Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Ph.D.'s at CC's

An alert reader noticed my passing comment in a post last week and wrote to ask why I would support a preference for Ph.D.'s when hiring faculty at a cc. After all, he noted, cc faculty are primarily teachers, and Ph.D.'s are really research degrees; there's no reason to believe that someone with a doctorate is necessarily a better teacher than someone with a Master's.

It's a fair question.

I'll start by defining 'preference.' It's not a hard requirement. In fact, fewer than half of the faculty I've personally had a role in hiring (nobody makes unilateral hires here) brought doctorates, although a few of them are ABD. A plurality topped out at a Master's. We've had multiple cases of candidates with Master's defeating candidates with doctorates, so it's certainly not a trump card. It's more than a tiebreaker, but less than a trump card. It helps.

Certainly, the single clearest criterion we look at is teaching ability, especially in the areas we need taught. I've seen Ph.D.'s fall flat here, and the degree won't save them. I'll grant that good-faith observers can differ on the relative performance of one teacher as against another – that's one of the reasons that we have search committees. But a demonstration that fails to show, say, mastery of the subject matter, or the ability to speak clearly enough to be understood, is the kiss of death.

All of that granted, though, the preference for doctorates isn't just arbitrary.

Although our degrees top out at the two-year level, our students don't. A gratifying number of them go on to four-year degrees and beyond, up to and including medical school, law school, and grad school. I believe that part of the job of a cc is to prepare those students to succeed at the next level(s). To the extent that we can give the students exposure to the same faculty they'd get at the next level, I think we do them a service. (Honestly, in many cases, I think we do better than some of our four-year competitors at teaching intro courses. The four-year schools sometimes treat intro courses as afterthoughts or grudging obligations; they're our bread-and-butter. Our intro classes are small, and taught mostly by full-time faculty. That certainly isn't the case at, say, Flagship State.)

There's also the matter of students' parents. Community colleges still carry a stigma, especially with adults who themselves have advanced degrees. I've spoken with parents at Open House events, and watched their expressions relax when they see how many doctorates we have on our faculty. When I can assure them, truthfully, that not only will the classes be small and the credits transferable, but the faculty will be as highly credentialed as at the four-year school down the street, it makes an impression. A well-qualified faculty is a no-apologies selling point. I'd rather sell that than, say, a football team or a rock-climbing wall or fraternities.

And while we don't have a requirement to publish, there is an expectation that faculty will remain current with the literature and developments in their fields. A doctorate is no guarantee of that, but it does suggest, at minimum, a deep exposure to the research in one field, and the ability to translate that literature into something presentable. I've also noticed that some of the doctoral faculty bring with them denser academic networks, which bring significant benefits over time. (They're incredibly handy when recruiting external consultants for site visits, for example.)

Finally, on a pragmatic level, someone who already has a doctorate won't spend the next several years working on it.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think? Are there legitimate reasons to prefer Ph.D.'s for cc faculty positions?

I also think that someone who interviews well and is able to articulate teaching philosophies AND has a PhD is less likely to leave. They've seen what it takes to produce original research in their field and they don't want that as part of their working life.
I just want to underscore that, as someone at a regional state university who is halfway in between the cc's and the flagship, we know that some very good teaching goes on at cc's - especially depending on the discipline. However, there is still bad teaching everywhere. Sometimes students are lucky to get grad students teaching their courses at Flagship U versus the research professors who sometimes treat teaching as a nuisance.

However, some of the best in my field at research are also the best at teaching. Usually the researchers who look down on teaching are the ones who can't really teaching in the first place . . . .

See http://www.common-place.org/vol-06/no-04/author/ for an example of an excellent scholar who is also an outstanding teacher in a variety of venues.
We always SAY we're going to hire someone with a Ph.D. for a certain position. This has turned away several adjuncts who applied for FT/TT jobs, thinking they had an "in" on the position. But inevitably after the search we have gone with the MA person at least 75% of the time over the last few years. I'm not sure why.
Just a hope here... but if someone with a phd in science education and a masters in science in the discipline applied for a science position that would be a huge positive in the app pool.

It seems like that's the ideal sort of candidate for a CC.

One who knows the content but really wants to think carefully and deeply about teaching and learning.
Since there doesn't seem to be any connection--that's none, zero-- between good teaching (which is what we're looking for at cc's) and a Ph.D., I still don't see why having an advanced degree should give someone even a tiny bit of preference in a tie-breaker.

Maybe the fact that I teach English at the cc level adds to my bias. A Ph.D. in English means that someone knows a great deal about the history of English and American literature and has an even deeper knowledge in a very narrow area.

But cc English teachers teach mostly comoposition courses. Our students are often unprepared, and many of them speak non-standard dialects of English or are (especially out here in SoCal) non-native speakers of English.

So how is someone with a Ph.D. in Victorian lit better prepared to deal with the challenges of cc composition courses than someone with a M.A. in composition and rhetoric or applied linguistics?

Philip, you're absolutely right, but what about someone with a Ph.D. in comp/rhet?

(Myself, I don't like the implication that teaching and research can/should be so easily disaggregated, but I'll also admit I'm not teaching at a cc and have a Ph.D., so am not the best person to comment. Even if Ph.D.s at ccs don't publish as much as at other institutions, I think the Ph.D. teaches research skills and immersion in the field in a way than an MA doesn't. But are those specific skills relevant to cc teaching? I'd say they're relevant to all higher ed teaching, but again, I'm not familiar enough with cc teaching to comment. I don't mean this as a blanket endorsement that all PhDs should beat out all MAs, though!)
I disagree with Phillip - especially the assertion that there is zero connection between a PhD holder and teaching ability.

I'll admit that there isn't an inherent connection between teaching ability and completion of a dissertation. However, depth of knowledge, being conversant with what it means to be a scholar, and the ability to integrate original and secondary research into course material are attributes that I think more PhD's bring to the table than terminal MA/MS.

It is unfortunate that many grad programs in many disciplines undervalue teaching and undertrain PhD candidates in pedagogy. That really does need to change.

Of course, as DD points out, this is far from determinative. However, I fear that many hiring committees fear hiring PhD holders for fear that they will leave, or that it is their second or third choice. Once again, it depends on the individual - however, I think all things being equal (they never are, but hey, it is a good rhetorical ploy), the PhD holder has an advantage.
As one of those with a PhD at a CC, I should comment even though I basically agree with all the DD said.

The biggest plus for a PhD in a "content" area like physics is that you are more likely to know the correct answer to all sorts of off-the-wall questions than someone who topped out at an MS because they could not pass the comp exam. Might also know enough to not give an answer unless you know the answer, a skill often honed in a PhD program.

However, I knew, cold, all of the physics I teach now back when I would have earned an MS if I had wanted to bail out and get a teaching job. The only thing gained with my 50 research publications while in dead-end "research faculty" jobs was in technical communication skills. That is probably the plus for areas like english and humanities as well.

We will (and have) gladly hired candidates with an MS who know their stuff over one with a PhD who have no idea what teaching is about.
I gotta say, I can't see any real connection between a Ph.D. and 1st and 2nd year level coursework. At least in Economics, the Master's Degree core prepares a teacher to lay down the basics without difficulty.

My evals were statistically significantly superior to those of my colleagues teaching the same class, and all I had was my MA.

Signalling is a nontrivial benefit, but overall, CC preference for Ph.D.'s seems, at least to me, an attempt to ape four-year institutions, rather than an attempt to fill their niches.
I also want to disagree with the notion that there is "zero" connection between a Ph.D and teaching proficiency. The Ph.D can--depending upon the discipline and the program--equate more years of teaching experience than a master's degree. Furthermore, I think a graduate program's focus on teaching (or lack thereof) is the better predictor. My Ph.D program took pedagogy seriously and gave us excellent training. There was coursework, a formalized mentoring program, and quantitative and qualitative assessment of our teaching. I was the instructor of record for 95% of the courses I T.A.-ed over the 4 years it took to earn my degree. My M.A. program, however, was another matter. I was handed a syllabus and a textbook and then thrown into the deep end. I only had discussions about my teaching when a student complained about grading. Which happened twice. I was a much better teacher after my Ph.D than after my M.A.
My MA program (in a liberal arts discipline) didn't offer any pedagogy training, but my PhD program (in that same liberal arts discipline) required a class in pedagogy and offered the opportunity to earn a certificate in pedagogy.
This is a pressing issues in my current dept. 3 of us have MA's, 2 have PhD's (one is tenured). Of that, the 3 of us with MA's have the professional experience, are current in the trends, research and other applications of our field, are active contributors to the dept, school and prof. community. Our PhD's do none of these things. What gets me riled up is that the dean can't commit to keeping me on but the one PhD is likely going to get tenure. Did I mentioned that the "3" have better student evals as well? Mine are overwhelmingly better than the PhD, in addition I have the knowledge to teach a broader range of courses than him.

Also, in a few years a program will be open, allowing me to earn an E.eD at this school. But regardless of my performance, my honest word that I will get this Eed, I keep hearing "well she doesn't have a PhD." I love this school, I love my kids, the chair, the opportunities and frankly I love my job. There are extremely difficult reasons why I can not pursue a PhD at this time. Should my worth to a school be measured by that?
Philip -- I think your example is stacking the deck. In the case you cite, we'd go with the M.A., just as we have in a plurality of cases. The more relevant comparison is between an M.A. and a Ph.D. in the same field.

Kimmitt -- I have to take issue with the term "ape." It implies mindlessness. You may or may not find our reasons convincing, but we have reasons.

I've received a few emails pointing out the reverse snobbery that sometimes holds: older faculty with M.A.'s will simply assume that anybody with a Ph.D. is, by definition, a poor or distracted teacher. I've actually seen departments do that, and I take strenuous exception to it. Did my teaching magically take a nosedive at my doctoral defense? There's a fundamental problem when the desire to hire the best crashes headfirst into the desire not to hire anybody threatening.
In the example Philip cites, that is, the rhet/comp teacher, you're just not likely to see the PhD with a rhet/comp focus apply for a CC job. In that particular field, it's a seller's market, and that's been true for at least a decade. The PhD in English who applies for a position at a CC is much, much more likely to be the lit specialist Philip has alluded to. There's a dearth of tenure-track jobs for those folks. (One of the few things that would throw a rhet/comp PhD into a CC pool would be geographical limitations or similar circumstances -- spouse or partner's job location.) The CC can be a great place to teach, but most rhet/comp PhDs would be attracted to the lighter teaching load, as well the good chance of teaching grad courses in their field, at the four-year joint. And in all likelihood, a job would be waiting for them there.

Someone like CCPhysicist has three things over an MS (we are talking science/engineering here). First, whether he knows it or not, his ability to answer off the wall questions is related to the depth of his training. Second he knows his field better than an MS. Third, his 50 research publications give him access to networks at research universities/comprehensives that the MS would not have. All of these can be used to benefit his students
Forgot to mention this to DD: When you talk to parent's don't fail to mention that the TA at the fancy school probably does not even have a Master's degree and is likely a first year grad student, not a professional.

Thanks, Eli, but my real strength is that I talk to my real customers: my grads at the nearby engineering school and, more importantly, the professors at that school. My physics colleagues at the Uni have no idea what their students need to KNOW and what their profs say they don't know.
DD -- my concern was precisely that, that while there are reasons stated, they are not sufficient for the actions taken. I'm musing, though.

I really just can't see how the Ph.D. should be relevant, yea or nay. It's not a teaching degree in most disciplines, though a given person may receive a strong background in teaching while receiving that degree.
In case anyone's still listening to this post, I'd like to weigh in as an English PhD with a modern lit specialization who has also studied a lot of comp/rhet and general linguistics, adjuncting at both a CC and a State-U-Formerly-Known-As-Normal-School: I say I do teach better than my non-PhD colleagues (and many of my students agree), and there are solid reasons for this besides my scintillating intellect.

As with CCPhysicist, I can quickly and confidently answer students' off-the-wall questions, and students notice and remark upon this. My research training enables me to learn on the job more quickly and more deeply. Students also notice the degree and respect it. They also appreciate my ability to explain the reasons for the rules, not merely to enforce them. In any discipline where lower-division teaching consists of more than the mere transmission of facts (which is, I believe, all of them), these factors ought to add up to a powerful plus.

In freshman comp we teach mainly argumentation. Why not hire people who really know how to do it, rather than the high-schoolish closet authoritarians who have heretofore dominated the field?

(Alright, so I'm probably stuck in adjunct limbo partly because of this habit, which I've just now betrayed, of taking a superior tone with colleagues; but it also issues from two stronger reasons that have nothing to do with this topic: I got my degree in what we might call "vigorous middle age"--though of course there's no such thing as age discrimination in academe!--and I also don't want to move.

Would that I lived within commuting distance of DeanDad's place. I'd be knocking on his door big-time.
Let me add some fuel to the fire. I have a JD (Juries Doctor) and I do not teach at a law school, I teach at the undergraduate level, mainly critical thinking courses and undergraduate law.

I have been told, that my doctorate level degree is not as worthy as the PhD because it is a professional degree and not a research oriented degree. This is despite the fact that I do have an undergraduate teaching degree and a Masters. (I am not some lawyer playing professor). Granted, I did not have to write a dissertation, but I assure you that preparing for and taking the Bar Exam just puts one in a different quadrant of Hell.

I would think that given my law school training and practice experience, I have just as much to bring to the table as someone with a Ph.D. It’s just a different perspective. But, I have applied for jobs where I am told “Sorry, JD’s need not apply.”
CC faculty may be 'primarily' teachers, but that doesn't mean they aren't involved in the same work that four-year faculty do.

I've just been hired into a FT/TT position at an urban CC that prefers the Ph.D. and only hires ABD if the individual is very close to completion. They are moving toward not renewing annual contracts for instructors, and are filling those positions with Ph.D. TT faculty.

In addition to teaching 27 credit hours per academic year (that's 4 or 5 courses per semester here), other expectations are similar to faculty everywhere.

Research/publications aren't 'required' to get tenure here, but they are highly considered in the process, along with other factors. It's tough to get tenure here without publishing, unless you've done something pretty stellar. And for promotion, r/p are in fact required -- no publications, no promotion.

We are also expected to be actively involved in our professional organizations, to present at major conferences, to serve the college on committees both internal and external, to develop new courses, and to teach distance and writing intensive courses -- just like faculty at four-year institutions.

And that's just what I'm aware of after 9 weeks on the job. Who knows what expectations are lurking out there that I'm not yet aware of yet.
At my CC, as long as you have your Masters in your discipline, you can get by with a Ph.D. in library science. The Ph.D. looks good, but what good is it when it comes to teaching in your discipline?
I’m a Ph.D. at a CC by choice. I was hired with a Master’s and a bit of Ph.D. coursework and finished my Ph.D. last year. I do think the process of doing the Ph.D. has made a better teacher, although the degree itself hasn’t, if you understand the distinction. Students loved the hear me talk about the trials of being a student while I was working on my coursework, comps, and dissertation. I think I became a more compassionate teacher—which is not too say I became more lenient (I actually went the other way).

I want to raise one other issue related to this discussion. My faculty colleagues, most of whom have Master’s, are—for the most part—not the least bit jealous or negative about my Ph.D., but the administration definitely is. They seem convinced that now that I have my Ph.D. I will leave very soon. One administrator in particular ends every conversation with me with, “Well, you won’t be here long.” It’s absolutely infuriating because a) I’m not looking, b) it seems like administrators feel comfortable dismissing my concerns because “I won’t be around for long,” and c) I’ve demonstrated in many, many ways that I am committed to my CC.

I am a Comp/Rhet Ph.D. and while Steve may be right when he says that for us it’s a seller’s market, I’m at a CC because I want to be working with a CC population. I probably could get a job at a 4 yr., but I don’t WANT a job at a 4 yr. I would like a lighter teaching load and time for scholarship, but I knew what I was getting into. Ironically, if all the administrators keep telling me I won’t be around for long, I probably won’t be. I’ve gotten frustrated enough with their comments and dismissive attitude that I’ve considered looking around.
Would having a dual masters degree one in my teaching field (History) and the other in Education help me out at getting hired at a cc? Or did I waste two years and thirty grand getting the second masters in Ed instead of the PhD in history? (by MW)
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