"If you could offer me any advice on how to 'break in' to the community-college market with a master's degree and two years of teaching experience, that would be great."
"I've been teaching part-time at a community college since 1999. What do I have to do to get a full-time job?"
Those comments are typical of the responses I've received to my columns on teaching careers at two-year colleges. Most people asked some version of the question posed by the first writer: How do I "break in"?
I can relate to their problem on a number of levels: as a career faculty member at community colleges who has taught both full time and part time, as a department head, and as a member (or chairman) of at least a dozen search committees. I'm also well aware that at this point in the academic year -- after most of the interviews have been completed and most of the tenure-track jobs offered -- there are many qualified people asking themselves this exact question, some in frustration or worse.
The people who put the question to me can be divided into roughly two groups: The first is made up of those with little or no experience teaching at community colleges, including recent graduates with master's and doctoral degrees and nonacademic professionals looking to make a career change. The second group involves those who have been teaching part time at two-year colleges for years and want (some desperately) to move into a full-time position. I'd like to address both groups.
If you're fresh out of graduate school and want to teach full time at a two-year college, the main thing you need to understand is that the culture there is likely to be different from what you're used to, or what you may have daydreamed about. Very few faculty members at community colleges work in ivory towers; for the most part, we're laboring in the trenches.
I tell you that because an ivory-tower view of academic life tends to manifest itself in a candidate's application materials and especially during the interview. Nothing dooms a candidacy more quickly, or more surely, than for the search committee to suspect that the applicant is mistaking a community college for a research institution -- or, worse, that the applicant knows the difference but would greatly prefer the latter. Such a candidate must be either elitist and condescending or else hopelessly naïve, the committee concludes, and who wants to work with someone like that?
Whether you're coming from graduate school or from a nonacademic profession, the jargon of the community-college setting might be new to you. Do you know what "developmental studies" entail? Are you familiar with "exit testing" and "cut scores"? Do you know the difference between an associate degree in science and one in applied science? You should, if you're planning to interview at two-year colleges.
One of the best ways to prepare yourself for our job market is to teach part time at a two-year college. That's true for any applicant -- whether you're a new degree holder or a midlife career changer -- and it shouldn't be too difficult to do so. No matter where you live, chances are there's a two-year campus within easy driving distance. Since most of these colleges rely heavily on part-time instructors, you stand a good chance of getting hired as an adjunct, assuming you have at least a master's degree.
A part-time gig can be especially beneficial if you avail yourself of the opportunity to interact with some of your full-time colleagues at the college. They might seem a bit standoffish at first, but that's just because they don't know you. Once you get over that hump, you'll find that, over all, community-college faculty members are a pretty friendly bunch. For the most part, they don't look down on part timers, since many full timers started out that way themselves. Engaging in conversations with your new colleagues -- or merely listening in on their conversations about pedagogy and other daily concerns -- will go a long way toward helping you master the jargon, so that you'll sound like a two-year college veteran when you get a chance to interview for a full-time job.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say one more thing about teaching part time: It will not necessarily help you get a full-time job at that same institution. At my college, for example, we have literally dozens of part-time English instructors, most of whom do a wonderful job. Each year, when we advertise two or three tenure-track openings, a large number of those adjuncts apply. Obviously, we can't even interview, much less hire, all of them, though it's not unusual for several to get interviews and one or two to get jobs. But the rest are understandably disappointed, sometimes even bitter, as if they assumed their part-time status guaranteed them something more. It doesn't.
So when I talk about "getting a foot in the door," I really mean the door to the profession, not to any particular institution. Your part-time teaching experience at a community college will almost certainly look good on your résumé, even if you are applying for full-time openings at four-year colleges. In terms of community colleges, it will give you a better sense of what working at one is really like and make you a more viable -- and desirable -- candidate in the long run. So while a part-time stint at a two-year college won't guarantee you a full-time job on that campus, it may well help you land one elsewhere.
Perhaps you're already teaching part time at a two-year college and, like many in that situation, you'd love to move into a tenure-track job on the campus. Maybe you've been trying to do that for several years, without success. I do have some advice for you, although I fear you might not like it.
Frankly, you might want to consider moving. I say this knowing that many long-term part timers have deep ties to the communities where they live, including children in school and spouses who work nearby. But the reality of the job market is that, if you're focusing your search on a single institution, or even two or three in the same geographic area, you're statistically much less likely to land a tenure-track job than someone who is willing to move across the country. Ultimately, the question is one of priorities: Live where you prefer and continue teaching part time, perhaps indefinitely, or give up the life you've established for a tenure-track job someplace else.
If you choose the former -- if you can't or simply don't want to move -- there are things you can do to increase your chances of getting a full-time position at the college (or one of the colleges) where you now teach part time.
First, understand that landing a full-time job will be a long-term process. Don't give up when you don't get hired (or even get an interview) the first year or two that you apply. It might take four or five years, sometimes even longer, for you to show up on the search committee's radar. But if that's where you want to work, and you keep applying year after year, your persistence alone will eventually set you apart from most of your part-time colleagues, many of whom will give up after the first year or two.
Meanwhile, get to know as many of your full-time colleagues as you can. When a search committee is formed, the full timers are the ones who will be on it, and the more people you know on the committee (who have a high opinion of you), the better. To the extent that you're able, given your teaching schedule and other commitments, make yourself a fixture in the department. Attend departmental meetings, volunteer to help out with the drearier departmental tasks, socialize with your colleagues.
Complete the training required of faculty advisers and offer to help with that often-unpopular duty, if your college will allow it. Not only will you be gaining valuable experience and establishing contacts that could be helpful later on, you'll also be able to include that experience in your cover letter and résumé when you next apply.
Finally, become as engaged as you can in service and professional development, the two primary responsibilities of two-year college faculty members outside of teaching. Many campuses welcome the involvement of part timers on certain committees, and some colleges even have committees composed primarily of part-time faculty members. Seek out such assignments. Find out what kinds of technological or pedagogical training opportunities at your campus are open to part timers and sign up. There may even be local professional conferences you can attend at minimal cost.
Again, all these activities will help you strengthen your résumé, increase your understanding of the two-year college environment, and establish valuable relationships. Ultimately, it may be those relationships, and your understanding of how the college works, even more than your résumé, that will get your foot in the tenure-track door.