Why You Can't Find a Full-Time Job, Part 2

Brian Taylor

June 24, 2013

In the first installment of this two-part series, I focused on circumstances that may be preventing many long-time adjuncts from getting full-time teaching positions at community colleges, but over which they have little control. My message, in other words, was, "It's probably not you."

On the other hand, it might be you.

The truth, as I've learned in my 20-plus years of experience at community colleges as a faculty member, sometime administrator, and serial search-committee member, is that some of the obstacles standing between adjuncts and full-time jobs are surmountable—provided you understand those obstacles and are willing to put forth the effort to overcome them.

So although there are certainly no guarantees of finding full-time work in academe (as last month's column sought to explain), you might be able to improve your chances by taking certain steps.

Qualifications. One factor that could be keeping you from getting the job you want is your CV. As countless readers have pointed out, many part-time faculty members are just as qualified as their full-time counterparts. But not all part-timers are.

If you've applied for jobs over and over again but haven't been invited for an interview, you might want to consider how your qualifications stack up against your competition. Perhaps you just have a master's degree, which you always assumed would be sufficient to land a full-time teaching position at a community college. Technically, that's true, but you may need to pursue a Ph.D. if more and more of the other applicants have Ph.D.'s, and if more and more of the colleges you're applying to have what I described in last month's installment as "delusions of grandeur."

Even if you're applying to colleges that frequently hire people with master's degrees, you may not have the right master's degree. For example, someone with a master's in English is almost always a stronger candidate for a position teaching English than someone with a master's in English education. In the latter case, "going back to school" might mean getting a second master's instead of a Ph.D.

Perhaps your CV compares unfavorably to the competition in other areas, such as professional development. It's incredibly difficult to attend conferences or publish articles when you receive virtually no support and spend all your time teaching on multiple campuses just to keep a roof over your head. Whether or not you can afford to devote the hours and dollars necessary to improve your "curb appeal" is a decision only you can make, but it could mean the difference between eventually being hired full time and remaining a career adjunct.

Experience. Another area in which part-timers sometimes fall short, at least on paper, is teaching experience. It may sound odd to say that someone who's been teaching for four or five years lacks experience, but community-college administrators sometimes have odd ways of quantifying what they consider to be valid experience.

When I first came to my current college, more than a decade ago, our job ads required applicants to have a minimum of three years of full-time experience, and we didn't count part-time experience at all. Some of the department chairs banded together and persuaded the administration to rethink that policy, so now we look at the total number of classes taught: 10 courses as an adjunct equals one year as a full-timer.

Unfortunately, not all community colleges are that enlightened. And even if they were, it could take you five years or more as a part-timer to accumulate the equivalent of three years of full-time experience. So if you've been on the market only three or four years, it might be just a matter of time before you'll have the experience necessary to rate serious consideration.

Geography. One of the biggest obstacles to getting a full-time community college teaching job, in my experience, is unwillingness or inability to move. After all, there are more than 1,300 two-year institutions in the country, which collectively hire thousands of faculty members every year, even in a sluggish economy. If you genuinely meet the stated job qualifications and have the requisite experience, there's no reason you shouldn't be a strong candidate for one or more of those positions.

That's assuming, of course, that you're willing and/or able to relocate. Not everyone is in a position to pick up and move across country. Some people are tied to a specific city or region because of a partner's job or other family considerations. And some people simply have their heart set on living in a particular part of the country. If you're in one of those categories, then you have no choice but to apply every time a full-time job opens up at a college nearby and hope that, eventually, you'll be hired.

But if you would consider moving, then my advice is to apply for every position you're qualified for. If you do, I believe there's a good chance you'll find a job somewhere, and probably much sooner than if you'd waited for something to open up locally.

Presentation. If you meet all the qualifications, have the necessary experience, and are willing to go wherever the jobs are, but you still haven't been called for an interview, perhaps it's just a matter of the way you are presenting yourself on paper.

Take a good, hard look at your cover letter, CV, teaching statement, and other application materials. The Chronicle and other Web sources are full of useful advice on putting together such documents. Consider (if you haven't already) asking some of your full-time colleagues or friends who have landed full-time teaching jobs to look over your materials and offer some tips, and/or let you review their materials.

If you're getting invitations to interview but not closing the deal, perhaps the issue is how you are presenting yourself in person. Once again, The Chronicle offers a great deal of guidance regarding interview techniques, how to dress, what sorts of questions to expect, and so forth, as well as specific instructions on things like giving a winning teaching demonstration. If you haven't already spent hours poring over those articles and others in the same vein, you should.

References. Unfortunately, even in the community-college hiring process, there is some truth to the old adage "It's not what you know, it's who you know."

A few months ago, I was surprised to learn that a good friend of mine had applied at my institution but had not listed me as a reference or even told me he was applying. When I asked him why, he said, "I didn't want to bother you."

As much as I appreciate his concern, on a personal level, I was dismayed that, from a job-hunting point of view, he'd failed to take advantage of one of his greatest assets: a connection with someone at the college. As it turned out, the chair of that search committee was a colleague with whom I have an excellent working relationship. I would have been glad to call that person and offer an informal recommendation. My friend did not get called for an interview, but with me going to bat for him, he probably would have.

The people you list as references should be the very best people you can find who will give you a good reference—the people whose endorsements will carry the most weight, either because of their positions or because their names are known to committee members. Use whatever networking opportunities come your way to cultivate such contacts, both at your current campus and at other institutions. In fact, you can even go back to your graduate-school days and use an alumni register to find out where some of your old classmates are working now. When the time comes, don't hesitate to call them up and see if they can help you get a foot in the door.

Attitude. I often hear people say that if someone is good enough to teach part time, then he or she must be good enough for a full-time position. That argument has never made much sense to me. Clearly, there are people you can put up with for short periods of time but wouldn't want to be around all day—people who are good enough teachers but with whom you wouldn't want to spend hours serving on a committee.

At some point, you might need to ask yourself if you're one of those people. Have your anger and bitterness at the vicissitudes of the academic labor market become increasingly obvious to everyone? Do you have a reputation as a grouch or a malcontent? Are you high-maintenance? Have your full-time colleagues not asked you to join their ranks because they don't want to be around you any more than they have to be?

If the honest answer to any of those questions is yes—and in a very small number of cases it might be—then that, too, is something you can control. Whether or not you wish to control it is, once again, a decision only you can make.

One point that bears repeating: No matter what you do, there's no guarantee you're going to get a full-time job. However amazing your qualifications, presentation, and attitude, the obstacles I mentioned in Part 1—those things over which you have no control—aren't going away.

Still, I've always believed in focusing my attention and efforts on those aspects I can control, rather than grinding my teeth over what I can't. That's sound advice for job-seekers, too.

Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College and author of "Building a Career in America's Community Colleges." He writes monthly for our community-college column and blogs for "On Hiring." The opinions expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.