Friday, August 25, 2006


Ask the Administrator: Do They Need Doctorates?

A fellow blogger writes:

I'm the new director of graduate studies for our humble MA program, and a number of graduate students in our program are convinced that you can make a career of teaching composition or literature in a CC with only an MA. My understanding is that you can, at best, get part-time or adjunct positions with only an MA, that these days, CC's want Ph.D.'s too, because the market is glutted with them. Now, for some of them – the ones who are geographically limited and have spouses with good-paying jobs – adjuncting would be fine. But I want to make sure that the ones who want full-time, career-track jobs (tenure-track or the equivalent) get good advice. Should I be advising them that CC comp and lit teachers still need the Ph.D.? Or are they right? Can they make it with the MA alone?



Yes, it's possible to get a full-time tenure track lit or comp position at a cc with only an MA. Possible, but not bloody likely.

I'll have to ask the blogosphere how this plays out in different parts of the country. I suspect that in certain parts – say, the rural Midwest – the degree glut is less pronounced than it is on the coasts. And certainly every college has its individual quirks.

Speaking from what I've seen in Northeastern suburbia, I'd say that it's unusual for someone with only an MA to get hired in a glutted field like English or history. (In fields like Nursing or business, it's much more common.) We've hired some folks at ABD status, which shows up as 'MA' on the website, but don't let that fool you. In those cases, successful attainment of the doctorate is usually a condition for tenure. We make a distinction between ABD's and terminal MA's.*

Many of our senior faculty have terminal MA's, but they were hired in a different time. The unfortunate upshot is that we have 'credential compression' while we have to avoid 'salary compression,' with the unintended consequence that new folks with doctorates get paid at the level that new folks with terminal MA's were paid, back in the day. It's not fair, at some level, but it's what the market will bear and what our budgets will bear.**

I'm guessing that some of them are hoping to parlay 'loyal adjunct' status into 'tenure track' status. Again, it's possible, but not likely. Given the choice between a newly-minted doctorate and a terminal MA who has been adjuncting for years and not publishing, what would you do? In very glutted fields like English, it would be extraordinary for someone with a terminal MA to break through.

For those whose ambitions top out at adjuncting, a terminal MA is perfectly fine. Alternately, some of those might want to look at some kind of 'alternate route' teaching certification and become high school English teachers, where lacking a doctorate is the normal state of things. Thirty years ago, a terminal MA probably wouldn't have precluded a tenure-track position at a cc. Now, it pretty much does, at least in the parts of the country with plenty of doctorally-qualified candidates hanging around.

Faithful readers: does this hold true in your neck of the woods?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

*The faculty union contract actually contains a clause defining a 'doctoral equivalent' for pay bonus purposes. X number of graduate credits beyond the Master's earns you 'doctoral equivalent' status. I have a major philosophical issue with that – to me, either you've wrestled the bear or you haven't – but there it is. We also grant 'doctoral equivalent' status for JD's and MFA's, on the theory that they're terminal degrees in their respective fields.

**To the libertarians out there: yes, I know, what the market will bear is fair by definition. I've heard the argument, I've read the argument, I know. I just don't buy it. In the real world, options are limited, and choosing the 'least bad' option doesn't make it good.

I'm not familiar with English faculty, but in the last couple of faculty searches I've been on, an MA/ABD would have to be pretty impressive to make it out of the crowd.

I don't know the particulars of the search that resulted in my teaching at a CC, but I am ABD in terms of classes completed, and I got my job.... although the rest of my departement are PhDs... (and I will be sooner or later).

If they want to go for those jobs, they should be very careful to write a cover letter that highlights teaching and a CV that emphasizes any teaching experience they have.
What a weird contract. ABD in my last three union contracts equalled an MA.
In Iowa... My CC had only 4 doctorates on the entire faculty (and one MFA). 3 science and 1 history.

That seemed to be the case at neigboring institutions as well.

The searches I sat on were perfectly happy with MAs.

The salary structure had +15 hour steps, but you also got a $500 bump for an actual degree. Thus, ABD got most of the money of a phd, but not all.
I am just confused about the language here. This use of "terminal Master's" is confusing. A terminal degree, as I understood it, is a degree earned in your field that is "as far as you can go" in that field. Thus, a PhD in many disciplines is the terminal degree, while a MFA is terminal in the fine arts.

Thus, a "terminal Master's" should not be considered "terminal" as a degree, but perhaps "terminal" for the adjunct's career--as in their career is over, if all they have is a Master's, and not the "terminal degree" in their field.
I was using 'terminal master's' to distinguish it from a master's earned en route to a doctorate. You're right, though, that the usage could be confusing. Is there a better term for a master's that is not earned en route to a doctorate?
ABD will get you all the adjuncting that happends to be lying around the day before classes start. Even at the local cc or low-end land grant (both within reasonable distance from me as I type this.

"Wrestling the bear," as you put it, is the hazing that must be endured in order to teach for a living. OK, my language is giving away my feelings on the matter, and it is a nuanced situation. I will leave that to a post on my rant area.

Suffice to say, the market will bear only terminal degrees. And why wouldn't seems to make them a stronger brand, and the student buyer will bubble and then recede in the coming years. The smart committee, even in the sticks, will pack their rolls in anticipation. AND, the job-hungry grad will have little choice.

So, stay in school, get a real job or walk away.
As a Dean in a NW State, I can agree that there's a glut of English and history candidates for full-time tenure track positions, and a candidate has to have a way to stand out, but a Ph.D. is not the only way to stand out.
At least as important is something to show that a candidate is committed to teaching, and to teaching low level students, including below college level writing.
Also, since the CC system relies on too many adjuncts, full-time candidates must stand out in their ability to provide service to the college through committee work, developing new courses or programs and all the other things that adjuncts don't generally do.
And of course, being a person of color is a great way to stand out, but that's not generally under one's control.
At my CC (in FL), we tend to shy away from PhDs, mainly figuring that they see us as a stepping stone to a "real" job. Because research and publishing is nice if you can do it (and who really has time with 15 or 18 contact hours?) but not required, a PhD is not necessarily seen as a plus. The one PhDer in the English dept. is the most unhappy professor we have. I think the larger issue is PhDers who have a doctorate in literature and then are given a plateful of composition classes. Not gonna work for long.
Just weighing in here as someone in the rural Midwest, just to confirm Dean Dan's intuition. . . Tenure-track with an MA would be rare even in my neck of the woods/plains. On the other hand, full-time "term" positions for people with Master's degrees are not that unusual. These are dead-end positions, in that there's no possibility of promotion, but job security is generally quite good. Job satisfaction seems to depend more on teaching load than anything else. (I'm at a 4-year institution with a cc-like satellite campus.)
Loyal adjunct status is similar to "loyal substitute teacher." Once an institution knows you'll work for less than full-time wages and benefits, it's HIGHLY unlikely you'll EVER work for the institution full-time.

Yes, a Ph.D. for higher ed is equivalent to a BA for a school district: Easily dispensible.
I'm an English teacher in a Southern California community college, and I'm part of a statewide retention and transfer program, so I'm in contact with lots of other California CC English teachers While there are, no doubt, exceptions, I'd say that there is no pro-Ph.D. bias in hiring.

What we're looking for when we fill a full-time position is a good teacher. We generally find good teachers in the ranks of our adjunct faculty. They don't get full-time jobs because their years of work give them some kind of automatic "dibs" on a position. They get full-time jobs because they've demonstrated that they're solid, competent classroom teachers.

I'd never choose a Ph.D. from Harvard or Stanford or UC Berkeley over a strong adjunct teacher just because of her glittering credentials. On the other hand, I know that the Ph.D. has probably had plenty of experience teaching freshman compostion classes. What she needs to do is to highlight that experience in her CV and cover letter.

We just hired a tenure-track faculty member in English without a Ph.D. because she was a serious composition teacher. The last one we hired just left after two years to take a job at a four-year (yes, he had a PH.D.). I think we have learned that unless the doctorate is in composition and rhetoric, the person isn't going to be happy teaching at a CC.

I think I can pretty honestly say that at my CC (in the northeast), a Ph.D., especially a literature-focused one, is a detriment to getting hired to teach mostly comp at a two-year college.
A relative of mine has made a comfortable living teaching full-time in Econ departments at four-year institutions, with only an MA--In Economics, at least, there seems to be a consistent demand for people to teach their intro courses. Never any hint of tenure-track, of course, but it is the kind of consistent adjuncting where he has office space and a modicum of financial stability, which isn't so bad nowadays.
Dean Dad -- I only just saw that you answered this on your blog. Thank! Your answer and the commenters' qualifying remarks have been very helpful.

I think I'll encourage my students who are truly interested in composition careers to go on to the Rhet-Comp Ph.D., although, if they have a year or two to spare, they might see what's out there for an MA, especially since a lot of them will be taking extra Rhet-Comp courses with us on top of their literature MA. I've already been telling the ones purely interested in literature that they need a Ph.D. It was the ones who really do want to teach comp (with maybe a little lit on the side) at a CC who I needed more guidance for. And you've been really helpful.

Oh, and by the way, we're in the Midwest, but the populous Midwest, with a number of Ph.D. programs in the region.

Thanks everyone!
I'm very late on this discussion, but in my neck of the woods (west coast CC), a PhD in English, at least, is neither here nor there. We're looking for dedicated, good teachers who are willing to teach a full load of comp--and an MA with broad experience is going to look a lot better than a PhD with limited teaching.

I'm also going to respectfully disagree that long-term adjuncting is a detriment; never, ever, have I sat on a committee that passed over a current part-timer because, heck, she's shown us she'll stick around no matter what. We have many wonderful adjuncts we'd love to hire and not enough full-time positions to offer. Many of our star hires over the last decade have come from our PT ranks.
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