How to Prepare for a Job Interview at a SLAC

After four years as an assistant professor of history at a liberal arts university—and after serving on four job searches—there is so much I wish I had known as a job candidate. Now, I have a much deeper appreciation of the academic and cultural differences between large research universities and small teaching institutions. This guide offers insight for anyone who might be trying to understand a small liberal arts college (SLAC), or similar teaching-intensive institution, from the outside as they prepare for a job interview.


The Zoom (or Phone) Interview

Research the institution, not just the search committee members. Expect the search committee to ask standard questions about research and teaching. In preparing answers, think about not only the department but also the wider campus. Flattery is fine, and dropping a reference to the publications of members of the search might get you a few blushing faces on the screen. But it’s likely that most (or all) of the people interviewing you have different expertise than you, perhaps in different disciplines. To showcase how you could be a good fit for the position, learn about the institution first. Find out: what is this school known for (and what are ways you can contribute to, partner with, or learn from that)? Is there a First-Year Experience Program, Honors Program, or a new interdisciplinary minor you could contribute to? What types of funding opportunities are available for student research, internships, and study abroad? What elements of the institution’s strategic plan resonate most with you?

University websites are helpful starting places but press releases and Instagram pages may provide more detail and nuance. No one expects the interviewee to know everything, however, candidates who demonstrate that they attempted to learn about the institution before the interview shine brighter than those who do not.

Present your research in a way that is accessible to non-specialists. Search committees comprise faculty from multiple disciplines and will likely not share your major fields. They want to know you have a robust research agenda that will meet the requirements for tenure, and they want to envision ways your research can benefit the institution through classes you will teach, community partners your work will facilitate, and interdisciplinary programs you can support. In the Zoom interview, they will likely be more interested in discussing teaching than research, so pace yourself accordingly. Keep your answers to questions about your research brief and confident; conclude by indicating that you would be happy to go into further detail if time permits.

Committees will not grill you about the nuance of a historiographic debate unique to your field or expect you to redefend your dissertation. OK, I say this with the awareness that there’s always the possibility of “That Guy” asking a loaded question at any stage of the interview. While interviewees cannot be attuned to the social dynamics among the search committee members, the faculty may have worked together for years and know each other well. Reasonable search committees will recognize “That Guy” and may even be embarrassed that you have been subjected to his strange queries. Answer questions the best you can and move on.

Emphasize student engagement when discussing pedagogy. There are two goals here: demonstrating you are a skilled, dynamic teacher in the classroom; and directing attention to ways your contribution will extend students’ learning beyond the classroom, such as through field trips, study abroad, internships, or undergraduate research opportunities.

When asked about classes you would like to teach, connect concrete examples from your own experience to the vision of your future classes. Remember, search committees interview many people in a short period of time; distinguish yourself by making it easy to remember specifics about your teaching. Signpost your answers with succinct but specific language that reflects your teaching style, such as “In [name of course I would teach at your institution], I want students to learn [X], so I cultivate [important skill] by guiding students through [innovative project or learning experience]. At [school name], I would be excited to partner with [insert a campus or regional resource].

Some specific examples that can make your interview memorable: 

  • Connections you have with archives, museums, or history-adjacent spaces that you could introduce students to as part of class trips or extra-curricular activities.
  • Previous involvement in organizations, even as an undergraduate, that you would like to share with students at your future institution. Be specific. If you ran a discussion group about anti-racism in graduate school, for example, talk about how that inspires you to facilitate campus conversations about a related topic. If you organized a panel or event, or have relevant experience outside academia, talk about how that has prepared you to create similar opportunities for students in the future.
  • Background or expertise in other arenas that could be the basis for collaboration across campus. Maybe you have a background in foreign language instruction, or you are a master gardener. Perhaps you dream of creating a digital humanities project with a computer scientist or a vision for using the new media lab on campus to co-create podcasts with students.

While answers to questions about teaching will be student-focused, note that at a small school, faculty can and do learn from one another as well. Each new hire has the potential to make a big impact, not just in history, but as a member of the campus community.

Find out about general education requirements. General education curricula vary across SLACs. Some rely on conventional US History or World History surveys, and others feature seminar-style or project-based topics courses. Use the course catalog and program website to learn about the general education courses before the interview so you match your teaching styles and interests to the specifics of the curriculum.

Expect to be asked “What questions do you have for us?” Be ready to ask questions that that will solicit positive responses about students and teaching. A question that gets interviewers to share points of pride about their program is an ideal way to end an interview. Ask questions like “What is your favorite part about working at your institution?” or “What are some recent examples of your students’ achievements?” or “What are you most excited about for the future of the history program?”  Avoid raising sticky subjects like funding, enrollment, pandemic response, and institutional structure. These could strike a sore spot with committee members and conclude the interview on a sour note. (You should ask about these at an on-campus interview, though!)

You might also ask “What qualities are you looking for in the person you hire for this position?” which not only gives the committee members an opportunity to connect your interview with their values, but also provides insight about how you can present yourself effectively during a campus visit. If you ask this question, write down as much as you can remember about individuals’ responses as soon as the Zoom call ends.


The Campus Visit

Much of the advice below can apply to any campus visit, but it is tailored to situations that may be more acute at SLACs or smaller teaching-focused institutions.    

Frame the job talk for a broad audience. If you can, find out who will be invited to your job talk ahead of your campus visit. On my campus, students, faculty, and staff are welcome. If most of the audience will be faculty from other disciplines and undergraduate history majors, prioritize aspects of your research that are interesting and relevant to a diverse audience. You can always point to nuances that may be of interest to specialists and offer to follow up in the Q&A.

The search committee may be viewing your job talk as a window into your teaching persona. Avoid trying to provide a comprehensive overview of all the major findings of your dissertation, and instead, consider yourself an expert guide through a learning experience about a topic that excites you.

Discuss broad teaching interests and ambitious plans for future courses. New faculty at SLACs can expect to teach courses within their wheelhouse at the beginning but will be invited to expand their course offerings to fill gaps in the curriculum. Be prepared to talk about teaching areas you would like to develop in the future beyond the scope of your current research fields. Include your rationale, especially if the course addresses a timely issue or a topic with broad appeal to undergraduates. You might also talk about how a new course will advance your research agenda. Often, teaching a course is a logical extension of research expertise, but the reverse can be true as well. Faculty at SLACs have the freedom to learn with students as they teach new courses, and this can open doors to new research interests (I know it has for me!).

Demonstrate your understanding of how higher ed works. Faculty at small institutions wear many hats and work closely with deans, the provost, and administrative offices on campus. The extent to which professional development is available to new faculty varies by institution. Informal mentoring about teaching and university policy will likely fall to your chair and colleagues. Search committees will be looking for signs that candidates will transition smoothly into their new role. Ask questions that reveal your experience with or willingness to participate in the apparatus of the college or university. Provide examples of your organizational skills or ability to take initiative. While any new job requires adjustment, a successful candidate will be a mature and competent problem-solver who can be trusted to devise effective course materials, adapt to new technologies, and communicate with integrity.

Value time with faculty who are not on the search committee. The itinerary of the campus visit will likely involve informal conversations with faculty outside the committee, such as during meals or along a campus tour. This is a well-meaning and deliberate effort to help candidates get a sense of what it will be like to work there, but it can be exhausting. You do not have to develop a dazzling, new answer for every individual who says “So, tell me about your research” or “Why do you want to work here?” Instead, script some answers to general questions like these ahead of time and repeat them throughout your visit.

Use this time to ask important questions about employment at the college or university, such as service requirements, quality of life in the community, and challenges the faculty face. These faculty may be looser and more direct in their responses to your questions than those on the search committee, and their responses may help you discern whether the position is a good fit for you.

The search committee will likely solicit feedback from any faculty and students with whom you interacted, so stay focused, even in more relaxed settings, on creating a consistently positive impression.

Decide ahead of time which non-academic aspects of yourself you wish to share. The search committee is seeking a good teammate. Of course, this involves performing the duties listed in the job description; it also means spending a lot of time with colleagues. Faculty at small colleges and universities regularly support students outside of the classroom by attending extra-curricular events like plays, concerts, and art shows. To the extent to which you are comfortable, allow the committee to get to know you as a person, not just a scholar and teacher. This might include sharing a bit about hobbies and interests, or your enthusiasm for what the region has to offer.

Because the on-campus visit is a two-way interview, committee members may share about themselves, department culture, and off-campus life. Some aspects of the interview may feel more social than professional, which is another deliberate strategy to offer candidates insight into campus culture. Asking questions about these aspects of the new position demonstrates your interest in your prospective department and colleagues.

Don’t underestimate the research expectations for tenure. Tenure requirements at teaching-focused institutions are often commensurate with R-3 institutions. While interviews will focus more on teaching than research during your visit, don’t be fooled: professors are expected to be excellent teachers and maintain a serious research agenda (and do plenty of service, too)!

Graduate school trains historians to value research significantly more than teaching, and many scholars wish to pursue careers at universities with a similar hierarchy. However, the job market in history presents far more opportunities for teaching-intensive positions. The systemic problem in higher ed of relying on contingent or clinical teaching professors aside, candidates for tenure-track positions must decide: do they want to build a significant portion of their career around being an excellent teacher? Hopefully, if you’re interviewing for a teaching-intensive position, the answer is a resounding yes for you.

Faculty at SLACs carry the expectation that they will meet standard publication requirements for tenure and consistently teach new and innovative courses and mentor undergraduate students and participate in extra-curricular activities—without a teaching or research assistant. During your campus visit, beware of reproducing the hierarchy of values in graduate school; at best, you will communicate a lack of awareness about the position for which you are interviewing; at worst, you could convey elitism or arrogance.

A successful candidate will talk about themselves as an organized, efficient multi-tasker who considers undergraduate teaching to be a privilege and a pleasure rather than a barrier to research and writing.

Know the search committee is exhausted. Academic searches are brutal and exhausting for everyone. Ideally your interviews are conducted in ways that respect your humanity and honor the precarity of the academic job market. The interview process is, without a doubt, most difficult for people being interviewed. However, it can be helpful to acknowledge that the committee is working nights and weekends beyond their normal responsibilities to make the search happen. They’re tired. They may be stretched to cover the responsibilities of the position they are trying to fill. They hope to make a good impression on you because, ultimately, they need this search to succeed; in the event you get multiple offers, they want you to have plenty of reasons to choose them and arrive in your new position excited to be there. Hopefully this awareness can calm some of your nervousness and facilitate a more authentic connection.


Overall, there are two features that distinguish job market experiences at smaller, teaching-centered schools from those at larger, research-focused institutions. First, the successful candidate is being vetted not only for their professional credentials, but for their overall contribution to campus life. Second, the possibilities for a fulfilling career are less confined to discipline, specialization in graduate school, or dissertation topic. For example, the two tenure-track historians at my university each direct interdisciplinary programs, Global Studies and Africana Studies, and each plays an important role in student life. While graduate school teaches us to narrowly focus on the territory of our scholarship, faculty at SLACs can and should dream bigger.

Candidates who show in their interview that they grasp the potential to do more than research and teach their specialty will communicate to the search committee that they are a good fit for the values and vision of the university.


Featured Image: Alfred University, available at https://www.iloveny.com/listing/alfred-university/25356/

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