A new correspondent writes:
I'm currently a sixth year graduate student in the Molecular Biology department at [Major Research University]. I've decided that I want to teach after finishing, but I'm torn between the community college and small liberal arts college career paths. As a short term option, I'm considering a teaching postdoc, where I would work in a science lab but also be involved in teaching. For example, in one program I can choose a lab that I want to work for, and a separate teaching mentor to work under. Over the course of three years, while doing research, I would co-teach a course with the teaching mentor and gradually take full responsibility for it over that time period.
My understanding is that this sort of training would greatly increase my chances of finding a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college. However, I'm concerned that this wouldn't make me a more desirable candidate for a position at a community college. Would a community college hiring committee consider this experience useful? If so, would it be considered more or less valuable than having spent three years as an adjunct?
I know that the life sciences aren't your area, but I was hoping that you and your readers might be able to help.
I'm impressed that you see a teaching-oriented position as a goal, rather than as a compromise or a fallback. That's half the battle.
The stereotype – self-defeating and terribly destructive, but widespread – at teaching-oriented places is that Ph.D.'s from highfalutin programs aren't serious about teaching. I'm not sure how much of that is based on bitter experience of past hires, how much is based on a cynical/accurate reading of the priorities of those programs, and how much is sour grapes, but it's pretty common.
So the burden on you – fairly or not – is to counter the stereotype. Simply claiming a love for teaching won't cut it, especially if there's nothing in your background to suggest that you mean it. But if you can show that, given the option, you chose a teaching-intensive route that involved pedagogical mentoring, you're in good shape.
The other issues with cc's and lower-tier liberal arts colleges would be the academic caliber of the entering students, the higher courseload, and the modest funding for facilities and travel. Depending on your research agenda, you may find it difficult or even impossible to continue your research. (Higher teaching loads compound the money shortage with a time shortage.) I don't know your field well enough to know how easy it would be to scale your research to the facilities available, so I'll just ask my wise and worldly readers in that field to chime in on that.
If there's some way for you to gain experience with students whose levels of academic preparation are shaky, that would be of definite value at most cc's. Since we have open admissions, we get some students whose high school performance wasn't so hot. (We get stronger ones, too, and sometimes they're in the same classes. Teaching to a wide range of abilities simultaneously is a crucial skill at this level.) If there's some sort of tutoring program, or maybe an intensive summer program for students who need to catch up, some involvement in that could be of real value.
(Honestly, one of the more valuable experiences I had in my grad school days at Flagship State was working as a tutor in the writing center. Seeing students struggle through the process of writing, up close, gave me an incredibly useful perspective for my own teaching.)
If you can show by your actions that teaching is your priority, and that you're pursuing these positions because you want to, you should be in good shape.
Wise and worldly readers – especially in the life sciences – what would you add?
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