The Community-College Job Search

With the fall hiring season nearly upon us, I thought it might be a good time to reprise some of the advice I offered last spring, during an interview with Matthew Dembicki, online editor for The Community College Times. With Matthew’s kind permission, here is an excerpt from that interview:

Question: What are some common mistakes made by applicants seeking to work at a community college?

Answer: The biggest mistake academic job hunters make is failing to recognize the difference between applying at a two-year school and applying at a research university. They tend to take a “one size fits all” approach to the job search—writing one cover letter, for instance, which they send with only minor modifications (or none at all) to every school where they’re applying.

The problem is that a letter to a four-year school should focus heavily on the applicant’s research agenda, while a letter to a community college should focus primarily on teaching. When members of a community-college search committee read a letter that talks mostly about the applicant’s research, they assume that the person either doesn’t understand the nature—specifically, the teaching mission—of community colleges or else is applying at a two-year school only as a fall-back position—or both. Community colleges are rarely interested in hiring someone like that.

Other mistakes include applicants neglecting to do their homework—researching the specific institution and community colleges in general—before walking into the interview room; focusing too much on their dissertations and not enough on their teaching during the interview; preparing a teaching demo that is more presentation than demonstration—more an overview of what the applicant would do, rather than a brief sample of his or her actual teaching; and failing to ask intelligent questions at the end of the interview, which actually goes back to the issue of doing one’s homework.

Question: Since community colleges have moved into the national spotlight, has interest in working at community colleges grown?

Answer: Interest in working at community colleges has certainly grown in recent years, but I’m not sure how much of that has to do with the national spotlight. My sense is that it has a lot more to do with the economy in general and with the tight academic job market in particular.

One of the messages of my book, and something I really emphasize when I speak to groups of graduate students, is that job seekers are shortchanging themselves if they overlook the community-college market. In a typical issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, about 35-40 percent of the faculty positions advertised are at two-year schools. That’s a huge segment of the job market, and one that job hunters would be ill-advised to ignore.

Some of them still do, either because they don’t know much about community colleges or because they’ve been conditioned by their advisers to think that teaching at a community college is beneath them. But I think that, over all, the word is starting to get out that there are still jobs available at community colleges and that they’re great places to work.

Question: Are you seeing any trends in terms of applicants or who colleges look to hire?

Answer: One definite trend is that we’re seeing more and more Ph.D.’s applying at two-year schools. This, of course, also has to do with the tight academic job market.

Some two-year schools are trying to take advantage of this situation and actively recruit Ph.D.’s, either in pursuit of some elusive notion of “prestige” or because of what I regard as a mistaken belief that someone with a doctorate is automatically a better teacher than someone with “just a master’s.” But very few community colleges have gone so far as to require a doctorate, and most are still very open to hiring M.A.’s with excellent teaching credentials.

In fact, I’d say that an M.A. who can demonstrate that he or she is an excellent teacher stands a good chance of being hired over a Ph.D. who can’t demonstrate that—or who makes the mistake I mentioned above of not tailoring his or her application to the two-year school.

Another trend has to do with technology. Increasingly, the applicants I’m seeing are extremely adept at using all sorts of new technologies, to the point where I’m sometimes, quite frankly, a little intimidated, in much the same way as I’m intimidated by my teenage son’s mastery of all things computer-related.

In the long run, I think this bodes well for our colleges, because these new-age faculty members can relate well to today’s students, and they can also teach the rest of us how to incorporate some of these technologies into our classrooms. Two-year colleges these days certainly look for people who are well versed in the latest technologies, who know how to deliver course content through a variety of methods, and who aren’t intimidated by social networking, smart devices, and other technological trends.

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