Tuesday, August 20, 2019

How to tailor R1 materials for a SLAC, by Professor Kelly Sheppard

An invited post from Professor Kelly Sheppard, chair of Skidmore College's chemistry department, who has an opening for a professor of organic chemistry (open rank).
Applying also to research universities, how do I adapt my applications materials for an opening at a small liberal arts college like Skidmore? 
At a small liberal arts college like Skidmore, we are focused on undergraduate education and do not supervise graduate students. Research though is still important. At Skidmore the breakdown for tenure is 50% based on teaching, 40% based on scholarship, and 10% on service. You need to write your materials with that context in mind, so the committee envisions you earning tenure.  
When talking about teaching in your cover letter and teaching statement, speak about teaching undergraduates. Look at the job ad and go to the department website to look at course offerings. What courses does the department want taught? For example, our current ad talks about teaching organic chemistry, plus upper level courses in your area of specialization, introductory courses, and in our interdisciplinary first-year seminar. You want to talk about teaching those courses. Upper level courses or electives are your place to denote what you would add to the curriculum given your expertise. For the cover letter, you may want to discuss teaching before writing about research but this is not essential, at least for us at Skidmore but at other places this can be more important. Also, be sure to include whatever else is asked for in the ad. For example, for our tenure track search, we ask candidates to address “how you will effectively engage with a diverse student body as a teacher, advisor, and mentor” in the cover letter.  
For scholarship, put your research program in the context of working with undergraduates and not graduate students for both the cover letter and research statement. Keep in mind, we do high quality science at small liberal arts colleges but the pace tends to be slower than at graduate institutions. The median number of publications per full-time tenure stream chemistry faculty member at peer and aspirant institutions of Skidmore is 0.5 publications per year. At well-endowed institutions like Oberlin, Swarthmore, and Haverford the publication rate tends to be higher (0.80-1.40 publications per year).  Of course, the rate also varies based on the nature of the research but 0.5 publications per year gives you a ballpark to shoot for as you think about the research projects to propose in your statement. Your research statement should lay out your research program over the next five years including how undergraduates will be involved. Think about how you will recruit students, train them, and maintain an inclusive research group composed of undergraduates. It is helpful to denote where you plan to present the work and publish it with undergraduate co-authors. If you have already worked with undergraduates on research projects, highlight that experience. While funded grant proposals are not required for tenure, we encourage applying to get feedback on your ideas and to provide you additional resources therefore it is good to identify potential external funding sources to apply to.  
For your C.V., be sure to highlight your training and experiences related to both research and teaching. Also, include the students you have mentored/supervised in research. On your list of publications, denote undergraduate co-authors. Do the same for your list of presentations. Also, have a section on professional development trainings and workshops you have attended, and outreach efforts you have been part of. Highlight any leadership roles you have taken.  
For details on current search in organic chemistry at Skidmore College, please see our Tenure Stream Search Page, which includes a more detailed overview of what to include in your materials. 
Thank you to Professor Sheppard for his contribution, and best wishes to those interested. 


  1. I'm an R1 prof but have talked with many SLAC/PUI profs about this, so take the following advice as informed hearsay:

    An important thing to show that you understand when writing the research statement: the knowledge level and schedules of undergrads. A prof at Harvey Mudd college (a top undergrad institution for STEM) told me that if his productivity in lab is normalized to 1, then him + one undergrad is about 0.5 (since he loses most of his productivity by training them). Him+2 is ~0.9, and him+3 finally rises above him by himself. The scheduling is also very important. Many undergrads can only do 10 hours per week during the school year, say in 2 5-hour chunks. Can your research be done in those increments, or do you need continuous presence in the lab (culturing cells, long and complicated syntheses, etc). If so, how will you make that work? They will accomplish as much in the 2 continuous months of summer work as they do the whole rest of the year in small bits, so how will you combine those two different modes of work accordingly (keeping summer momentum going into the year, or using the school year to prepare for the summer productivity). At least showing a consciousness of these constraints is important so that it's clear that you aren't just scaling back your R1 proposal, but actually understand the differences in research.

    1. I would agree with this - think about how you projects will work with students who are taking classes. At Skidmore, juniors and seniors typically will be able to do 9-15 hours a week (3 or 4 credits of research) during the semester. Our 1st and 2nd year students who take part in research spend 3-8 hours per week (1 or 2 credits) during the semester. Our typical summer collaborative research period is 10 weeks where the students are working ~40 hours/week.

      You want to think about what you can accomplish with a student taking 1 or 2 credits who is starting out. Realize too that for new students something that would take normally 3 hours may actually initially take 6 hours. I use that to train students on basic but essential tasks in lab that are to the benefit of everyone. It allows them to have something concrete in lab to do without being overwhelmed. The lab skills developed transfer and allow them to hit the ground running during the summer. If they stay 1 or 2 credits then they can be paired on projects and coordinate together so one picks up where the other left off.

      Most students in my group stay on multiple semesters and 1 or more summers. I have built up an ongoing cycle of new students coming in so more senior students help with the training, which also helps. The key is keeping my group from being all new or all about to graduate. For me, that steady state of new equalling the the number graduating is the sweet spot as it allows transfer of knowledge that isn't completely dependent on me.

  2. Some students at SLACs do REUs at big universities in the summer between junior and senior year, so you might lose group members during what would be their most productive period. My advisor encouraged me to apply to REUs because he was already tenured and liked to spend his summers traveling, but I could see this being a problem for an assistant professor struggling to achieve tenure.

    1. If you're concerned about this: Recruit freshmen for this very purpose: freshman and sophomore year summers are mandatory, junior year for REU

    2. Are things different now? Maybe I'm showing my age here, but in the late 90s/early 00s, it was rare for anyone to join a research group before junior year. There were a handful of sophomores doing research, and freshmen were unheard of (and likely to change their major).

    3. Students can start in their first year at Skidmore. A number do and 2nd year is also popular start time but there are some who start junior or senior year. Students also switch labs as they figure out what they are passionate about. Not all are majors. As a biochemist, I have biology majors in my group as well as those who major outside of biochemistry/chemistry/biology but minor in chemistry. And yes, students will do REUs, so you can't plan on 3 summers though some students do that. Others start their junior year and do an REU followed by returning to the lab their senior year. It does make it a challenge but advising/mentoring students and supporting their development is a great part of the job.

  3. When I saw SLAC, my First thought was Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre !


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