Research, Liberal Arts, or Community College? Finding Your Fit in Academia

With the commencement of another academic job market season, thousands of newly-minted and soon-to-be PhD graduates will be searching for an academic job. One of the most common pieces of advice given to those on the job market is to make sure that they assess each institution they apply to for the best "fit." However, many doctoral students know very little about the daily work lives of faculty members and are unaware of how different institutions may present varying work experiences.

For instance, years ago when I first went on the job market, I had little understanding what work would be like at a liberal arts college, because I had only attended large research institutions during my educational career. This can be problematic, because one may find a better fit in a type of institution that differs from one's own.

To help you while you are on the job market, here is a break down about the different types of institutions and how faculty roles may be different at each one:

1. Research institutions.

For a tenure track job at a research institution, you will be expected to publish more often than at other institutions and possibly bring in grant funding. There are different tiers of research institution, classified by the Carnegie Foundation: R1: Doctoral Universities – Highest research activity, R2: Doctoral Universities – Higher research activity, R3: Doctoral Universities – Moderate research activity. Generally, you would be expected to publish more frequently at an R1 institution than an R2 or R3, but not necessarily so. For instance, many R2 institutions strive to become R1 institutions and therefore may require great publication records for tenure than other R2 institutions.

At research institutions, the largest portion of your time will be dedicated to research activities. Generally, you will teach less than other institutions, but individual teaching loads vary. Teaching will often be less of a focus during your tenure review. You probably cannot get tenure if you are a terrible teacher, though you will be able to get tenure with decent student reviews. At research institutions you will have more interaction with graduate students - particularly doctoral students. In many cases, you will be provided a doctoral assistant - at least for the first year or two without you having to provide the funds.


  • Research institutions often have more resources to support faculty research, like lab space, internal grant programs, and administrative support for submitting and managing grants.

  • Your teaching may involve more graduate-level courses where you can explore topics more in-depth with students.

  • There may be greater opportunities for research collaborations with other faculty at your institution.


  • Research institutions with heavy teaching loads or service requirements may make it difficult to balance time for research activities.

  • Intense pressure to publish and/or obtain external funding.

  • Class sizes may be larger than at other types of institutions.

  • If you love teaching, there may be less incentive to focus on innovative teaching approaches or improving your instruction.

  • You may not get to know students as well as at other institutions.

  • You may have to secure summer salary for yourself.

2. Liberal arts colleges.

At liberal arts colleges, you will also be required to conduct research and teach. However, there will be an increased emphasis on teaching, compared to research institutions. You will be more likely to teach undergraduate and/or master’s level students, with little to no interaction with doctoral students. Class sizes tend to be smaller and there will be an expectation to be more innovative in teaching approach. You are more likely to get to know your students at liberal arts colleges.

Although institutions may vary, you most likely will not need as many publications to be awarded tenure, compared to research institutions. For instance, at one liberal arts school that I interviewed at years ago, I was only required to publish three articles for tenure. That’s three articles over a five to six year period. While that seems like a small feat, I would have also taught 9 courses per year at the same institution, which was on a quarterly system. Hence, I would have little time for writing those three articles. A liberal arts college may be ideal for someone who likes research, but does study a topic that can attract a lot of funding or enjoys teaching more than conducting research.


  • If you love teaching, the majority of your work week will involve teaching and interacting with students. Much of your tenure evaluation will focus on your teaching approach and activities.

  • There will be much less pressure to publish and obtain external funding for your work.

  • There may be opportunities to explore innovative or creative approaches to teaching students.

  • Class sizes may be smaller.


  • There may be fewer resources to support research activities.

  • There may be little time to complete research activities.

  • There may not be enough expertise to receive mentoring as a researcher.

3. Community Colleges.

Community colleges also offer a number of opportunities for PhD-level faculty positions. Here, you would spend most, if not all, of your time engaged in teaching. There will be little to no expectations for you to publish research articles or secure external funding for your research. Community colleges are great institutions for people who love teaching and will not be disheartened from not having time to conduct research. Most often, decisions about promotion and/or tenure will be focused on teaching quality. Your class sizes may also be smaller, similar to liberal arts colleges. However, you will be more likely to teach non-traditional students, such as adult learners with significant work experience, students with family obligations, or students who also work full-time.


  • If you enjoy teaching, the majority of your work will involve teaching.

  • You are more likely to be rewarded and recognized for your teaching performance.

  • You are more likely to have a 12 month appointment, which means that you won’t have to seek funding to support summer work.

  • There is little to no pressure to obtain external funding.


  • If you love your research agenda, you will have little time to complete it.

  • Teaching a higher proportion of non-traditional students may require you to find flexible, new, and innovative approaches to help them succeed.

  • Teaching at a community college may make it difficult to secure a position at a research institution later on, if you are considering work at a community college in the meantime.

4. Non-academic institutions.

For many reasons, PhD students and graduates may pursue job opportunities outside of academia. When I was first on the market, I applied for a job at the U.S. Congressional Research Service, even though all of the other positions I applied for were academic jobs. Non-academic positions typically will have more of a set schedule, compared to academic positions. You are more likely to be at the office for 8 or more hours each day. People who may enjoy non-academic jobs are those who like hard deadlines, a defined schedule, and a 12 month salary.


  • There may be less emphasis on securing funding for your work or salary.

  • There may be more concrete expectations set for promotion.

  • Hard deadlines means that you can count on others to have work completed in a timely fashion.

  • Set work schedules may mean that you do not spend nights, weekends, and/or holidays grading papers or writing. You leave your work at the office.


  • There is less flexibility in day-to-day activities, which may affect work-life balance.

  • Without tenure, there may be less job security in the long-run.

  • You may not be able to pursue your own research interests, and be required to work on specific tasks or projects that are delegated to you.

If you think that a non-academic job may be best for your, you should read my earlier article on turning your CV into a resume.

Which one is right for you?

First, you need to ask yourself, How much do I like teaching? How much do I like research? It doesn’t make sense to apply to a research institution if you have little interest in writing papers or grants. Research institutions also require you to set your own pace for research activities and achieve goals you set within your established timeline. If you do not think you would be able to achieve yearly goals that will help you get tenure, this may not be the right institution for you.

I enjoy research and teaching about equally, so I was open to different types of institutions when I first went on the market. The key piece is asking each institution: (1) What is the teaching load? and (2) What are the publication requirements for tenure?

At many research institutions, the teaching and publishing requirements vary. At my former institution, I was awarded tenure, which required me to teach three courses each semester and I had to publish at least three papers per year. That’s pretty intense. At my current institution, I teach two courses per semester and am required to publish at least two articles each year. That is more standard. Note that all academic institutions will require you to participate in service activities, like participating in committees, leading faculty searchers, and/or serving the community.

Also note that a cover letter to each type of institution should emphasize different things (more about this in a future post!).

Trust your own instincts in making this decision. I have worked with doctoral students whose advisors dismissed their ideas to teach at community colleges or take a position outside of academia. Sometimes, advisors can become a little paternalistic. Listen to your own thoughts and feelings about teaching and research and make the decision for yourself. It’s your career, after all. No one else’s.

Need help and support on the job market? Contact Nicole today and see how you can work together to get the academic job you are dreaming of!

#highereducation #HE #phdchat #JobPostings #phdlife #careeradvice #phd #phdjobs #academicjobmarket #JobSearch

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