Applications for teaching-focused jobs should mention teaching

By Geoff Zahn

Having recently gone through the hiring process myself, and now serving on my first search committees, I thought I would share what small wisdom I have gained regarding what makes a strong applicant at a teaching-focused university.  First thing, your application should say something about your teaching, whether it’s the courses you have developed or taught, the creative methods you use to improve learning, or even just a set of tools you hope to use in your future courses. This may seem obvious, but a fair number of candidates don’t seem to realize that teaching-focused institutions tend to focus on, well, teaching.

Obviously, discussing your research accomplishments, and how you will incorporate students into your research program, is important. After all, the search committee is looking for a productive colleague who brings a complimentary set of scientific skills to collaborations. But they are also looking for someone who actually enjoys teaching and who will focus on student success. If your application doesn’t show an interest in student success, it is quickly obvious to the readers and it comes across as if you either don’t understand what the university is about or don’t care enough about teaching to demonstrate your passion for it. Both of these perceptions can quickly lead to your application getting put in the “don’t bother” pile. This goes for the Skype interview as well.

From my point of view (and my fellow search committee members’, thus far) competitive applications include at least some of the following:

  1. Evidence of prior teaching experience – Courses previously taught, types of assessments used … even if the applicant’s only experience was as a TA during grad school
  2. Demonstrated interest in pedagogical improvement – This can be a mention of active learning techniques used in the classroom, or if the applicant hasn’t had much direct experience teaching, they at least mention pedagogy courses or workshops that they have attended or plan on attending
  3. Courses the applicant would like to develop and how students would benefit from them
  4. Demonstrated passion for education – Just a quick example or two illustrates this and sets an application ahead of the pack

Essentially, each of these components show that an applicant is aware that teaching-focused universities focus on teaching, and they show that an applicant has thought about this ahead of time and made some effort to gain teaching experience and/or pedagogical training. When I’m reading through a stack of applications, a few jump out.  The ones that do clearly demonstrate that the applicant knows s/he is applying to a teaching university, that s/he actually likes teaching and has tried to get some experience with it, that s/he does some cool research, wants to collaborate, and will get students involved in exciting projects.

If you are a TA in grad school and have discovered that you actually enjoy teaching, why not do something extra? Find a workshop focused on pedagogy, take the opportunity to mentor an undergraduate student research project as part of your dissertation, or just google active learning strategies and try some out in the class you TA. Activities like these show a search committee that you actually want to come work at a teaching university, rather than applying as a fallback in case you don’t get that R1 position.

Author biography: Geoff Zahn earned his PhD in biology from the University of Arkansas, where he studied the role of protists in global nutrient cycling. He also got to teach 6th-grade science during graduate school. After a postdoc at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, he is now an assistant professor of biology at Utah Valley University where his students are looking at how fungi influence local and global processes. Check out Geoff’s website at and find him on Twitter @gzahn.

Image Caption: Students at Utah Valley University. Copyright Geoffrey Zahn (2018).