Since I began writing for The Chronicle in 2002, my emphasis has been on helping academic job seekers find teaching positions at community colleges. Even though I've branched out occasionally to write about other topics, those "how to get a job" columns have remained my bread and butter, and have usually been well received—at least until recently.
Lately, the response to those columns has become tinged with cynicism, resentment, and even anger. Once, readers wrote to thank me for my advice, or to let me know how they had followed it and gotten a job. Now I hear more and more from people who say things like: "What's the point? I'm not going to get a job, anyway. There aren't even any jobs out there. Why should I bother?"
I still get kind e-mails from job seekers expressing thanks, and I appreciate that—not so much the ego massage as the thought that I might actually be doing some good. Yet I sometimes wonder if that's true anymore.
Perhaps a few of the comments posted in response to my October column, on writing effective cover letters will illustrate my point:
- "Although Professor Jenkins' pieces of advice are very useful, they don't console the standard job seeker out there who is usually desperate, discouraged by rejections or by potential employers who have simply not bothered to let them know the status of their application."
- "I think it's a total crapshoot these days."
- "Do the things you mention actually matter at all?"
I can't say I'm really surprised by those comments. No one is, probably, who has been following the chain of essays—and the response to those essays—that began with Thomas Benton's "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go" in January of 2009. The gist of his columns is that our graduate schools are cranking out more and more Ph.D.'s at a time when the number (or at least the proportion) of faculty positions that are on the tenure track seems to be dwindling.
Would-be academics appear to have gotten the memo—or part of it, at least. They seem to understand that there aren't enough tenure-track jobs to go around, but the thought that they might want to consider another career path hasn't hit home yet. The result is that they stay in graduate school, earn their Ph.D.'s, go on the academic market, and then discover that many of them really can't get a teaching job. And that leaves them, as noted, bitter and angry. So they take out their frustrations on the next unsuspecting advice columnist who happens to wander along.
Part of my message has always been, "I know it's tough to find an academic job these days, but don't forget about community colleges. They make up about 45 percent of the total faculty market. And who knows, you might even enjoy working there."
Nowadays, though, it's just about as difficult to find a job at a community college as it is any other type of institution.
Statistically, our enrollment numbers are still growing, but perhaps not as much as they were a year or two ago. Community-college enrollments usually surge during a recession, as displaced workers head back to school to be "retrained" (how's that for an Orwellian term?). That certainly appears to have been the case earlier in this economic downturn, according to Kent Phillippe, associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges. He notes that enrollments at two-year colleges grew nearly 18 percent nationwide between 2007 and 2009.
Although the data isn't in yet for fall of 2010, Phillippe suspects that the growth may have leveled off somewhat, for a variety of reasons. One is that high-school graduating classes, after getting larger for years, are actually shrinking now. Another is that, in response to draconian budget cuts, some two-year colleges are limiting the number of new students they accept.
Privately, I also wonder if a sort of general malaise hasn't set in as unemployment remains stubbornly high. Even with retraining, it seems, an awful lot of people still can't get jobs. So why try? Why go to the trouble and expense of going back to school if it's not going to help you get a job, anyway? Clearly, in this economy, academics aren't the only ones battling hopelessness and frustration.
In any case, as enrollment growth has leveled off, so, it appears, has tenure-track hiring at many two-year institutions. One way that community-college administrators typically deal with volatile enrollment is by hiring more adjuncts. That gives administrators—to their way of thinking—some flexibility should enrollment actually drop off once the economy bounces back, or should the recession hang on and people stop looking at going back to school as a panacea.
To some extent, then, the commenters I mentioned and thousands like them are justified in feeling a sense of futility. The job market truly is bad, all around, at community colleges just like everywhere else. In the face of that bad news, what's an advice columnist to do? I can't speak for anyone else, but my response over the coming months will be threefold:
First, I'm going to continue offering advice on how to find a full-time teaching position at a two-year college. There are still jobs out there, and each one will be filled by someone. That someone might as well be one of my readers. Moreover, given the heightened competition for every position, knowing how to present yourself in the best possible light will be more important than ever. Even the "little" things, like what to include in a cover letter, become increasingly significant as the differences among candidates grow ever more minute. My objective is to give readers the edge they need to land a coveted interview—and then to shine once they walk into the interview room.
Second, I plan to write more about the current state of the profession and about what people who already have tenure-track jobs can do to make their careers more meaningful. Along those same lines, I'm going to pay close attention to the issues affecting higher education as a whole and how they apply to community colleges. Of course, I've done that sort of thing in the past.
And finally, I want to write more about the adjunct track. As I was putting together the manuscript for a book based on my columns, I noticed that adjunct teaching is the one area I haven't really written much about. I know why that is: As someone who has been blessed to hold several tenure-track positions, I am beset by a kind of "survivor's guilt." I don't know what to say to those who haven't been as fortunate. Also, I've noticed that longtime adjuncts can be a bit touchy about the subject—understandably so—and therefore I've tried to be careful how I approach it.
But that's no excuse for hardly approaching it at all. These days, adjuncts are probably my largest potential audience—and, at community colleges, adjuncting itself may be the surest (if not the quickest) path to a full-time position. So I'm going to draw on my own experiences as an adjunct and my experiences hiring and supervising adjuncts. I'm also going to talk to friends and colleagues who are adjuncts to see what their concerns are, and then write about those things.
As always, I welcome your suggestions. Feel free to e-mail me personally (firstname.lastname@example.org), or else just post your comments below. After all, that's where I got the idea for this column.