Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Making the Leap to Four-Year Colleges

A new correspondent writes:

I am currently an associate professor at a community college. I have applied for several positions in four year institutions. My applications are in and now I am waiting to see if I will get any interviews. I'm a perfect fit for several of the positions I've applied for and, I think, a decent fit for the others, so I am expecting to interview at several institutions.

Here are my questions:

  1. What are some of the questions or concerns four-year institutions might have about a community college faculty member making the transition to their school?

  2. How can I best present my community college experience as a plus rather than a liability?

  3. What should I wear to the interviews? I was planning to wear a dark skirt suit, but someone recently told me that suits are "out" for academic interviews for women and that instead, "softer looks" are preferred. This is news to me, but I'm not very fashion savvy. Given that I'm trying to transition from a community college to a four-year school, I don't want to take any fashion risks.

Thank you to you and your wise and worldly readers.

I'm not exactly 'fashion forward,' so I'll just ask my fashion-conscious readers for help on that count. My only fashion advice, which I've mentioned before, is not to wear something for the first time on the interview. If your shoes start cutting into your feet in the first half hour, you'll be suffering, and off your game, all day. Better to road-test everything at least once. Even better, have an honest friend check out the ensemble. (Aristotle claimed that the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. I think there's something to that.) If you're confident and comfortable in what you're wearing, you won't have to worry about it, and you'll be able to focus on other things.

'Four year schools' is a big category with plenty of internal variations. For the sake of simplicity, I'll assume that you're applying to the generic lower tier public four year colleges, so we can leave out issues of religious affiliation or whether you've published enough books.

The first question that leaps to my mind is why you'd move now, having already achieved the rank of Associate Professor. Unless you're quite the hot property, you may find that the rank and salary they're prepared to offer would be a step down from what you have now. Be careful how you address this. If you give a knee-jerk honest answer like “I want a smaller courseload,” you'll be DOA. Anybody who doesn't have to leave a job faces the tricky question of why they want to leave. (This is the one advantage that grad students have: everybody knows grad school is supposed to end.) If the answer isn't pay, what is it? You'll want something truthful, but without any negativity.

The great advantage of your community college experience is that you're seasoned. You've gained plenty of teaching experience, and you know how actual colleges (as opposed to the idealized images so many rookies have in their heads) function. You know your style, you've developed strategies for dealing with less-prepared and less-motivated students, and (I hope) you've built up a track record as a good departmental citizen. From an administrative perspective, your downside risk is relatively low.

But there's the stigma. I've heard too many students here say that they're only here for a year to get their grades up so they can transfer to a “real” college. Some folks at four-year schools share that attitude, considering cc's less than “real” colleges. (“Thirteenth grade” is a common epithet.) If the schools to which you're applying are trying to “raise their academic profiles,” they might well prefer the risky young hotshot fresh out of grad school to the veteran cc professor who teaches well but hasn't written much. There are valid arguments on either side of that, but you may well run into it. How you counter that, or even if you can, will depend on your cv and their willingness to consider you fairly.

The other obvious issue is research. Even the lower-tier schools have gradually ratcheted-up their publishing expectations, mostly because they can. Yes, it's unfair to compare the publication record of someone with a 5/5 load to someone with a 3/2 load, but that's what they'll do. At least be prepared to address the issue, and to do it non-defensively.

Moving from theory to history: any readers who have successfully made this move are invited to comment about how they did it. What worked?

Good luck!

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.