Do You Belong at a Community College?

June 11, 2008

Question: I'm planning to limit my job search to a few geographic areas that work for my partner's career as well my own. In doing so, I've learned a bit about two-year colleges in those areas and I think that teaching at one might be the right career path for me. As I prepare my application materials and think about interviewing, I'm wondering what I should do to make myself attractive to those colleges?

Julie: You say you've learned "a bit" about two-year colleges; you might want to start by learning a lot more. Start regularly reading The Chronicle's Community-College News and spend some time on the Web site of the American Association of Community Colleges and the online version of its Community College Times.

Jenny: Community colleges reflect their communities. Some will have strong liberal-arts programs. But, depending on the economic situation of their region, some community colleges also will do things such as provide work-force development and offer courses in plumbing, HVAC, construction, and related fields. Colleges in rural and suburban areas may offer associate-degree programs in agriculture, natural-resources management, and resort management. Other colleges may be particularly strong in nursing and health-care programs.

Julie: Hiring committees at community colleges will focus on your academic preparation and your teaching experience. They expect to hire people who love teaching and are interested in student development. Their mandate from state and local governments and from accreditors may specify that faculty members hold a master's degree, at minimum, and other requirements. But some colleges may prefer to hire Ph.D.'s.

Jenny: Teaching experience is important and a lack of it may move your application to the bottom of the pile. But perhaps if you present a strong case in your cover letter for your love of teaching, you may land an interview. For those candidates who have teaching experience, the quality and depth of that experience will be of interest to hiring committees. Do you have experience only as a teaching assistant, or have you handled courses entirely on your own?

Julie: Many community colleges will also be looking for candidates whose experience is not limited to academe. A CV that features a broad range of experience -- be it paid or volunteer -- will indicate to an institution that a candidate will be able to relate to the diverse backgrounds of its students and understand their goals. We know of one English Ph.D. from a well-known research university who was actively involved in volunteer outreach to drug users and was able to easily transition into a teaching position at a community college. The volunteer work she had done was a clear indication of her ability to relate to people whose backgrounds were radically different from her own.

Jenny: Students at community colleges are different in key ways from their counterparts at research universities and four-year colleges. Student populations at two-year colleges have a wider range of abilities. Most do not reside on the campus. Some are of college age, but many are older students. Many are parents. Some hold down full-time jobs. Being a student is not necessarily the main focus of their lives. They may have challenges that are very different from those faced by residential students at four-year colleges. One faculty member who teaches at a community college in a place with little or no public transportation reports that some students are unable to get to class because of the high cost of gas. As a faculty member, she finds it hard to fault them for that when many of them live more than 20 miles away from the campus. Community colleges want to hire faculty members who can relate to students facing challenges that go beyond the classroom.

Julie: Many students go to community colleges to gain practical skills. They might be there to change careers, or to build on a set of skills they already have. Some want to continue their education at a four-year college. Faculty members at community colleges need to understand that range of goals and work with students, often one-on-one, to attain their goals. One faculty member we spoke with thinks of her work as "making a difference, one student at a time." Because of the high level of student contact, a community-college faculty member needs to be a people person. At a research university, you may be able to escape a certain amount of student contact by immersing yourself in your scholarship. At a community college, that would be impossible.

Jenny: Additionally, you have to be engaged and interested in your community. As one faculty member put it, "the word 'community' is the most important word in my institution's name." That means two things. First, you must be willing to participate civically in your town, by serving on local boards, for example. Second, you must have a sense of the local economic climate so that you can advise students on their job prospects, connect them with internships and volunteer work to build their résumés, and help them to widen their options.

Julie: Being aware of economic challenges and opportunities can also help you when it comes to program and curriculum development. One faculty member we spoke with who teaches interior design was able to move into a full-time position as a program director at her two-year college when it created a program in her field. The midsize city in which her college is located has a strong design community, and the creation of the program was a response to that.

Jenny: Many, but not all, community colleges offer tenure. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, about 51 percent of full-time faculty members at two-year colleges have tenure; another 35 percent are at institutions without a tenure system. Like their four-year counterparts, community colleges also rely heavily on part-time instructors. Many announcements for full-time jobs indicate that the duties include student advising and service work both on the campus and in the local area. Many such job ads stress that some evening teaching will be required.

Jenny: If you're planning to move to a new place and apply for community-college positions there, take the time to do some research on the area, not just on the institution. Which industries are up and coming there? Which are fading away? Which skill sets might be useful to students in that region? Your cover letter should show that you've done your homework.

Julie: What about scholarship? Some community colleges are interested in seeing your list of publications and presentations. Some have faculty members with Fulbrights as well as major grants from federal agencies. Some may be excited about a faculty member's research, and publicize it on the college's Web site or internal newsletter. However, for most community colleges, tenure is based on two criteria: teaching and service to the college and larger community.

Jenny: Does all of that sound like a good fit for you? If you're not sure, start by looking for adjunct work at a community college. Contact the chairs of departments in your field and related fields. See if they have any need for adjuncts in the coming semester. The American Association of Community Colleges has a wonderful community-college finder that lets you look at institutions state by state. One Ph.D. who began her community-college career while writing her dissertation told us, "I never realized how much I would enjoy this." If you prefer close contact with students and want to make a difference in your community, you may find that the same is true for you.



Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director. Vick is co-author of "The Academic Job Search Handbook" (University of Pennsylvania Press) with the late Mary Morris Heiberger, who was associate director of career services at Penn.