What Graduate Students Want to Know About Community Colleges, Part 2

Brian Taylor

May 20, 2012

Facing a cutthroat academic job market, many doctoral students are now willing to explore the possibility of a community-college career. And they have many questions.

In Part 1 of this series, I focused on the hiring process at two-year colleges and answered some common questions like "Do I have to have a Ph.D. to teach in that sector?" This month I'd like to answer other questions that graduate students ask me about what it's like to actually work at one of our colleges.

"What's the typical workload?" When two-year colleges describe themselves as teaching institutions, they're not kidding. As a full-time faculty member at a community college, you can expect to teach five courses each semester. Summer teaching for additional pay is usually optional, and based on seniority and availability of classes. (I do know of some colleges that have 12-month contracts and require faculty members to teach year-round.)

In addition, you will also be expected to advise students, serve on committees, perform other acts of service for the college or your department, and keep regular office hours. Some community colleges require faculty members to be on campus 35 hours or more a week, while others stipulate that faculty have to be available to students for a certain number of hours each week outside of class time. (Ten hours, or two for each class, is common.)

Finally, you will be expected to participate in some sort of professional-development activities, which may be as simple as attending pedagogical seminars and technology workshops offered on the campus. There may also be some expectation that you will periodically attend or even present at regional or national conferences, although budget restrictions these days can make it very difficult for junior faculty members (or senior ones) to travel.

"What about my research?" As you can see from the brief job description above, research and writing are not part of a faculty member's typical workday at a two-year college. If you have a research agenda that you would like to continue pursuing, you will probably need to do so on your own time.

That's not to say your supervisors will discourage you from doing research and publishing. They just won't encourage you very much—if by "encourage" you mean provide time, money, or other assistance. But if by "encourage" you mean offer kudos, pats on the back, and maybe a nice write-up in the campus newsletter, then, yes, you can expect some encouragement.

In other words, people will probably think it's great that you're doing research—so long as it doesn't interfere with your teaching, advising, office hours, committee service, and workshop attendance.

"What does it take to get tenure?" The good news is that the vast majority of two-year colleges do not require faculty members to publish a single word in order to earn tenure. In fact, at many community colleges, tenure is simply a matter of longevity.

Of course, not all institutions offer tenure, sometimes known as a "continuing contract." In fact, the very concept of tenure at two-year colleges is under attack in some states. But most community colleges do still offer tenure. In many state systems, earning tenure is simply a matter of doing your job in a satisfactory manner for a set period of time—generally, three to five years. So if you perform acceptably in teaching, service, and professional development for a set number of years, you will more or less automatically receive tenure.

Let me caution that I am speaking only generally here. Tenure requirements, like everything else, can vary widely. At my college, for example, we have a standard teaching load of 5/4—five classes in the fall and four in the spring—rather than the 5/5 load common at other colleges. Also on my campus, faculty members are expected to do more professional development (although we're still not required to publish) than at other colleges, and tenure is a little more difficult to get where I teach than at most two-year institutions.

"What do community colleges pay?" Starting salaries differ by state and institution, but most two-year colleges start faculty members at around $40,000 a year. Some tack on extra pay for a doctorate (perhaps as much as $5,000). Previous years of full-time, college-level teaching experience can also bump up the initial figure.

In terms of starting salaries, then, community colleges are actually fairly competitive with four-year institutions. The real difference in compensation comes later on, in midcareer and beyond. While it's not uncommon for senior faculty members at research institutions to earn six figures, very few faculty members ever break that income barrier at two-year colleges, except perhaps in those parts of the country where a low six-figure salary barely qualifies as middle-class.

On the other hand, there are plenty of presidents and vice presidents at two-year colleges who make six figures. So if making a lot of money at a community college is a priority, you should think about eventually going into administration. Just remember that you'll need a doctorate to advance.

"Can I move up from a community college to a four-year institution?" If you actually want to get hired at a community college, you should be very careful about using terms like "move up." I mean, what are we? A fifth-floor walk-up down by the railroad tracks?

That said, I understand what you're asking. And the answer is "probably not." I've spent 25 years working at five different community colleges, and I can count on one hand the number of people I know who have left and gone to four-year institutions. Only one of them, incidentally, was hired on the tenure track at a research university. The others ended up at small liberal-arts colleges (which of course are primarily focused on teaching).

I see many reasons why "moving up" rarely happens. One is that professors at four-year institutions, and especially at research universities, do look down on faculty members at two-year colleges. It's very easy for search committees to pigeonhole candidates with community-college experience as not worthy of serious consideration. Another reason is that many four-year institutions—again, especially research universities—don't place much value on teaching experience. From their standpoint, instead of taking a full-time job at a community college, you'd be better off adjuncting to pay the bills while you transform your dissertation into a world-class scholarly tome.

Probably the main reason more people don't leave community colleges for "greener pastures," though, is that we don't actually regard those pastures as greener. A lot of folks start out at a community college thinking they might try to "move up" at some point, but then they find themselves liking the work, liking their students and colleagues, and liking the lifestyle. And so they end up staying. For 30 or 40 years.

If you do take a community-college job (perhaps because you like to eat and want a roof over your head) and you are determined to move to a four-year college, then the most important thing you can do is to maintain your research agenda. You just have to find the discipline and drive to do it on your own time. Three years of teaching experience at a community college won't necessarily make you more competitive when you go up for that research job, but a strong record of publication over those same three years, along with your teaching experience, probably will.

"What's it like working at a community college?" I take that to be a lifestyle question, and all I can say is: I wouldn't trade careers with anybody. I enjoy the work that I do, I like my students and colleagues, I believe that I've been able to make a difference in people's lives, I've found it relatively easy to maintain an acceptable balance between work and life, and I've been able to make a decent living. What more can anyone ask from a career?

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.