Sunday, November 9, 2014

Obtaining a tenure-track position in Computer Science at a liberal arts college

The essay Beyond Research-Teaching Divide has some good insights for applying for a tenure-track job at a liberal arts college.  First, a concise overview as to what this type of career entails, which is certainly consistent with my experience at Hendrix College:
The faculty members of many small colleges enjoy robust support with reasonable expectations for research output. We teach eager, inquisitive students who respect the title of “professor” (even when they do call you by your first name), whose whip-smart input enriches research almost as much as engaging with graduate students can.
The author then describes a valuable lesson learned:
I learned how to see small departments’ needs and gaps, thereby arming me to write directly to issues that did not necessarily announce themselves in job postings. Is a history department relying on its Latin Americanist to cover its Canadian history offerings? Mock up a syllabus that will lighten that load, and remark on it in your job letter. ... [W]hen small colleges hire, my experience shows that they hire people who have expertise their department lacks.
While this specific example is not directly pertinent to applying for a computer science position, the general concept definitely is.  Get to know the current faculty.  Determine their interests and aptitudes.  Look at what they publish and what they habitually teach.  From there, try to show how you would strengthen their program.  Typically, what a small department seeks is to increase its breadth.  In your cover letter, talk about how you could contribute in this way.

This last paragraph also rings true:
[S]trong letters are those that help us see a potential future colleague in front of a classroom, sharing a coffee with one of our students, and seated around our department’s meeting table (yup, we fit around one table; it’s probably not the room-filled affair you may have attended in graduate school). The best letters tell us more than what you think; they help us feel why you care about sharing those ideas with undergraduates in a classroom as much as with peer scholars in journals and books. Such letters exude enthusiasm for teaching without getting mired down in tedious assignment examples; they indicate your ability to model the research process, or (better) how you actively involve undergraduates in your research agenda.
Both of these last two excerpts are extremely helpful advice for writing a cover letter for a job at a small liberal arts college.  Study the department's web pages, as well as the college's catalog information for the program.  And be sure to convey your enthusiasm for teaching a variety of courses at all levels, especially outside your research area.  Mentioning one or two areas of genuine interest beyond your specialty can definitely be helpful.

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