Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How difficult is it to become a small college professor?

Dr. Jones, how hard was it
to get your position?
Photo credit:
A reader writes in to ask:
[Someone I know] says that the paltry job market doesn't apply to chemistry professor positions at D3 schools* (where you'd only have to teach, no research).  I have a hard time finding this to be true.  What do you think?
*I assume this is referring to NCAA Division III, i.e. smallish institutions.
I think that person is wrong, but I have no data. Certainly, the recent article in C&EN remarks on the tough competition to get one of those tenure-track professor positions at a liberal arts college. I believe that if you're in a field where there's a lot of people (e.g. organic chemistry), getting a TT position at a small school is pretty much equally competitive as a larger school.

I suspect that as you get into the smaller and smaller schools and community colleges, competition and the quality of CV starts to drift downwards, but these are presumably less desirable positions (from a status perspective.) The pay starts to get a lot lower, too.

There are also demographic trends to be considered -- are there enough 18 year olds coming in future generations to cover the expansion in colleges and universities we've seen in the last 20 years? I doubt it, but again, I have no data.

Readers, what say you? Is my reader's acquaintance incorrect? Anyone been out there on the small college faculty job search? What are you seeing?


  1. Our physics department, which has great people but no grad students and not necessarily the best facilities, got 190 applications for their position this year.
    So, your odds are 1 in 200.
    I think that your odds are just about the same at medium sized schools with no grad department and no legacy of big research. As you go down to even smaller schools, I think that you'll see it go to 1 in 75. For community college you might see at best 1 in 30 odds.

  2. CJ, even with the lower pay and worse scheduling, securing a teaching job at Tier-4 liberal arts and community colleges has become competitive. Maybe Fenton Hertzler can corroborate my opinion. Despite my extensive TA experience at an R1-level University, my applications to fixed-term lectureships at "non-elite" schools were all rejected. Although I don't claim to be the most talented applicant, I was irked by consistently losing out to other candidates with Ivy-MIT-Stanford-Caltech-Berkeley on their CVs. Hell, I would probably lose to candidates from TSRI, which doesn't even have an undergraduate program!

  3. It can also be very competitive to get tenure at lower tier schools. Even though these schools may not have a lot of in-house research, they still seem to expect a publication record for tenure. I went to a small-ish liberal arts school, with a strong chemistry department but no real grad school (a few MS students). On the surface they said they valued teaching and mentoring of undergraduate students, but in reality you had to get published in order to get tenure. (Which can be difficult if you're doing research with nothing but undergrads to do the work.) My undergraduate advisor did not get tenure even though he was a highly regarded teacher. He put the learning experience over research - for example, letting us run our own NMRs even if it took several tries, rather than just running them himself like other professors did. But because of that he only had one small publication over several years, and that seems to be why he didn't get tenure. So the competition doesn't end even after someone gets the job.

  4. Several people from my program were looking for these types of teaching only positions and many were willing to go to the community college level. Only two of them have secured positions, one of them is part time. Competition at ALL levels is fierce.

  5. I don’t think things have changed much since the late 1970s when I was finishing my post-doc at a top Ivy U chemistry department. My goal at the time was to teach and do research but the job market at the time was extremely tight, several hundred applicants for every position. My post-doc advisor was surprised at how tight things were. I ended up moving to NIH and taking a staff position and after five years (and a bleak tenure outlook there) moved into trade association work where I had a very interesting and profitable career. The lone regret was missing the excitement of research but otherwise I’m happy with the path I took.

  6. one of the directors of a medchem groups here at institute in Florida (plus another former colleague there) got into part time teaching intro science coursework at a community college, to have a teaching experience and additional income source in case that his job gets cut. (I remember that this community college has been looking for tutors at something like $20 an hour, few years back, and I wondered who would want this job.)

  7. "Maybe Fenton Hertzler can corroborate my opinion. "
    I don't apply for faculty jobs at community colleges, nor many liberal arts schools. Maybe that's a mistake on my part, but what's the point? - some community colleges don't even require that their faculty have PhDs


  8. But on the other hand, I recall a in-promptu conversation last week with the chair of a search committee at a smaller BSc/MSc-granting department: the fact that I was still publishing research papers made him suspicious of my ability to teach........LOL

  9. Frankly, I don't understand the attraction of such job. Hours are lousy, pay is often even worse (a friend of mine started at 38k although I think low 50s are more common), student body may turn out to be less than inspiring, department politics are usually complicated... I mean why would anyone want that?

  10. @Anon9:53 - The allure of a hip big city (e.g., NYC) can convince prospective teachers to overlook paltry salaries. The CUNYs were only offering $42-65K per year for lecturers (pay commensurate with experience). Perhaps competition is not as bad at the most podunk and "backward" colleges.

    @Milkshake8:21 - In a similar vein, I know several Big Pharma research scientists who are "adjunct faculty" at their respective alma convenient. Aside from the extra fun money, I guess having a low-demand gig in academia can be a resume boost.

  11. I went to grad school at a school in the big ten. I had a classmate (worked for non-famous prof) who was able to get a TT position right out of school - no postdoc. But, he was quite productive. About 10 papers, 1 or 2 JACS first authors, some 3 or 4th author BMCL papers, and a few other lower impact papers. This was at a D3 school with a relatively weak chemistry program.

    I went to a snooty liberal arts school for undergrad. Several of the profs there were ivy league PhD's.

    From what I've seen - if you want to get a position at an "elite" D3 school (Haverford, Seven Sisters, etc.) you need relatively elite credentials.

    At lesser schools, as with my friend, folks from lesser programs can get these positions if they have a good publication record and decent teaching experience. Fit is important, too. If you're organic, and the department just hired an organic prof, well, they may not need one for another 10-25 years.

    So, yes, as the prestige/eliteness and academic quality increases of a D3 school, the higher credentials one needs to get the job.

    There's one only reason to go after a D3 job in academia or community college - because you absolutely love it. I left grad school with an MS and make much more money as an associate in pharma and work much less hours than my buddy. He told me his starting salary was less than 45k. A friend of mine who has taught in D3 school for 10 years just cracked 60k. You really have to love the job to make the long hours and prep worth it.

  12. I'm also a snooty D3 grad. Frankly, chemistry profs at my place were spoiled. 1 lecture course and 2 lab sections per semester, starting salaries around 70K, 2 semesters sabbatical for every 6-8 semesters teaching, great students, excellent lab facilities (about 4 hoods per prof, 500 MHz NMR), very few faculty denied tenure, enough time for dinner with the family most nights. The positions were also extremely competitive to obtain - virtually all the current faculty did PhDs at top 10 institutions, and applicants who didn't would probably not receive much consideration.