practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

As you prepare to go on the academic job market, think about where you’d ideally like to work.  More specifically, the kind of institution you want to work at and for. This means thinking about how your priorities align with the different kinds of schools.  Tenure-track jobs at all institutions of higher education include some combination of research, teaching, mentoring, and service but vary in the quantity of each. The descriptions below are my own summary of the options, which will give you one way to think about the tenure-track options.  

AA and BA (Only) Granting Institutions 

Community colleges and liberal arts colleges mainly fall into this category along with some other universities.  These are institutions in which teaching is the top priority and teaching loads are large (3-3 or 4-4), such as Pomona, Oberlin, Borough of Manhattan Community College, or City College of San Francisco.  Importantly, class size will vary dramatically between community colleges and liberal arts colleges with larger class sizes in community colleges.  

Despite this focus, many faculty in these colleges are also doing research.  In fact, there’s been a growing interest in bringing in faculty with active research agendas at liberal arts colleges to expose undergraduates to research, support undergraduates in thesis writing, and enhance the college’s reputation.  Even some faculty at community colleges maintain an active research agenda, but neither community colleges nor liberal arts colleges usually have strong infrastructure to support faculty in their research endeavors. This means few opportunities for research funding from the college and little support for applying for external grants.  

One exception to this description is a small number of elite liberal arts colleges (often called selective liberal arts colleges or SLACs) that operate a little more like PhD granting institutions.  Colleges like Amherst and Haverford have a 2-2 or 2-3 teaching load along with small class sizes. Additionally, they provide more institutional support for research particularly around attaining external funding than at other liberal arts colleges.  

An important difference between community colleges and liberal arts colleges that might be important for your decisions about where to apply is the composition of the student body.   Community colleges serve a diverse group of students with a large number of first generation college students, students from low-income and working-class families, and students of color.  In contrast, some liberal arts colleges have a more privileged student body on average.  

MA Granting Institutions 

In addition to undergrads, some colleges also have terminal master’s degree programs, but no PhD programs such as University of Baltimore and California State University, Los Angeles.  These programs tend to be more practical and applied such as methods programs, urban planning, public health, public policy, law, business administration, and international affairs. You’ll find these programs within PhD granting institutions including departments of interest that only have MA programs, but may also find that MAs are the highest degree conferred at some schools.  

Like the AA and BA granting institutions, MA granting institutions have a primary focus on teaching and may lack support for research.  However, this does not mean that they are not looking for applicants with an active research agenda for the same reasons stated above.  

PhD Granting Institutions 

All of you going onto the academic job market are coming out of PhD granting institutions and presumably know a bit about what they have to offer.  The main focus for tenure and promotion is of course research followed by teaching and service. But what that looks like will vary dramatically depending on the prestige of the institution.  

High ranked universities like Harvard and Princeton will have higher demands for publishing both in terms of quantity and quality.  Highly ranked placement in journals and with academic presses will matter for attaining tenure. In contrast, teaching and service will matter less, although no one wants to promote a colleague who never contributes so this doesn’t mean there are no service or teaching responsibilities.  For moderate and lower ranked universities like University of Indiana and Boston University, higher ranked publications are not frowned on, but the requirements for tenure allow for a wider range of publications even without top placements.  

PhD granting institutions have a lower teaching load than the former types (2-1 or 2-2) to allow faculty to meet these higher demands for research, but also to accommodate the demands of working with PhD students.  In fact, part of tenure may be reviewing how many PhD students a faculty member is working with at these institutions and getting reference letters from PhD candidates. Keep in mind that PhD programs range widely in size from cohorts of 1-2 students to cohorts of 30+.  Demands on faculty from PhD students will obviously vary depending on program size.  

Finally, PhD granting institutions tend to have internal funding to help faculty develop new research projects and support to apply for external grants.  The level of support can vary depending on institutional resources, but some form of each exist at most of these institutions to help faculty be successful in research.  

Deciding Where to Apply

What jobs you apply to all depends on what’s important to you.  Think about these questions: 

  • What kind of students do you want to work with and teach?  At what level?
  • Do you want to be involved in more applied and public facing work OR primarily academic work? 
  • Do you want teaching to be your primary focus OR research?  
  • What kinds of courses do you want to teach (eg applied, methodological, substantive)? 
  • What kind of mentoring do you want to do (eg research focused, career focused)?

If you can’t answer these questions, it’s time to gather some data and get some more experience.  Ask alumni from your program to do informational interviews about their experiences in jobs you know less about.  Visit a college or university to learn more about what they offer and who goes to school there. Review websites to gather information about different programs and schools.  Finally, get experience teaching and mentoring to figure out what aspects of a tenure-track job are most important to you. If you decide you don’t like teaching, there are lots of opportunities to do research without teaching in non-academic and non-tenure-track jobs.  (More on this soon!) 

Lastly, a note to those of you applying to jobs.  Folks have different takes on this, but I am in the camp that you shouldn’t apply for a job you wouldn’t take.  If you don’t know whether the job is one you would want or not, apply. But if you know you wouldn’t accept the job, don’t waste your time or the search committee’s.  It’s a small courtesy and more efficient use of your time and energy during a stressful period. Use your time wisely!  

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