What Graduate Students Want to Know About Community Colleges, Part 1

Brian Taylor

April 22, 2012

After reading that headline, some of you may be thinking, "I didn't know graduate students wanted to know anything about community colleges."

A few years ago, that might have been the case. Between 2003, when I started writing for The Chronicle on career issues at two-year colleges, and 2009, I received exactly four invitations to speak to graduate students about community colleges. Two of those invitations came from local universities near my college, and a third from my alma mater.

But something has changed in the past couple of years. Since the fall of 2010, I've received seven such invitations, from some of America's finest research universities, with several more invites pending for the fall. You know what that means, don't you? Word has finally gotten around that I'm a terrific speaker.

OK, what it really means is that, facing an academic job market that seems only to get worse each year, many doctoral students are now willing to explore the possibility of a community-college career.

In any hiring cycle, about 40 percent of the available teaching positions are at two-year campuses. Moreover, a surprisingly large number of Ph.D. students are actually, and actively, interested in community-college careers, perhaps because they've discovered (as I did) that what they really enjoy most is teaching.

Attendance at my presentations has ranged from about 25 people in a crowded conference room to more than 90 in a lecture hall—and it wasn't just students in the audience. It seems that even some graduate faculty members have come to terms with the reality that not all of their advisees will end up at research universities, nor do all of them want to. In fact, although most of my invitations come from career centers or graduate-student groups, a few have been extended by open-minded faculty members.

The programs are always lively, as the students (and even some of their advisers) come prepared with plenty of questions. I usually end up abandoning my slide show about halfway through and filling the rest of the allotted time with Q&A—and then staying afterward to answer more questions. After several such experiences, I've developed a pretty good feel for what graduate students really want to know about community colleges. Here are some of their most common questions, along with my typical answers:

"Do I have to have a Ph.D. to teach in that sector?" The short answer is no, most community colleges still require candidates to have only a master's degree, along with at least 18 graduate semester hours in the field in which they plan to teach. That's the minimum guideline for faculty in associate-degree-granting institutions, as recommended by the regional accrediting bodies, and it's the guideline that most two-year colleges still follow. You can see that for yourself by browsing their job ads.

However, the fact is, community colleges have been hiring more and more Ph.D.'s—mostly because they can, given the glut of Ph.D.'s on the market, but also because many two-year colleges these days aspire to become four-year institutions. I know of a few that are now hiring Ph.D.'s exclusively. I think it's a really bad idea for a teaching institution to effectively eliminate so many outstanding, qualified teachers from consideration just because they don't have research degrees. I also think that, in its own way, that sort of intellectual posturing on the part of some two-year colleges may actually contribute to the glut of Ph.D.'s. But alas, nobody asked me.

In good conscience, I can't give today's graduate students advice any different from what I've given my own son, who is a junior in college and strongly considering (despite his mother's tears) going into academe. Growing up, he's watched me not only earn tenure and promotion as a faculty member but also serve as a department chair, program director, and academic dean, all with just a master's degree.

But, as I told him, I'm afraid the days when someone could have that kind of a challenging and rewarding career in academe without a doctorate are just about over. If he wants to get anywhere—even at a community college—he needs a terminal degree. And even then, of course, there are no guarantees.

"Could having a Ph.D. hurt my chances?" There are still plenty of community colleges that hire mostly M.A.'s, and—more to the point—there are plenty of M.A.'s serving on search committees who are, frankly, a little suspicious of Ph.D.'s.

Let me explain something about the internal politics of community colleges. Where the overwhelming majority of faculty members have only master's degrees, those people sometimes feel that the handful of Ph.D.'s on the campus tend to lord their terminal degrees over everyone else. This is commonly known as "Ph.D. snobbery," and some faculty members may be loath to invite more of the same (as they see it) by hiring terminally-degreed candidates. I'm neither condoning nor condemning that mind-set, merely noting it in the interest of candor.

All of that said, there's no question that a Ph.D. is, on balance, an advantage nowadays. You just have to be careful how you present yourself. If the majority of the people on the search committee are M.A.'s (which will probably be the case), and if they sense that you think you're better than they are, then your candidacy is probably doomed. Same thing if they perceive that your primary emphasis is on research rather than teaching. I've written extensively about this dynamic in other columns, most recently "What to Ask—and Not to Ask—In Your Interview."

"What's the best thing I can do to increase my chances of getting a full-time job at a community college?" That is kind of like the old question, "What are the three most important things about real estate?" In this case, the answer is not "Location, location, location" but "Teach, teach, teach."

When I read Karen Kelsky's latest column, "Graduate School Is a Means to a Job," I noted with interest that she advised doctoral students to "be the sole instructor of at least one course but not more than three." No doubt that is excellent advice for students planning on research careers, but it's exactly the opposite of the counsel I would give to anyone who wants to teach at a community college.

A few weeks ago I took part in a panel discussion during a career forum for graduate students at a major research university. With me on the panel were a professor from a local liberal-arts college, one from a nearby midsize four-year state institution, and one from the research university serving as host of the event. When the moderator asked us to talk about how we got the jobs we have now, the newly tenured faculty member from the university captivated the audience with the story of how, after years of working in a laboratory—and not teaching at all—he defended his dissertation and, two days later, was offered his current job.

I happened to go next, and jaws dropped when I told the crowd that that sort of thing wouldn't happen at a community college. This obviously brilliant young man probably wouldn't even have been considered at a community college, because he didn't have enough teaching experience. Maybe that reflects a different kind of snobbery, and as an administrator I argued against such narrow-minded hiring practices at two-year colleges. But that's the reality.

If you want to teach at a community college, the best thing you can do is to get as much teaching experience as you can. Teach as many sections at your university as your time and grant support will allow. If you can finagle it, go off campus and teach, preferably at a nearby community college. Teach even if your advisers don't want you to teach—so long as you can do it without ticking them off too much, losing your grants, or getting kicked out of the program. You may even be better off taking a full-time teaching job at a two-year college, if you can get one, and finishing your dissertation on your own time. That's not an uncommon practice at community colleges, many of which offer tuition reimbursement.

I'm not encouraging students to drop out of their Ph.D. programs. Remember, I'm the one who said you probably need a terminal degree, even if teaching at a community college is your goal. But the truth is, at most two-year colleges, your most impressive credential will be your teaching experience, not your degree.

Next month I'll answer some of the other questions that graduate students usually ask about our colleges—things like workload, tenure, salary and benefits, "moving up," and quality-of-life issues.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He blogs at The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.