love to live in New York City or in Los Angeles. I always tell them, "Ah yes, the search committee will certainly be amazed and moved by a desire you share with the other 500 applicants seeking the same position. Take it out."
But my advice for people applying to SLACs is different, particularly because many, many small colleges are located in remote, rural areas — in the kind of quaint college towns that come to mind when thinking about town-gown stereotypes. There is synergy between such locales and the SLAC mission: A small institution in the middle of the cornfields provides a bucolic life of the mind focused on a campus community.
That sort of culture is hard to recreate on a commuter campus, or a place where students dissolve into the metropolis when classes are done. So SLACs tend to treat their location as a feature, not a bug.
All of which is why, to make a good impression, you can and should make clear that you would be content — nay, excited — to call the location home. One of the reasons SLACs like to hire faculty members whose undergraduate degree is from a small college is because it signals that they understand what it feels like to live in a tiny close-knit community, possibly with its own organic farm run by college students.
So in tailoring your application for a SLAC position, it is fine — advisable even — to mention your particular connection to the college’s location:
- Do you or your partner have local ties? Usually, talking about your family is a no-no in cover letters, but a search committee in rural Iowa — worried about retaining faculty members — will be delighted to read that your parents live only an hour away from the campus. You can put that in your tailoring paragraph and, if you get an interview, expand on it, mentioning how important it is for you to be close to them as they are getting older.
- Do you like skiing? MIT does not care. But if you’re applying to a small college in a snowy state, it might be a plus, especially if you connect that interest to student life: for example, how you would enjoy being a faculty adviser for a winter-sports student club.
- Does the region have a community of people of your ethnic or racial background, religious practice, or other cultural identity? If so, that is very much worth mentioning.
- The ultimate ace in the hole, of course, is if your research and teaching foci connect to the campus or region in some way. Can you directly utilize the special resources of the campus library or museum in your own current and future work? Can you pursue your research questions directly in the area — e.g., are you a biologist who focuses on a particular salamander that is indigenous to the region, or an art historian who specializes in an artist who lived and worked nearby?
Of course such geographic connections — on their own — will not land you a teaching job. But they may give you a small but significant edge over someone of similar credentials who has only ever lived in big cities. For example, my first faculty job was at the University of Oregon, and we regularly struggled to get city types to stay in Eugene. Knowing that an excellent scholar also had ties to the region was a data point we would not overlook.
But what if you’re a city type who actually gets hired by a rural SLAC?
Maybe you are thinking that, so long as you fulfill your contractual obligations, you can forgo living in one of those old Victorian houses at the intersection of Main Street and College Avenue, and instead live an hour away in that dynamic small city — the one with the decent Thai restaurants and theater scene? Even better: Maybe you can live in that really big city several hours away, and keep a room in the college town where you stay a couple of nights a week?
When I get questions along those lines, my advice is always the same: Proceed with caution, at least until you are tenured.
"Fit" is particularly important at institutions that prioritize teaching and service as much or more than research in the tenure-and-promotion process. So if, during your campus interview, you ooh and aah over the small-town charms of the area, and then, once hired, you move a long car ride away, that will absolutely be perceived as uncollegial, and as a bait and switch.
Whether, and to what extent, you will be penalized for that will depend on precedent and expectation. Some colleges — especially ones with high teaching loads and low resources — know that they can hire better faculty than they would be able to recruit and retain otherwise because they are right in between, say, Philadelphia and Washington. They pragmatically tolerate professors living in those cities and commuting.
But especially at more elite SLACs, choosing a long commute over a home near the campus may well cost you the goodwill of some colleagues, and ultimately the positive votes on your tenure candidacy.
Because all that stuff — hosting dinners for undergraduates and going to the latest student play — is part of the labor that you are expected to perform when you take a faculty job at a place like that. When you don’t do your share of it, that means: (a) Others will have to do more, and (b) fair or not, your student evaluations may well reflect your low profile.
As a career counselor, I never tell job candidates, unconditionally, to "go where the job is." Particularly for people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or religious minorities, that advice can be ignorant and dangerous. Plus, such faculty members may feel particularly isolated in a homogeneous community. My position is: There is life and work (often better-paying) outside of academe. Bucolic small towns that look good on brochures are not idyllic for everyone.
Maybe you don’t face any vulnerability because of your background, but you are a single person looking for a life partner, and everyone you meet on the campus visit seems to be coupled with kids. If the only place where you can take a job is somewhere you will not be able to calibrate the work-life balance in a way that both satisfies the institutional culture and is gentle on your mental health and emotional well-being — you don’t have to apply for that job.
Or you can, and hope to publish your way elsewhere. Just remember: Treat every tenure-track job as if it is the last job you are ever going to get (because it may well be), and assess it accordingly.