I am currently a math PhD student, and will be graduating next spring.

If I'm applying for a position at small liberal arts college, what should my research statement look like? How detailed and how long should it be? I have heard/read that small liberal arts colleges are focused on undergraduate research. I am wondering how much of my own research I should talk about in the research statement. Should I go into as much detail as I would in the research statement for a postdoc?

(My advisor has never worked at a liberal arts college, so he doesn't really know the answer to this question.)

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    You really need to ask your advisor these questions. I'm a R1 guy, but based on everything I hear, one key thing is involving undergraduates in research, FWIW... Nov 4, 2015 at 19:18
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    i think you really need to have these discussion with trusted mentors--even if they aren't the direct diss supervisor. the conventions here may vary by field. the one crucial minimum, I would think, is that the RS needs to show that you've got a plan that will realistically get you tenure at the kind of school you're applying to.
    – user10636
    Nov 4, 2015 at 21:46
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    @Matinking: Despite the name, a "liberal arts college" doesn't usually focus exclusively on "artistic" fields - they typically offer a full range of programs through the arts, sciences and humanities. There's no particular reason to think the OP would actually be changing fields. Nov 5, 2015 at 4:23
  • @NateEldredge: I just mentioned that more elaboration could be taken into account within the question to address better advice for the required SoP.
    – user41207
    Nov 5, 2015 at 7:24

4 Answers 4


I don't know why @aparente001’s answer was downvoted. I teach mathematics at a liberal arts college, and when we hire, a detailed research statement is not very important, but a research area that has the possibility of involving students is a plus, and we’d like to hear about how you might do that. But chances are good that no one in the (very small, teaching-focused) department will be well-informed about your specific area to be interested in great detail.

What I look at first is the cover letter. If it’s nothing more than a summary of your CV, and/or mostly about research, my interest is diminished. If it’s not well-written (good communication skills matter, even in the math department) I’m worried. But if it elaborates sincerely and believably on “Your position interests me because I want to teach at a liberal arts college. Here’s why.” If it shows you did your homework and know some particular things about my university that attract you (and I don’t mean generic praise for “our excellent reputation” and “strong department”) I’m more interested.

We (I don’t know about all liberal arts colleges, but I might speak for many) want great teachers who will remain professionally active and engaged in their discipline, but that can be interpreted broadly and doesn’t have to include a fancy research program. We also like colleagues who are interested in other disciplines. Maybe you’re a world-class analyst, but we’d rather hear you tell us about the time you helped an art student study perspective for her thesis than tell us about your improved bound for some well-known (to analysts in your area) asymptotic formula, not that there’s anything wrong with that. We’d rather read your thoughtful blog on teaching or frequent, patient and carefully written answers on math.stackexchange.com, too.

Related to your question is the issue of recommendation letters. All too often we get letters for new R1 Ph.D.'s that go on and on about research and assume we know all the best young recent Ph.D.s from that school (“Janet’s research is comparable to ”) and then barely mention teaching (“She gave a seminar talk that was very good,” or “She spends a lot of time with students during office hours.”) This, even though we ask for letters that specifically address teaching excellence or potential. Tell your letter-writers that you want them to address your creativity, your ability to explain, your cross-disciplinary interests, and so on. Perhaps even choose teachers you think you did great homework or exams with, or ones you T.A.’d for. Even a letter from a LAC faculty member who finished a few years before you, knew you well in graduate school, and has kept in touch with you.

Honestly, I find it incredible (not in a good way) that so many R1 senior faculty think the research-focused letters they write will be helpful at places like LACs. It’s more understandable that applicants don’t know what we want, but asking, like you’re doing here, is a great idea.


I have worked both in academia and in the industry (currently). The best way to set yourself apart is to relate what you have done or what you're planning to do to the things being done in the place of your prospective employment. In your case, you can do a bit of research on the specific research projects that the undergrads are doing and point out how your current or future research might result in similar projects. Concrete examples work best. You should also try to figure out who will be reading your research statement and what language to use. The more people can understand it (without watering down the essence) the better. You can also reach out to their recent math hires (perhaps through intermediaries) to get more reliable info.


Your research statement does not need to be exhaustive, but it should give enough information that the reader will be able to see clearly two or three concrete examples of ways you could incorporate undergrads into your research program. This might require rethinking your plans somewhat.


I'm a math professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). I largely agree with everything Steve Kass wrote. I would like to add that a good research statement for a SLAC should start off by explaining a bit about the field, to a mathematician who is not an expert. I study algebraic topology and homotopy theory. My research statement did not start off with "Let M be a cofibrantly generated model category." Instead, it started off by discussing how localization is a fundamental human idea, and many real-world examples of times we might look at two different objects and decide that they are "the same" for our purpose. Then, I remind the reader about homotopy. Sure, they saw it as a PhD student, but that might have been 20+ years ago. Then, I get into how we can abstract that notion into a model category. My research statement was around 8 pages long, and the first two pages were entirely background. The point was to show the hiring committee that I was good at explaining things. The point of the rest of the research statement was to show them that I had been successful in proving some things, had publications and/or papers submitted, and had ideas for future work that would drive an independent research program that could get me tenure. I only devoted half a page to ideas for undergrad research.

I've been on many hiring committees in the ten years since I got hired, and I still think research statements like the one described above are best. For sure Steve is right that the most important thing is the cover letter, and expressing that you understand the nature of the job, that you want it, and that you'll be good at it.

I realize I'm several years late to this thread, but the OP is now an assistant professor at a SLAC, and I want to point out that this way of writing is also a good idea for the research part of your tenure dossier. Furthermore, if it's read by non-mathematicians, it's good to go even more general, to show the committee that you are good at explaining things and at recognizing the level of your audience. I guess, big picture, what I'm trying to say is that the research statement is one way that your teaching talents get assessed. Same goes for the research question in a 20-minute interview and for the job talk in an on-campus interview.

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