Juggling Research and Teaching at a Small Liberal Arts College


Juggling Research and Teaching at a Small Liberal Arts College

Steven Swoap, Ph.D.
Williams College

Steven Swoap, Ph.D.Steven Swoap received his PhD in 1994 in Physiology and Biophysics from the University of California, Irvine from the lab of Ken Baldwin. After a postdoc in Molecular Cardiology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, he accepted a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Williams College. He currently is Chair of that department. Swoap’s research examines the molecular, cardiovascular, and metabolic adjustments during caloric restriction and fasting. He teaches courses on Physiology, Biology of Exercise and Nutrition, Molecular Physiology, Frontiers in Muscle Biology, Biochemistry. He was awarded the Guyton Integrative Physiology award from APS in 2001. He has had many Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows in his lab, and four of his previous undergrads were David Bruce award winners.

As you enter the job market, you are bound to run across advertisements for positions in small colleges with which you are probably unfamiliar. These small colleges are not much like the state universities where you are likely training.

While the primary mission of a small college is undergraduate education, you will be pleased to know that part of that mission includes involving the undergraduates in a vibrant research program. Even though you might not have heard of the small colleges looking for new faculty, the current tight job market may encourage you to apply to these schools. Perhaps you will wonder, “Can I pull off a good research career at a small liberal arts school?” The answer is a resounding “yes”, with a number of caveats to take into consideration and potholes to avoid.

Here is my top ten list of questions to ask yourself and/or your future employer.

#10. What are my teaching responsibilities?

Probably the biggest misconception that most folks have about the life of a small college professor is the extremely high amount of teaching required. In fact, colleges have a tremendous range in their teaching requirements. Some schools require four courses per semester. You will find it difficult to grab any time for research at those colleges and will most certainly leave bench science behind. Other colleges, like my school, Williams College, require much less … I teach one course and two labs per semester. You may find that even research I institutions require more teaching. As you ask around at individual small liberal arts colleges, I think you will find that the average is about 3-4 courses per year.

By the way, I have a pet peeve … when folks use the phrase “teaching load” and in particular the word “load.” This phrase makes it sound like teaching is an onerous burden. If you think teaching is just a distraction, then perhaps the small college scene is not for you. For me, I love the teaching aspect of my career. Teaching courses makes me dig deeply into the literature --- some of my best ideas for experiments have sprung directly from preparations for a course.

#9. Do I need previous teaching experience?

The short answer is “not necessarily,” at least for colleges with which I am familiar. A little Teaching Assistant experience will do just fine. When we hire a new faculty member, previous teaching experience is not even in our discussions. Rather, we look for someone that has an exciting and robust research program and has the type of personality that won’t wilt in front of a lecture hall.

In addition to your job talk, don’t be surprised if you are asked to give a “teaching demo” or a “typical class” on your interview. It probably won’t be more than 30 minutes, and likely will be at the blackboard … a classic “chalk talk.”

#8. Can I make it without graduate students?

The primary difference between a college and a university is that colleges don’t offer graduate degrees. Not to state the obvious here, but that means no graduate students. You may think it is impossible to run a lab without grad students. However, there are two sides to that coin.

On one hand, undergrads that train in your small college lab have significant time constraints. You can’t expect 60 hours a week from an undergrad. I need to constantly remind myself that while my physiology experiments are a huge priority in my life, many undergrads worry just as much about their singing group, their cute lab partner in microbiology, or the Thursday night party. There is no getting around the fact that the pace of productivity of a small college professor is impacted by the student population.

On the other side of that coin, however, doing research at a small school ensures an endless supply of students. Consequently, you will have a steady stream of bright, talented, and highly motivated students. You will be in the lab, elbow to elbow, training the students on a yearly basis. If you look forward to having a physiology “desk job” with technicians, post-docs, and grad students running your experiments while you jockey for grants and write manuscripts, then being a biology professor in a small college may not be for you.

Finally, working with the undergrads means that your music tastes will always be fresh and hip. Now, if they could just do something about my receding hairline.

#7. Speaking of jockeying for grants, what is the funding like for research at small colleges?

You are going to love this. Both NIH and NSF have programs for people just like you. NIH has the R15 program, with the acronym AREA (Academic Research Enhancement Award). NSF has the RUI (Research in Undergraduate Institutions). Both programs are evaluated using the same standards set for R01s or non-RUI proposals.

With the caveat that I have no clue about what happens behind the doors at NSF and NIH when they evaluate AREAs and RUIs, I think there is a little more flexibility in the quantity of publications and preliminary data. One major thrust of these programs is the training of undergraduate researchers – you should make sure that is sizable component in your grant application.

NSF also hands out CAREER awards, which are for junior faculty that actively integrate their teaching responsibilities with their research program. Here is a secret … shhh… we at small colleges integrate teaching and research daily. We should have a huge advantage over faculty at large universities for competitions like the CAREER award.

#6. Will the college provide financial support for you and/or your students to attend national meetings, such as EB?

Since you will likely have less interaction with other physiologists at a small college compared with a large research I university, it is even more important to attend meetings, present data, and interact with colleagues. It is also a great opportunity for undergraduates to present their research.

In my experience, most small colleges provide assistance to attend at least one national meeting a year regardless of whether you are presenting. In addition, there are often internal grant opportunities to obtain funding for yourself or students to attend meetings at which you are presenting. If your college does not provide this type of support, you should ask if it could be added to your start-up so you can attend some meetings until you have your own grant support for travel.

At the risk of creating additional competition for my own undergraduate students, you should also be aware that there is a lot of money out there to support undergraduate research for the summer. For example, the American Physiological Society has their Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship program. Not only does the student get a stipend for the summer (and a small bit of cash for your lab), this program also pays the way for undergrads to attend EB or another APS conference. EB has a competition each year - the David Bruce awards - for the top undergraduate abstracts/presentations. Definitely a nice feather for your student should he/she win.

#5. Can you handle a silly mascot for your college?

From The Cobbers, to the Jumbos, or the Moundbuilders, or my own Purple Cows … you will do just fine!

#4. Does the college have facilities for your model organism?

If you work with cell culture or any non-vertebrate organism, you can take your research program most places. If you work with vertebrates, though, you need to make sure that the college has suitable animal facilities. Small colleges range from zero vertebrate facilities to extensive ones, like we have here at Williams College.

If I were to give out any advice, I would suggest you not compromise your research program to squeeze into a college that cannot support your critters. Oh, and just a heads up, you will soon be on your small college’s animal care committee.

#3. Will the “start-up package” offered be enough”?

Right off the bat, you should know that the start-up funds will be much less than provided at a research I institution – even 5-10x less. So is that amount enough? The reason you can build an exceptional research program at a liberal arts college is the use of shared equipment. I don’t mean sharing pipettors or even PCR machines, but sharing the big stuff. A start-up package might be meager compared with a research I university, but if the college has adequate equipment and good collegiality, you can do your top-notch science. The college that just made you a job offer desperately wants you to succeed in your position. I don’t think they will try to low-ball you.

Another item for your radar screen --- it is possible that you will be asked to share bench space with another professor in the department, so don’t be shocked if that happens. You should assess closely whether the lab space is sufficient for your work.

#2. Is it publish or perish in the life of a small college professor?

I think it is fair to say that if you don’t publish a peer-reviewed manuscript with original research during your assistant professor years, you will have a difficult time getting tenure, or your next university job for that matter. However, it can be difficult to determine “how many is enough” and this is certainly college-dependent. If you teach 4 courses a semester, and they also expect 10 manuscripts in 5 years, you are being set up to fail.

While assessing benchmarks like this may be an awkward item to ask in an interview, it is important to get some sense of the expectation. Further, you can check the publication records of faculty that have recently received tenure in that department to see if there is a pattern. In my eyes, quality is important and I don’t count beans.

#1. Will you be lonely?

Most likely, you will be the one and only physiologist at your college. You may not be able to walk down the hall to discuss with your colleagues Na+ flow through a renal epithelial cell. Of course, we are all over-connected to our phones and the web (how many times have you checked your e-mail today?), and contacting a colleague across the country can be easy. But reality sets in quickly. You become the top dog, and only dog for that matter, for physiology queries.

I would not be truthful if I said I did not miss the back and forth among experts in my field. But in its place, I have gained something just as valuable … wonderful interactions with my colleagues that are experts in plant biochemistry, microbiology, evolution, ecology. I had no idea how much these interactions with folks not trained as physiologists would shape my research career.

In addition, your colleagues will not all be nerdy scientists. You will be on committees with religion professors, play hoops with art historians, and attend dance recitals sitting next to business professors. Choosing a small college has been a blessing for me.

So, there you have it. My top ten (OK, only nine) questions to consider when you think about a career in a small college.

NOTE: to add your comments or questions, please email us.


Great article! I would add that some small liberal arts colleges also have considerable advising, depending on the major. It turns out to be quite rewarding, but there is certainly a learning curve with it. If possible, you may want to negotiate less advising your first year while you are setting up your lab. Just remember, someone else will be taking those advisees, so it's important to do your fair share once you are settled into the job.
Lara DeRuisseau
Le Moyne College

Response: Excellent point. Advising comes in bouts … your advisees come just as registration occurs for the next semester. We don’t have first-year faculty advise students. After that, you take on that aspect of the job.
Steve Swoap

Dr. Swoap's article brought back fond memories and long-forgotten questions for me. When I was on the job market a few years ago, I was hoping very much to secure a position at a small, liberal arts college. Clearly, that didn't happen. Although I have no regrets and am very happy in my current position, the call of the Liberal Arts still murmurs in my ear from time to time. I found two of Dr. Swoap's questions to be particularly significant. First, "Does the college have facilities for your model organism?". On the second day of one of my interviews, after giving my talk on rat neuroanatomy and physiology, one of my search committee members mentioned that the school did not have a vivarium, but that I was welcome to house a few rats in the space connecting my would-be office to my would-be (teaching) laboratory. Given the nature of my work (and the severity of my histamine response to rodents), this was a definite deal-breaker. Second, "Will the start-up package offered be enough?". I was prepared to deal with fewer start-up funds in this situation - not surprising with some of the teaching expectations, the more limited time for research, and the focus on undergraduate research projects. However, one institution stated that their "typical" start-up was about $25K, which was unworkable with my research needs. I whole-heartedly agree with Dr. Swoap that opportunities and rewards are great at schools of this type, even if your mascot is a pink flamingo wearing motorcycle boots, but the job candidate needs to be aware of his/her own needs and how they align with each potential hiring institution.
Kristin Gosselink
University of Texas, El Paso

Dr. Swoap made some excellent comments about the advantages and disadvantages of accepting a position at a small liberal arts university. My initial reluctance of applying to a similar university was overcome by how well I thought the job description matched my skill sets. I have found that the benefits for me outweigh the disadvantages. I have found that working with undergraduates can have huge benefits. You are able to find motivated students by observing them in lab situations before investing research time and resources. Additionally, If you identify them early, you can have them for up to five years while they complete their degree. This allows them to have continuity with a project that a master’s student is not be able to accomplish.

The pressure to be constantly looking for funding sources is not there, but if you land a successful grant or collaboration with a larger lab, it is deeply appreciated by the university. This gives freedom to explore research avenues that one might not pursue if they were in a higher pressure research environment. I have several projects that I will be starting in the Spring that have been on the “back burner” for years because they would not generate the funds necessary to justify the time involved. Now, I can assign a couple of undergraduates to the project and support it with my limited internal research funds.

Finally, one great benefit to being in a smaller liberal art university is the freedom to choose which classes to teach. I have complete freedom to develop courses that have not been previously offered. The only requirement is that I have to have student interest. For instance in the Spring, I am offering comparative vertebrate anatomy as well as a field collecting techniques course that is not on the curriculum. Typically, in larger universities, assistant professors do not get this benefit so early in their career.
Ray E. Willis
University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma

At our institution, TA experience alone is not sufficient to gain serious consideration. We want to see that a candidate has had responsibility for an actual course - designing a syllabus, writing lectures, writing and grading assignments. This is a very different experience from being a TA and it is essential to us that our future faculty know what they will be expected to do, and that they can do this successfully. This is true at most PUIs (primarily undergraduate institutions) that I am aware of. For us, tenure decisions rely first on teaching excellence, and then scholarship, so we want to be sure that the faculty we hire will be able to meet this requirement.
Jean Hardwick
Ithaca College

I think it is important to get a wide range of opinions. There will be differences among schools. I just would not discourage a potential applicant from applying for an opening simply because s/he does not have teaching experience.
Steve Swoap


Do you think that working at a small college gives you more or less flexibility and time for family or other responsibilities?
Sarah Lindsey
Wake Forest University

This is a tough question. And the answer may just end up varying on an individual basis. My hunch is that people at small colleges do have more time/flexibility, but I don’t have hard data on that. Teaching can be relatively rigid. For example, if you teach a MWF class at 9a, the students expect you to be there (of course, classes can be canceled or someone can cover for you). But on the whole, teaching a course gives you a rigid few hours per week. The rest of my professional life (working with students, grading, office hours, writing manuscripts, etc) is not so rigid. So, if I am to coach my daughter’s soccer team, I can arrange my time to do so.
Steve Swoap

One of the primary challenges that I have faced when involving undergraduates in my research (perhaps due to their limited time to participate) is finding ways to engage the students enough so that they are dedicated to the projects, motivated to do a good job, and can take "ownership" over the work that they are doing in the lab. This is something that I find easier to do with graduate students, as it is inherent in their training that they will conduct their own independent -- or at least, partially-independent -- projects. But for undergraduates, other than promising things like potential authorship at a later stage, I sometimes struggle to find methods to motivate them to get more engaged in the research (both mentally and literally). Do you have advice regarding this issue?
Angela Grippo
Northern Illinois University

This may boil down to the role of undergraduates in labs at large universities vs. the role in small colleges. At the university level, undergrads are typically plugged into existing projects whereas undergrads at small colleges are top dogs. Students at small colleges take ownership of the project because they need to --- otherwise, the project does not get done. I start them with a small project to get them accustomed to the lab/equipment/etc. Then, after they show promise, I have them start designing a project of their own (under the umbrella of what the lab goals and grant goals are). If there is a way for you to let the undergrad be involved in the design aspect (even if you completely revamp their idea/experimental design), the student may well want to see it through.
Steve Swoap

1) What are the expectations for obtaining extramural funding?

2) What types of grants are science professors applying for at small colleges? (e.g., NIH R01, R15, foundation grants, NSF, internal funding, etc) Or is the start-up money and department funding adequate to run a small lab with undergraduate students?

3) Is there generally institutional support for you and your students to attend conferences? How often do you attend conferences? How is student travel to meetings supported (department/college funding, society travel awards, etc?)
Erica Wehrwein
Mayo Clinic

1) This will likely vary from school to school, but from personal experience, I can say that extramural funding is not required. I feel it is important for faculty to continue to attempt to get funding by writing grants. This is important mostly to have faculty think more broadly and more in the long term than just the next experiment around the corner. We all realize how government funding levels can ebb and flow. In my mind, it is “the trying” that counts.

2) Start up should last you a couple years, of course depending on how much you get and the expense of your experiments. Science professors are applying for NSF, R15, internal funding, and foundation grants (in that order). Departmental and internal funding does sustain the labs of some of our faculty members. But if your research is expensive (like mine), internal funding will just cover any gaps in external funding.

3) At my college, faculty receive enough support to attend one major meeting per year. Grants can cover additional ones. I typically attend 3 meetings per year. My students are supported by the administration or APS travel awards. I like to expose my students to the vastness that is Experimental Biology, just so they can see the variety of research (both topics and depth). I may be lucky, but when I have asked my administration for funds for students to travel, I have received them.
Steve Swoap

Do you know of anyone who has transitioned from liberal arts research to more research-focused careers in industry and academia? Is this possible? I think a lot of us want to know if we choose one fork in the road towards undergraduate research is it possible to take the other path later down the road?
David Knight
University of North Texas Health Sciences Center

Other faculty have definitely made the transition from an undergrad institution to more research-oriented careers. I think you learn pretty quickly if delivering a lecture to the 18- to 22-year old set is something you want to do as a career. It certainly is not for everyone -- the slower pace of productivity can be frustrating. Transitioning from a small school to a research university requires a constant flow of publications and the promise of a constant inflow of funds. I think the transition from industry or a research university to a small undergraduate institution would be more difficult than the other way around. You have to make a great case for yourself that you want teaching to part of your career.
Steve Swoap


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Rising and Surviving: Elucidating Tenure and Promotion in Multiple Career Paths

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Mastering the Juggling Act: Laboratory, Life, and Leadership Roles

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Starting a New Lab: Developing New Techniques and Hiring Personnel

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A String of Pearls – What I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Started Teaching

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A Research Career at a Liberal-Arts College

Article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Kristen Ghodsee

How to Get a Teaching Job at a Liberal-Arts College

Article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Gary DeCoker.

About Liberal Arts Colleges

College News description of liberal arts colleges.

Best Colleges: National Liberal Arts Colleges

US News & World Report rankings of national liberal arts colleges that emphasize undergraduate education and award at least half of their degrees in the liberal arts fields of study.

Top Colleges: Four-Year Liberal Arts Colleges in the U.S.

About.com list of schools that offer BA degrees (some also offer BS degrees) and have primarily an undergraduate focus and liberal arts curriculum.