Advice

'Shooting Low' at a Community-College Post

March 16, 2001
  • "It's too competitive."

  • "There are more adjuncts out there than full-time academic jobs."

  • "Ph.D.'s are taking all the community-college posts."

  • "Why are you shooting so low? Go for your doctorate."

I heard all of these comments and more when at age 29, I decided to go to graduate school to earn a master's degree in communication. I had been self-employed for seven years as a medical transcriptionist but I was looking for a change, and my dream was to teach at a two-year college.

Since I'd already been successful in the nonacademic world, I assumed my academic job search would be equally fruitful -- until I was repeatedly told otherwise by those who "live" in academe. The competition, they told me, was stiff in the community-college job market. A slew of adjuncts and unemployed Ph.D.'s are in hot pursuit of full-time openings at community colleges. I knew all of this going in, but I was impassioned about the two-year college demographic. It wasn't "shooting low" to me. So I turned a deaf ear, and looking back -- from my current vantage point as a tenure-track speech instructor -- I'm so glad that I did.

But back in October 1999, when I was just beginning my quest, it was a challenge just to learn about the job-search process at community colleges. I sought advice from some of my university professors, but what they had to say about the job market was based on their experiences at four-year colleges. When it came to the community-college sector, most well-intentioned university professors were ill-prepared to advise master's-level graduate students on how to proceed. It's just not their scene.

Still, I applied for 34 positions at two-year colleges around the country, and happily landed eight invitations for on-campus interviews. What I learned from the application and interview process confirmed my suspicions -- the community-college job market is a whole different animal.

Here is what I found out:

Be prepared for an avalanche of paperwork. Most job applications at community colleges are four to six pages long, and those that could not be downloaded -- unfortunately that turned out to be many of them -- had to be typed. I also included an extensive cover letter, tailored to each position. No stock copy allowed. I was also asked to submit the usual C.V., college transcripts, statement of teaching philosophy, copies of course syllabi, and student evaluations.

Providing colleges with all of these documents was simple compared with the laborious supplemental essay questions that accompanied many applications. Colleges wanted to know everything -- my teaching style, my comprehension of technology, my knowledge about different communication courses, my experience with learning clusters and collaborative teaching. No two colleges asked the same questions in the same manner. Cutting and pasting was out of the question.

Finally, letters of recommendation were needed. My university professors could easily attest to my research acumen, but two-year colleges were curious about my teaching ability. And my professors hadn't seen me teach, so they had to creatively summarize my student evaluations.

Working on my thesis concurrently as I applied for jobs (the thesis was often easier) created an ominous mountain of paper at my home. But I reminded myself that the tedious process is meant to weed out those who won't apply the added effort. I wanted so much to be weeded in.

Become familiar with the latest jargon on teaching techniques. Know and use phrases like "learning-centered," "student-centered," and "multicultural, multiethnic, socioeconomically diverse environment." These words all coincide with the community-college mission and I had to discuss them both in brilliant prose and eloquent speeches. The college needs to know how you teach, what you teach, and why you're teaching it. They also need assurance that you will be just as comfortable educating the high-school transfer student as you will the international student, the "re-careering" 46-year-old steelworker, and every human being in between. Aside from the unique population, you also have to prove your mettle to teach up to five classes on days, evenings, or weekends, and via distance education. The community college prides itself on convenience for everyone.

Prepare a teaching demonstration. The academic job-hunting books I perused said that candidates often discuss their research during interviews. Not so for a community college. My interviewers nodded politely when I elaborated on my research program, but listened attentively when I discussed my teaching style. They wanted to get a feel for my classroom presence and experience who I was in the classroom.

My teaching demonstrations lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour, and were witnessed by the search committee and other "guests," such as the college's vice president for academic affairs. I strove to portray my most effervescent, vibrant self since two-year colleges seem to welcome creative, personable, innovative educators. By-the-book lecturers need not apply.

Know that the competition for tenure-track jobs in community colleges is fierce. Go the extra mile. I took two specific actions that I later learned set me apart from other candidates. First, I was told that I knew more about the colleges than some search committee members. Why? Because I pored over college catalogs and studied course offerings. I knew I would be asked about my ability to teach existing courses and my ideas for new ones. In some cases, I even called the department and asked what textbooks were in use. Then I scoured my professors' bookcases or ordered a review copy. Where possible, I even incorporated my knowledge of the college or the department into my teaching demonstration.

My other noteworthy action was to forward my teaching portfolio to the search committee prior to my on-campus interviews -- a recommendation from one university professor that made a lasting impression. My teaching portfolio was a plastic, comb-bound (think Kinko's) booklet that included, among other things, my teaching philosophy, summaries of courses taught, sample syllabi, student evaluations, and a conference paper. I wanted my prospective employers to identify my commitment to teaching excellence before the interview. My only previous classroom experience was as a graduate teaching assistant in two basic communication classes and a one-semester adjunct job teaching public speaking. It wasn't much, but I packaged it to the hilt.

Prepare to spend a little hard-earned cash. Many graduate students have meager finances; the application and interviewing process will strain them further. My university professors advised me that colleges "should pick up the tab for the entire interview." In the university setting, maybe, but not on my community-college quest. I applied all over the country, and only one two-year college picked up the entire bill for my interview; the rest provided allowances of $300 to $500, which barely covered airfare.

Some announcements even warned, "Candidates are responsible for their own interviewing expenses." Fortunately, none of those schools contacted me. Still, this "cost of doing business" -- a phrase one of my professors used to define the money spent on interviewing -- inflated my credit-card debt.

Approach local community-college professors for advice. The best way to learn about working in two-year colleges is to talk to people who teach there. I cold-called a full-time faculty member who teaches speech at a two-year college I formerly attended. Fortunately, she didn't mind having a fledgling disciple, and was willing to answer questions. I was also lucky to become an adjunct at the same college during my last semester in graduate school -- a move that buoyed my marketability. I didn't have breadth of experience, but at least I had exposure.

When I look back to only last year, I'm glad I resisted the cautionary tales I'd heard about community college job-seeking. I'm also grateful for the elusive tenure-track post that was waiting for me when I donned my graduation regalia in May 2000. My university professors seemed genuinely proud of my achievement. I know they meant well in wanting me to pursue even higher education, but their vision wasn't mine, and neither were their experiences.

Every day, I renew my commitment to the community-college mission by teaching 150-plus students the art of communication. I have never felt that I "settled" for this path. Admittedly, some days I do regret not pursuing a doctoral degree straight out of graduate school, but not for the reason you might think: With a Ph.D., I could more readily advise other graduate students who want to serve the rewarding demographic of a two-year college.

Ellen Levine Bremen, who earned her master's at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, is a speech instructor at Darton College, a two-year institution in Albany, Ga.