Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Ask the Administrator: A Career in a Crisper

A new correspondent writes:

Within the last year I've completed my PhD in English. In thinking about future jobs, I think I'd be a good fit either at a CC or at a teaching-centered institution with undergraduate education as it's main mission (SLAC, regional state, etc). Here's the catch: I likely won't actually be looking for that job for 8, 10, or even 15 years.

I don't worry so much about explaining to future employers the reasons behind the monster gap in my CV. They are, as you might expect, the usual suspects. (In my case, it's my spouse's far more lucrative job which entails a great deal of travel and frequent moves, a job which, realistically, he won't be able to walk away from anytime soon, coupled with a two year old and a baby on the way.)

Here's my real question: Are there things I should be doing now and over the next several years to preserve my employability so that I'll be just as an attractive candidate 10 years from now as I am today? (Don't mean to sound arrogant, but I really am confident I'm an outstanding candidate for the schools I mentioned, especially a CC).

Thanks for floating this one by your readers!

This is a tough one. My first thought is that ten years is a long time, and a lot can happen. It's incredibly hard to predict what you'll want ten years in advance, let alone what the world will look like. Will the market have improved, stayed the same, or worsened? I honestly don't know. (If I knew what the Next Big Thing was going to be, I'd buy stock in it now.) My guess is that some basic structural changes will start to happen, and the next market won't be so much 'better' or 'worse' as 'different.' But that's a guess, and I've been wrong before.

Since you have the luxury of not needing to make money, I'd take the opportunity to step back from the academic hamster wheel and think about things you'd like to do. If teaching floats your boat, and you have a doctorate in English and an affinity for community colleges, there should be ample adjunct opportunities just about anywhere. (If you have computer skills and a decent internet connection, which I assume you do or you wouldn't be reading blogs, there's also the option of adjuncting online classes. The great advantage there is that you aren't place-bound, so if your spouse gets transferred, you can keep right on doing what you're doing.) The valid complaint about adjuncting is that it pays terribly, but if pay isn't an issue, and you miss teaching, it's a way to stay in the game.

Even there, though, I don't see the harm in taking some years off. If anything, those years could give you a chance both to write and to explore other options. That writing and/or exploration could actually make you a much more distinctive, and therefore appealing, candidate upon your return.

I can understand the concern about putting the career in a sort of crisper. (In my bachelor days, the crisper was more of a rotter. It was where vegetables went to die. To this day, I don't know quite how spinach turns to black soup, but I've seen it happen, and it's not pretty.) But the metaphor is probably misleading. Since you're not place-bound and you don't need the money, you don't fall prey to the “why buy the cow” problem. You're free to reinvent yourself, probably in ways you haven't figured out yet.

My advice for the first couple of years is to enjoy your kids, read widely, write some, and not worry about the market for now. In a few years, if you're pining for the classroom, then by all means pick up a course or two somewhere. But you have an opportunity most academics never get. You can add experiences and skills that most of us just can't. Those will eventually make you a much more interesting and compelling candidate for teaching gigs, if those still hold your interest. And it may just happen that the other stuff you pick up along the way becomes more interesting than a return to the classroom would be, which would be fine, too.

Good luck. You're in an enviable position.

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think? Have you seen someone in a situation like this?

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

I'm at a regional teaching-focused university, and in English, so here's my take on it. The candidates we bring to campus typically have the following:

1) (recent and consistent) Teaching experience. A gap of a year or two wouldn't bother us. A gap of 10? You probably wouldn't even get past the first cut. Why? Because the market's competitive, even for a low-tier teaching-oriented school. And even the most recent PhD or ABD applying would have probably around 5 years of recent and consistent teaching experience. Now, this doesn't mean you'd need to be teaching full time - one class a semester would probably work - and you'd want a letter from wherever you're adjuncting talking about how fabulous you are. Old letters from your PhD granting dept. about your teaching if you were that far out would not persuade us. This is also important because if you don't show this, we'd suspect (rightly or wrongly) that you weren't really committed to teaching. Online teaching for at least some of the time would be fine, but we'd want to see that you were in the traditional classroom over that period as well.

2. Demonstrated commitment to the field, in the form of attending conferences and ideally publishing one or two things (could be teaching-related, and need not be anything fancy). I think a common misconception about low-tier regionals is that there are absolutely *no* scholarly engagement requirements. This was often true in the past, but again, as the market has gotten tighter, the expectation for scholarship has ramped up. Over the 10-15 years that you'll be out of the loop, you need to keep yourself professionally engaged, even with scholarship, and keep aware of what the sorts of requirements are at the institutions that you'll target when the time comes. We won't interview you if we think that we can't mentor you to tenure, and we won't think that we can mentor you to tenure if you haven't done any research in 10+ years.

3. Schools with a teaching focus are more and more also putting an emphasis on service to the community, but - and this is important to note - service that links to one's field. This isn't necessarily easy in English, depending on one's specialization, but if there is something that you do in the community (teaching immigrants to read, for example, tutoring low-income high-schoolers...) this could enhance your candidacy, depending on the specific institution. At my institution, we'd be into you if you demonstrated commitment like this to community service. Note again, however, that it'd have to be linked to your qualifications somehow. Volunteering at a soup kitchen wouldn't enhance your tenure bid, and thus it also wouldn't enhance your application. This wouldn't be necessary to get your foot in the door, but it would make you more attractive.

Other things to consider:

-keep your current mentors in the loop about what you're doing. You'll need new letters from those people if/when you decide to go on the market. A 10-15 year old letter from your diss director, for example, will get your application thrown in the garbage can, for example.

- develop new professional networks as much as is possible, and maintain those that you've forged during your doctoral work.
As usual, Dr. C has some good things to say...

Taking a few years off when your kids are young is probably a good idea -- and after that, even when your husband is travelling, perhaps you could get childcare that would let you teach one or two classes per semester wherever you end up. Good adjuncts are always in demand -- so getting these gigs won't be a huge challenge and when you move, you'll have a fairly recent teaching recommendation to go along with you.

When you start building your teaching resume, try to teach as many diverse groups as possible... One CC I taught at had satelite campuses all over town. I tried to teach at all of them, because I knew I would see a different sort of student at each campus. I also tried to vary the times I taught, so I'd have experience teaching both traditional students and returning adults.

Also, as often as possible, vary the course you teach so you can come to a CC/SLAC or whatever with a set of courses you've taught.

The nice thing about your position now is that you are the kind of adjunct the system assumes is teaching all the adjunct classes -- you are doing it, not as a form of income, but for other reasons... since your pay will probably just cover your childcare costs, that is a good thing...

Good luck!
You're getting some good advice so far, so I won't reiterate. Some additional comments:

Try to do something that will make you stand out a little. You have the luxury of time to think, which someone adjuncting a 5/5 just doesn't have. If you use that time to do something innovative in your field, that will make a better impression than if you just adjuncted a class or two. You might have to fight the impression that you don't have the drive or endurance to carry a full load.

What could you do? My first thought is cultural-enrichment work with a real scholarly core. Dr. Crazy is right that you need to continue to be engaged in your field. Depending on your specialization, you might try literary outreach and education for living-history groups (reenactors cover pretty much every period before 1900), modern literature for senior citizens, or Spanish literature for teachers of bilingual students.
We just hired a person who had a very large gap, augmented by a few recent years of good solid teaching. Turns out s/he was in the military for 20 yrs, is now retired. We hired hir and it has been a great fit so far. There was enough in the application to spark our interest and then s/he absolutely nailed the interview. Do a good job of marketing your skills and a job will follow.
I was in this position fifteen years ago and am now attempting to get back to full-time teaching. I did have four years of full-time work fifteen years ago, so it is a little different.

Absolutely do adjunct work. For one thing, it will give you grown ups to talk to! If you know you'll be moving every two years (what we did), adjunct for a year and a half. Don't take that next semester, which will also help you get the house ready for the move.

Yes, do some online work because right now folks are requiring experience with that for full-time work.

Also, as Dr. Crazy said, absolutely go to the conferences. I didn't. Big mistake.

Use your adjuncting time to get to know some of the faculty at your college(s). Then try to coordinate papers or presentations. You can use your experience in your classes to base practical presentations and you will quickly have a built-in diversified group to present papers with.

Also, now, even as you are preparing to leave the field, prepare to re-enter it. Get the things you will need from the time you have already spent in academics and then keep it up to date. I did not remember things I did at my full-time job, but thankfully I had created cover letters and cvs before I knew I wouldn't be working. I've gone back and used those to fill in.
is a good article on documenting good teaching.

It's a great ride, being a mom, and the end will come much sooner than you think.
The advice thus far has been amazingly spot on. I also want to encourage you not just to adjunct at various schools but to look actively for professional development and networking opportunities. Our college offers all kinds of teaching workshops and pedagogical communities that would allow you to demonstrate engagement beyond just teaching a class and fleeing campus as quickly as possible. We even have opportunities for part time instructors to serve on standing committees and participate in college governance. Not only do these activities look good on an application but they also offer you the chance to get to know your colleagues so that they can write excellent recommendation letters for you.
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