Careers: Working at a Small Liberal Arts School

Finishing up graduate school and looking for that first job? It’s only natural to set your sights on a postdoctoral research position, ideally at a large research institution. But, if you have a passion for teaching, you might consider an alternative: a career at a small liberal arts institution where you can still host your own research program, albeit at a smaller scale.

That has been Cristian Aguilar’s path. After earning his PhD from the University of California, Irvine, he took his research to Azusa Pacific University (APU) in California. “My position offers a really great balance between teaching and research. I really love teaching, and I have my own lab space with research students too,” says Aguilar, an assistant professor in biology and chemistry.

Aguilar studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms of how limbs regenerate after injury in certain organisms. As an undergraduate, he had several opportunities to participate in undergraduate research programs, including as a 2007 Amgen Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. Now, as a professor at APU he mentors a team of five undergraduates. With no master’s or doctoral students in the department, the undergraduates take on the equivalent of graduate-level research. “It’s a great experience for them,” he says. “It’s intense. But they usually come out of it very well prepared for medical or doctoral programs.”

We asked him more about how he landed his position and what it’s like. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.

How did you score a faculty position right out of graduate school?

I was fortunate to get this position. I was getting prepared to do a postdoc.

I did a pedagogical fellowship at UC Irvine that aimed to build on the teaching skills of its graduate students. The fellowship included a class on academic job preparation that taught us what it is like to apply for a faculty position. What my professor said was: ‘Go find a job posting that you may not be prepared to apply for in reality. Draft up all the documents and pretend like you’re applying, and submit it to the class.’

I saw the posting at APU and thought, ‘Unfortunately the timing is off. I’m not ready to graduate yet, but this is a great position. I would love it.’ I got all my materials together anyway and just did it for the class. Six months later and close to defending, it was time to look at positions and start applying. That position was actually still posted. I thought it would be a long-shot coming right out of graduate school. But I decided to apply anyway, and I got it.

How specific did you need to get about research in your application?

The prompts were not specific. From my own experience at UC Irvine, I figured I should be fairly specific while keeping my goals realistic for APU. I had to consider APU, their capabilities and think about a reasonable expectation of research. Do my research goals match a need in their department? I looked at the faculty in the department and what research they were doing. I wanted to see whether my research would be different from that of the other faculty, and at the same time whether there would be inroads for collaborations. I gave examples of specific projects I want to do to get started and ways that undergraduates can take an active role. That was pretty important.

A big part of it was teaching experience. I had developed my teaching skills through several fellowships and teaching assistant (TA) positions while I was in graduate school and that gave me an advantage over people with little or no teaching experience. Specifically, having been previously responsible for course material preparation and assessment was useful when I was asked to describe my teaching approach and philosophy.

What’s funding like?

It’s a private institution. What’s nice about that is that there is internal financial support. Those cover most supplies, and because the pace of research here is slower than at a Research I (R1) institution, we’re not burning through reagents as quickly. We also have a faculty research council that awards additional money for faculty proposals. We’re also encouraged to get external funding as well, though that can be more difficult.

What’s it like having a large teaching responsibility, but also doing research?

I’m not going to lie: it’s a ton of work. But I love my work and I am happy to come in every day. The hard part about my position is striking a balance. I want to do my teaching as well as I can, but I also want my research program to be as productive as possible. It feels like being solely a lecturer at a teaching university and then also being a researcher. Rather than a 50/50 split, it’s like being both full time at the same time.

Where do you see yourself?

I could see myself being here for a long time. There’s that potential. This is a place where I can continue to develop my career the way I want to, accomplish important goals, and have the meaningful interactions with students I thrive on a daily basis.