Applying for faculty positions at teaching institutions: interpreting research culture and opportunities during an interview


This is a follow-up to an earlier post on how to look at a teaching institution to find out if serious research is possible on campus. One main point was that you can’t diagnose whether or not you will be able to run your research program at a teaching school until you have some direct experience with the campus, like you’d get during an interview. So, in this post, I discuss how to handle plans for serious research during the interview.

When interviewing, keep in mind five main points about research at teaching schools:

  • The culture of research on a campus isn’t predictive of how much research that you personally will be able to get done.
  • Before you interview, you need to be able to envision what your research program will look like and how it will operate, so you can know if you will have what you need to flourish.
  • At most teaching campuses, you’ll have few to no specialists in your field. So you should market your research program not with the potential for scientific discovery, but instead with the great opportunities that will be created for students.
  • The more specific you describe your plans, the more opportunity that others have to identify a perceived mismatch.
  • Ignore advice on how to succeed on a particular campus unless it comes from someone who is very successful at that institution.

(A sixth point might be that you can throw all of the preceding ideas out the window, if you happen to be the proprietor of a blog about doing research in a teaching institution. I haven’t interviewed yet since starting this site; if I am able to land any interviews this year, this could be interesting.)

The best way to figure out whether or not you could run your research out of a particular campus is to have a series of long, frank conversations with the faculty in your prospective department.

Those conversations aren’t going to happen; you can’t be that frank and I doubt your interviewers will be either. Your interlocutors may be wholly frank, but it’s not always possible to tell if this is the case. Be honest, but omit unnecessary details.

Let’s say you arrive for your interview with a very specific idea of what your research program will look like, and what it will take to succeed. Or, let’s say you don’t have a specific idea but you are open to a variety of approaches.  In either scenario, you’ve got a problem during the interview. You won’t be able to spend the 1.5 days on campus smoking out all of the details about how you would run your research program.

There is a lot of ground to be covered in an interview. You’ll be expected to talk a lot, answering questions that the department has about you. Many of these questions will be about teaching, some will be about your research, and more about how you engage students in research. You also will be expected to ask a lot of questions. However, the majority of questions that you ask should be about teaching, because the institution is, after all, focused on teaching.

Remember that your ideas about research are probably very different from the people who have worked on this campus for a while. Your definition of being an active scholar is probably different from theirs. You lack the campus frame of reference. You can’t accurately perceive that frame of reference through a mere conversations. It actually takes years to figure out a campus.

You can attempt to construct a makeshift understanding of the campus research culture by reconciling what you hear and see on an interview with external information. You should be aware of what everyone is teaching, research specialties, and levels of research productivity. You can’t look at everyone’s CVs, but you can look at their websites and do a literature search before you go on an interview.

Then, you can search for consistencies and incongruent conceptions.

In my experience, the people who spend the most time talking about research during an interview are the ones that do the least amount of research. I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. Most people are excited to learn about your own research and see the interview as a learning opportunity, and this is true regardless of one’s research activity. Some people who aren’t serious researchers think that they are, and want to have a heart-to-heart talk about what it takes to do research on campus and how to overcome obstacles.

For the most part, the others in the interview are trying to convince you to take the job, assuming that you get the offer. So, they are working to make sure that you have a realistic view of the situation while also understanding the available opportunities and resources. This sales job by the department is based on their incomplete understanding of what your research program requires. The more the department knows about what you need, the more they can inform you about the advantages and drawbacks of this particular position. However, the more the department knows, the more likely they will identify ways in which the job won’t work for you.

Keep in mind that what a person chooses to discuss doesn’t communicate personal priorities. Most people are trying to provide interviewees with as much information as possible, in a positive light, to be able to help everyone make the best decision. Some might be emphasizing a sales job to convince an applicant to come, and others might be trying to be evaluative of the job candidate to see if they have the right answers. Everybody is different.

I have always made a point to ask a couple questions of many different people in the department, and it’s been very informative to see how responses vary among individuals. It might be “How do you find students to work in your research lab?” or “What is it like working with the grants office?” or something about the level and predictability of small-scale internal research funding.

Moreover, I often asked, “What is expected before coming up for tenure?” This is a totally reasonable question that everyone would expect to be asked, and it’s expected that you’d ask it several times with different people. This is an open-ended question that can help you identify individual priorities and perceptions of internal challenges. (Also, highly inconsistent answers are a very bad sign of a fractured institution.)

Be sure to listen to questions you received. For example, when I interviewed for my last job, nearly everyone asked me at one point or another, “What do you think about the idea of having a graduate program in the department?” It didn’t take long to identify the majority and minority factions in the department. This was an indicator of a division within the department that I learned about during the interview. It was complicated and I didn’t have all of the facts, but I saw that the role of research in the department was a fractious issue, and I went in with that concern in mind.

You’ll never get to understand the individual priorities that each professor has during a search. Most faculty are just looking for a colleague who can teach well, get research done with students, be effective, is easy to get along with, and won’t leave for another job. Some faculty might be concerned that junior faculty will raise the bar on research expectations. Some faculty will want new people to relieve them of teaching or service assignments of which they’ve grown weary. Others might want a friend. Too often, people want to have their own pet statistical consultants. These little quirks vary and you can’t really predict or control for them.

Regardless, you should realize this much: very few faculty at teaching institutions are actively excited about hiring junior faculty who are planning to have extremely robust research agendas. Most people at teaching campuses see those big research ambitions as a poor fit, and think that those people belong at R1 universities.

So, there is little to be gained by explaining that you have big research plans, if you have them. Of course you need to communicate that you will be getting research done with students, publishing, and plan to land outside grants. But you don’t want to make an overly big deal about research.

Why not? Having a research-serious departmentmate doesn’t really help any other faculty in the department. Some people might see it as a net drain, if the new researcher is taking away the best research students, buying time out of teaching and forsaking service for research. Even faculty who are strong researchers don’t have much incentive for bringing in additional researchers. They’ll just compete for limited resources from the Dean’s office and steal the limelight. (Those don’t matter for me, as the resources are already so limited that another mouth to feed can’t hurt me, and the research limelight on my campus is dim for all.)

Am I overstating the lack of interest in research in job candidates at teaching campuses? I don’t think so.

I’m as gung-ho for research as anybody on my campus. But whenever we get to make a new hire, is it important to me that this new person builds a productive research lab? Not really. I would like it because it would help enhance the overall research climate in the campus, but we have many more pressing immediate and long-term needs, dealing with the curriculum, departmental service, advising, vetting out jerks and finding someone who is truly student-centered. If a productive research lab run by a new hire isn’t my own priority in a search, it’s probably not a top priority of other reasonable people who aren’t working to actively promote research on teaching campuses.

Here’s another quirk of teaching campuses: Because research is mostly a solitary endeavor (because each campus typically has only one person in each specialty), then the professors on campus who talk a lot about research are prone to be seen as narcissists or out of touch with others. If you talk too much about your research during an interview, then you risk sounding like one of those narcissists.

If you’re asked about your research ideas or plans, give a 30-second summary. Elaborate when asked, but you shouldn’t be giving a reply that takes more than a minute or two unless you get clear verbal or nonverbal cues to continue. That’s true for almost every question, but it’s particularly important to remember to be brief about your research.

After you’ve done your best to understand the research culture during an interview, then you need figure out how, or if, you research can fit in on the campus. Remember that the absence of a research culture doesn’t preclude the establishment of a productive research program. It just means that your productive research program wouldn’t matter much to anybody, or it might even be threatening to others.

While all kinds of support is wonderful, it’s perfectly fine if your research program is greeted with ambivalence.

How can you tell whether an agenda for serious research will be greeted with antagonism? It’s not easy, and I got it wrong when I was interviewing.

At a distance, if you were to look at my current and previous departments, it would be easy to make the mistake in thinking that research would have been more possible in my old job. People in that department published more often, and there was a lot more talk about research. The university was able to give every professor a few thousand bucks per year for research, paid for travel to conferences, and there was a university-funded student research program in the summer. What was less obvious to the casual observer is that there was clear antagonism to big-time productivity. There was one big-league researcher in my department, and he kept all of his research almost secret.

At my current job, you might think that research is impossible. We have scant startup funds, very low rates of faculty publication, and no internal support for research or travel (though this year is an exception). However, a productive research program is far more possible in this job compared to my old one. Anybody who can build a highly productive research lab is more than welcome. That welcome doesn’t translate into more space or resources, but everyone is happy and that kind of thing is strongly encouraged. I didn’t realize this would be the case until I was well established into the job, and I’m very glad it has turned out this way.

How can you figure out if a teaching campus passes the anti-research smell test?

You need to pay attention to subtle cues, see how people talk about one another and their priorities.  If you don’t mind not getting a job offer from a place hostile to a highly productive lab, you could ask straight out, “How would you feel if I ended up getting big grants, reduced my teaching load down to two courses per semester and spend lots of time training research students and writing manuscripts?”

Or you could ask, “When is too much research a problem?” When approaching this issue, remember that you don’t want to be seen as overly optimistic, or naïve, or not interested in teaching.

In sum, you need to be all about teaching, and that makes it a tricky dance to learn about true research opportunities. Because every faculty member needs to be dedicated to teaching above all else, you need to communicate this priority in the interview. I’m all about teaching and my students, but I’m also all about research. That idea is really hard to communicate in a short interview.  You communicate your priorities with your words and your actions, and people expect them to match.

To be successful in research, you need to forge your own path. This is particularly true at teaching institutions.

To be continued: specific things to do, and specific things to avoid, throughout the job application process.