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.

Assuming the applicant has some publications, the message they want to communicate is that they've decided they want a position that will allow them to place more emphasis on research. The underlying message is that 'I got all of this stuff done with a 5/5, imagine what I could do with a 3/2'.

The thing is, people at SLACs (at least the ones at hubby's school) think that a 5/5 load is nearly incomprehensible... they don't generally grasp the economy of scale that comes with the 5/5 -- so use that general ignorance to your advantage.

Also, play up the stuff you've done on-campus that translates well to 4-year schools... positions that translate, innovative work to increase the level of academic performance etc...
I'm at a 4-year regional university, so let me take a stab at some of the questions.

To respond to the fashion question, if you wear a suit in which you feel comfortable and move comfortably, I can't imagine anybody counting that as a mark against you. I think that the rumors that "no suit" is now preferable really mean that a suit is no longer *required* - as long as what you choose to wear conveys an appropriate level of seriousness. I've seen candidates wear suits, and a few old school people have appreciated that as a token of respect. I've seen candidates wear suit-equivalents (a blazer with trousers or a skirt, for example) and while some of the old school people raised eyebrows, it didn't make a negative difference in the final evaluation but also nobody got hired because they looked "softer." In the past five years, we've hired candidates in formal suits (women and men) as well as ones who dressed slightly less formally (women). I really don't think that clothes will make or break you, unless you really go out on some kind of fashion limb. Personally, I'm a fan of a suit for an interview (and am female) mainly because it makes me *feel* like I'm on an interview and puts me in the proper frame of mind to perform as I must in that situation.

Be aware that even if you think you are "perfect" for these jobs that you still might not get interviewed, especially if your cv doesn't have at least one strong and relatively recent publication (decently placed journal article) as well as consistent attendance at conferences (not that you need to have a ton of conferences, but if you've been in the profession and you've not attended a conference since grad school this will not help you). Our load is 4/4 and we have very heavy service expectations. If you haven't shown any research productivity in your current gig, we will not have faith that you could manage to get tenure under the conditions at this institution. (This is one reason why it's fairly rare for us to hire people ABD with absolutely no teaching other than TAing; we like to see somebody who's been an instructor for a few years, adjuncted, or is making a lateral move from a similar institution and who continues to have a research agenda of some kind and who continues to be active in the field even under the conditions of doing a lot of teaching. The days of us hiring people on teaching alone seem to be over, and even the few people who were hired on that basis tended to be "conversion hires" - people already full-time instructors at our institution, just not on the t-t, which means it cost almost no money to change their line to t-t.)

And even if you have that you *still* might not get interviewed, because as much as we care about teaching, more than a few years of full time teaching experience is not going to help your application with us, and could in fact hurt if it is perceived that you'd require more money or resources than other candidates might. In other words, I don't think the CC experience would count against you per se, but it wouldn't help you or make you stand out when put in a line-up with other candidates. (I should note that I am not in a "hot" discipline, and you may be in one, so if that's the case, then perhaps I'm being unnecessarily gloomy. That said, if you're in what DD calls an "evergreen discipline," this would likely be your experience if you applied to my institution.)

Note, this would be for an assistant-level hire. We've never hired ANYBODY in with tenure or at the associate rank unless it were an admin sort of position (dept. chair, etc.). If you were trying to get hired in at the associate level... I have no idea what the expectation would be, but it would surely be higher.

Other things to consider:
- Be humble. Talk about your experience in terms of what you've learned from teaching where you are and talk about how you think that experience will assist you in serving our *specific* student population.
- Be ready to talk about what you'd change in your teaching if you changed institutional context - again, being specific about our needs. That's a question I'd ask, without fail, and it would be a deal-breaker for me if you didn't have some answer prepared.
- Don't ignore faculty who are not yet tenured or who appear to be younger than you are. This happened with a candidate a few years back - he only talked to people at the associate-level and higher, as if the junior faculty (or faculty who appeared to be junior) were junior to him. This did *not* go over well.
- One thing we care a lot about in my institution/departmental context is innovative course development in terms of both content and assignments. If you've been teaching a lot of sections at your CC, you'll want to be sure to address what you'd do teaching only slightly less but likely with more preps. How will you be inventive in your teaching? (To give you a sense, as an advanced assistant professor, I've developed somewhere around 13 different courses, including both lower-division and upper-division offerings.)
- Talk about what you've done to get students involved in the university outside of your teaching. That would definitely win you points, as this is not an easy thing to do at most CCs.
I'm a science cadet with a doctorate in an interdisciplinary field (biophysical chemistry) that has left me able to teach not only a diversity of courses, but a diversity of upper-division courses (not only could I teach classical mechanics, electromagnetic theory and thermo if we had a physics major, I have taught biochemistry, I can teach cell biology, and I do teach physical chemistry. And I really haven't pushed that advantage the way I could). I might not be able to teach any of them like an expert in the field, but I can teach all of them to open up fundamental concepts that would turn up to a student again and again in graduate or professional school.

So that's what has made me marketable. The downside, of course, is my research - it lags behind pretty much any science PhD you could ever think of. I stay pretty current in the literature, but getting into a lab to do original stuff is just about unthinkable.

In many ways, I am a tailor-made CC professor, but I wanted the upper-division experience desperately (even getting Modern Physics - sophomore level in most systems, in theory not a course that the four-years should be able to monopolize - was impossible at my old CC despite the demand for the class). However, there are precious few places that I could move that would give me that upper-division teaching experience where my tenure chances wouldn't be dead in the water because of my hyper-slow publication rate. It really required being deliberate with where I sent CV's to, and being able to speak very plainly about what I wanted to get out of the teaching experience, and telling myself repeatedly that I wouldn't just jump at the job if it didn't fit my priority set.

It's worked out well.
What to wear for the interview is quite discipline-specific --- I'd talk to your grad school friends who are at similar places to the ones your interviewing at to see what they recommend. In my area of mathematics, for instance, for men wearing an actual suit and tie is definitely way overdressed --- I've seen someone do that exactly once. For women, a suit probably wouldn't standout so much since the dressiness of women's clothing is less discrete than men's. This year, we interviewed some large number of candidates (eight, I think, though it seemed infinite) and not one wore either a jacket or (for the men) a tie. The best dressed was probably the woman who wore a white blouse accented with a scarf over black pants (some of the others wore jeans). Still, like Dr. Crazy I would say that it doesn't hurt to be err on the side of overdoing it, though given that I interviewed recently in a tie and tweedy jacket I probably would say that...
Can't really comment on the teaching issue...this isn't the kind of academia I know much about.

Fashion advice: I'd wear something that lies between casual and dressy. For my last campus interview, I wore a blazer, blouse, slacks, and high-heeled boots for the "primary" interview day. The beginning and ending days were slacks/black dressy T-shirt/print jacket, and long skirt/nice pullover knit shirt/stockings respectively.
I'm surprised to hear the comments about interview fashion. In my field (political science) suits are de rigeur for interviews. Women have a little leeway, but I don't recall any of the male interviewees I've seen not wearing a suit.
Wear the suit. Overdressing is better than underdressing for interviews, and a simple skirt suit goes anywhere.

*My* only concession to a less-formal environment would be a color other than black. (I've noticed, actually, that there's quite a bit of REGIONAL variation, particularly in color -- in Texas, women seem to wear far more pastels in suits; in California, you see more brights and more fashionable cuts; in New York, nothing but black.)

You can always show your softer fashion side at a dinner, or during a teaching demonstration (where you'd wear the formal end of whatever you normally teach in).

Women can also make it look less like a uniform with tasteful accessories (white collar-length pearls with a black skirt suit are admittedly pretty uniformy) -- jewelry, scarves, purses/briefbags are all fair game. But tasteful.
I'm not surprised by the varying comments about interview fashion, but then I was at the Atlanta centennial meeting of the American Physical Society. You would think that thousands of homeless people had suddenly been given vouchers to stay in a high end hotel. ;-)

Regardless, it is pretty common to see suits interviewing at our CC, making it easy to spot the candidate and the Dean at a reception!
Anonymous: Yep, I think it varies tremendously by field. I'm a scientist, and we tend toward the scruffier end of the spectrum....CCPhysicist just made me laugh out loud, because I've been to conferences like that too.

How's this for a universal rule? "Dress slightly better than the sharpest-dressed speaker at the last conference you attended."
Two things: You want to present yourself honestly and transparently, so you are evaluated on your merits. Have a clear, obviously true story about why you want to make the transition -- that speaks to what you can bring to the job. (I had an incredibly senior candidate say not long ago that he wanted to move to us to "be closer to his daughter." Sweet, and no doubt honest, but not particularly useful to us.)

Second, so it then depends on the specifics of the job. I am at a major research university so almost everything depends on the pubs, native intelligence, and trajectory -- but personality matters an enormous deal also. I want to know how smart you are, and if we'll get along in meetings. The latter is more important in smaller departments. (Huge departments care about this much less.) As someone implied above, you may think you are perfect but that is only so if they agree. So, be yourself, research the department to show your interest, be relaxed but on message, and did I say be yourself?

As for dress, I am a middle aged guy who hardly notices. The main thing is to feel you look good, so dress in a conservative way that makes you feel sharp and smart. That is what people will pick up on more than how you actually look. Good luck!
My advice would be to forget the suit completely and stay at your community college where you've got tenure, where your students need you, and where you don't have to publish or perish,
I'm the original correspondent, and appreciate everyone taking the time to consider my questions. I'm not sure yet what I'll wear - I'll wait until I actually have an interview or two scheduled to make that decision. The other advice I am taking to heart as I practice being both confident and humble.
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