• April 18, 2014

The Community-College Job Search

"Supposing is good, but finding out is better." -- Mark Twain

After serving on four faculty-hiring committees at community colleges in three different states, I've come to the conclusion that many universities do a poor job of preparing graduate students to negotiate all aspects of the academic job market. Certainly, departments offer sound advice on how to land professorships at four-year institutions, but they fail miserably when it comes to helping master's and doctoral students understand how to apply for jobs at two-year colleges and technical schools.

On my campus, we have just finished searching for a new faculty member in history, and I was truly astonished by how many of the 90 applicants didn't have the foggiest notion of how to promote themselves as a candidate for our opening. Apparently, all of these very well-educated, articulate people had never been told that what works in applying for a teaching job at a four-year institution is the kiss of death if they're applying at a community college. Most applicants had impressive credentials, but their applications failed to convey that they understood what their jobs duties would be at our college. Many seemed to think that our student population was composed exclusively of traditional-age undergraduates planning to transfer to four-year campuses.

It pains me to say it, but one reason that graduate-school professors offer few helpful insights on the community-college job scene is just snobbery and bias. Too many of them view community colleges as "education lite." They think "serious scholars" would never demean themselves by taking such a position in the first place. Their attitudes seep into their interactions with anyone working or considering working at a community college. I've encountered these views myself, with professors asking me, "Why on earth would you want to teach there?" Many of these same professors pat themselves on the back for their "tolerance" and "commitment to diversity."

When I encounter such folks, I have to fight the urge to thump them on the forehead when they bemoan the lack of academic standards at community colleges. Apparently, they don't realize that when they disparage the instruction at two-year colleges, they are also disparaging themselves. After all, community-college instructors are the products of the four-year colleges. Moreover, this disdain for community colleges as a career option is profoundly arrogant coming from people who already have a steady paycheck, health insurance, and retirement benefits.

In fairness, I must emphasize that most university professors are delighted when their students find jobs that make them happy. So maybe the main reason institutions fail to help graduate students understand the community-college job search is that they simply don't know much about it themselves. And that lack of knowledge limits their students' options.

Sure, plenty of students pursue a Ph.D. because they want to teach at a major research university. But I'd guess that just as many have more modest ambitions -- say, a full-time teaching job in a field they love that allows them to have a decent standard of living. That was my goal when I pursued my master's. From the very beginning of my graduate-school days, I thought the community college might be right for me. I just didn't have anyone who could advise me on how to achieve my goal. Left to my own devices, I had to figure out what to do (and what not to do) by myself.

At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I've succeeded: I've landed several full-time, tenure-track teaching jobs in community colleges. I earned tenure in the Alabama system but left there when I was offered an even better job at a community college in Illinois. Then when I wanted to find a job near my fiancé (now husband) in Missouri, I managed to pull off that little career miracle too: I found a position at a great community college just south of St. Louis, a 30-minute commute from our home. I'd like to believe my good fortune was the result of my superior intellect and pedagogical skills, but deep down I know better. Luck played a role. I know that scores of people far smarter than I am are working as adjuncts at three or four institutions at once as they attempt to scrape together a living. This, too, could have been my fate if the employment gods had not smiled favorably on me.

Still, luck doesn't fully explain my success, either. I was able to figure out precisely what to do to impress (or at least interest) a hiring committee. I'd like to share a little of what I know about applying for community-college jobs in the hopes that it will be beneficial to those of you who would like to find a similar position but just aren't sure how to crack the market. While my advice isn't foolproof, it may improve your chances considerably.

Ideally, your quest for a community-college position should begin early in your graduate studies. You should take the time to learn about the mission and goals of community colleges before you ever even apply for your first job. Don't wait until two days before your first interview to investigate how community colleges operate. Go to a community college near your university, if there is one, and make a point of talking with some of the faculty and staff members and administrators. Get a feel for the academic culture of the place. Emphasize that you're not lobbying for a job at the campus; you just want to learn about community colleges.

You might also try to understand the student culture at a community college. Volunteer as a tutor or offer your time to help with some student activities. Community service is extremely important to community colleges, so you can enhance your qualifications by showing you are committed to this mission.

Sometimes paid non-teaching positions become available that might provide you with an opportunity to work on campus and learn more about community colleges. Before I was ever hired as a full-time faculty member, I worked as a full-time English tutor for the federally financed Student Support Services program, which offers assistance to low-income and first-generation college students. Other federal programs at community colleges, such as Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search, often have entry-level full-time openings that could give you valuable preliminary experience as well as a paycheck. In fact, some of these positions may require only a bachelor's degree, so you might be able to take the full-time job and go to school part time.

If you already have a master's degree, you certainly would want to check into the possibility of teaching part-time for a community college. If you're in a master's program, I would recommend you get some adjunct experience as soon as you can. The bottom line is that in fields like English and history, you must have some teaching experience (above and beyond being a teaching assistant) before you can even get your foot in the door for a face-to-face interview at a two-year college. Out of the 90 applicants for our history position, at least 30 or 40 had previous experience as adjunct, non-tenure-track, or tenure-track instructors. The humanities job market is too competitive to hope to get a position without having some experience in the classroom.

While you're at it, try to get some experience teaching distance-learning courses. If you have an opportunity to teach courses on the Internet or by interactive television, take it. Familiarize yourself with Blackboard.com or WebCT, which are platforms for developing Internet courses. In fact, Blackboard allows instructors to build free Internet courses on their Web site, so even if you don't actually get to teach a distance-education course, you might use this service to enhance your own traditional course content. The very fact that you have used this technology may impress a hiring committee.

From what I've been able to discern, there is no correct answer to the question of whether community colleges prefer candidates with master's degrees or doctorates. It may be that colleges with some measure of prestige (those in large metropolitan areas, for instance) prefer to hire Ph.D.'s. On the other hand, a master's degree may be sufficient if you are a strong candidate with teaching experience, institutional and committee service, distance-learning expertise, and so forth.

My current institution has instructors with both master's degrees and doctorates. (I have a master's in English.) Sometimes, Ph.D.'s are just too pricey for cash-strapped institutions, but as far as your education is concerned, do what will make you happy.

If you're sure you want to teach at a community college, and not a four-year institution, you might consider getting two master's degrees instead of a doctorate, or at least getting 18 graduate semester hours in a second field. Community colleges often look favorably on people who can "wear several hats" and fill in any instructional gaps that might surface at the institution. Back in Alabama I had a friend who had an M.A. in English and significant graduate course work in art. She now teaches in both areas. Likewise, while I have an M.A. in English, I have around 21 semester hours in history and political science, and I taught several sections of "American National Government" in Alabama.

In future columns, I will discuss writing the application letter, going for the interview, and waiting for the results of the search.

Dana M. Zimbleman, an assistant professor of English at Jefferson College in Missouri, is writing a series of columns on how to go about searching for a community-college job.

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