Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Breaking Into Bio

A new correspondent writes:

I just graduated with my masters in Biology and started to look at jobs in the tech industry and teaching adjunct on the side.  I loved teaching when I TA'ed in grad school, a fact that was surprising to me.  Well, I never found a tech job but took as many classes as I could teach at the local CC.  I love it, I love teaching, interacting with the students, and helping them to understand things.  I learn each day how to help both adult learners and new HS grads.  I have decided to pursue teaching full time as a career choice.

Now my question.  How hard is it to break in to a CC FT position without any FT experience, only adjunct?  What makes me more marketable?  Is it worth getting a PhD or another Masters in Chemistry to make me more marketable?  I tutor high school kids on the side as well, so my devotion to teaching seems clear.  What are your suggestions?

First, congratulations on figuring out what you want to do! I'm always heartened when I hear of people seeing through the “what you're supposed to do” party line and finding what works for them.

The good news is that biology is a tough field for hiring, at least at the cc level, so you're probably in fairly decent shape if you're willing to be geographically flexible. (Nursing and other allied health programs are the main drivers of bio enrollments in the cc's I've seen, and they're hot these days.) For that first position, you should be able to find something pretty decent with a Master's and some adjunct experience. Anything else you can document that suggests a genuine love of teaching – tutoring, for example – could also help.

If you decide to do more graduate work, for a cc you'd probably be better off getting a Master's in a nearby field, like chemistry, than a doctorate in your primary field. The reason for that is that 'credential creep' hasn't hit the sciences yet with the same force that it has hit the humanities, and some smaller schools like to hire people who can cover classes in two disciplines. If you can cover both bio and chem, that puts you a step ahead of the folks who can only do one or the other. At the cc level, breadth is sometimes valued more than depth. Whether that's good or bad is a matter of taste.

If that's a bit more ambitious than you want to be right now – and I couldn't blame you – it might still be worth doing some focused reading in the scholarship of teaching and learning, especially as it's practiced in the STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). If there's a local or relatively local conference of 'best practices' in higher ed, go. You'll probably glean some things you can use in your current positions, which is great, but you'll also pick up some fluency in the kinds of things that get you noticed by cc search committees.

Successful teaching at this level is the antithesis of the “weed 'em out” approach. Here it's about finding ways to empower people with shaky academic pasts, diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities, and the like, to succeed academically. Doing that while still maintaining high standards is a real challenge, and plenty of people either can't do it or burn out trying. If you can develop ways to do that, both individually and collaboratively, you'll be a hot commodity.

(The point about collaboration is worth highlighting. Grad programs often encourage a war of each against all, as everybody tries to be The Smartest Person In The Room. This is deeply dysfunctional, and to be avoided. In a cc setting, it's not about being the hotshot; it's about being a committed teacher who can make her department better by working with, instead of against, her colleagues. If you can show that you've teamed up with colleagues in some form and tried something innovative to help struggling students succeed, that should work like catnip with the committee.)

All of that said, I'll admit that my background isn't in the lab sciences. So I'll ask my wise and worldly readers, especially in the lab sciences, to fill in the gaps. Science-y types – what say you?

Good luck!

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

I'm one of DD's lab sciences correspondents, but I'm surprised by his comment that it's tough to find applicants for biology teaching positions. There's a massive oversupply of Ph.D's in biology; the latest statistic published in Science is that far less than half will find tenure-track positions at any institution. I'd expect at least some of them to take a flyer at being cc faculty.

I can certainly see a cc preferring someone with a Master's but solid experience and deep enthusiasm for teaching, but it seems like you could get the doctorate plus the teaching these days. DD, do you guys seriously have a dearth of qualified applicants with doctorates, or is the distinction between master's and doctorate just not worth much in your environment?

That said, if your goal is teaching, the doctorate is a lot of effort that might not pay off well for you. I think I'd follow DD's advice and try to gain additional, non-adjunct teaching experience. Offer to run a hard-core science club at your local high school, say, or a lecture series at your local library in the evenings on DNA technology. If you show some independent initiative, I think that'd go down very well.
To my eye, the reason for DD's comment is not that there is a lack of credentialed MS/PhD people in biology, but there are so few people with masters or doctorate degrees in the sciences who are truly committed to teaching. Too many people who apply for those kinds of gigs are well trained by their doctoral advisor to construct their CV's in a way that highlights their research credentials, and teaching can do with the last couple of lines on the second page. I have plenty of experience getting applications to review for positions at both places I taught and very quickly concluding "y'know, that person would be miserable here."

There are still CC's especially that will hire a masters' holder, especially if that masters' holder has skills across fields; one of my personal points of pride on my CV is that I've got the background AND the experience necessary to teach general biology, or biochemistry, or physical chemistry, or general physics. (Yeah, physical chemistry doesn't help so much on the CC level, oh well.) If you can go to a potential dean and say "yes, I'm interviewing to teach anatomy and physiology, and I will be plenty happy doing that; just know that if there is the need, I can cover allied-health chemistry too", that flexibility might well be valued.

Above all else - and here I'm on board with everybody else - a good teaching portfolio that demonstrates a BREADTH of teaching experience speaks volumes. The more evidence that you can give that teaching is what you want to be doing, the more your resume stands out.

Two quick comments.

1) Since you have an MS, you don't need another MS to teach cross disciplines. All you need are 18 graduate (semester) hours in chemistry to go along with the 18 grad hours in biology. This can be valuable if you like small towns where a CC might need that kind of flexibility. A friend got a job at a CC entirely because he could teach both math (high demand) and physics (low demand). However, bio tends to have a high demand for classes, so I doubt if you see too many ads for bio+chem.

2) I've posted links to this series before, but you might look at part 5 in my jobs series and also follow the link toward the bottom to part 3 (on differences between types of schools). Like Dr. Chuck wrote, most post docs are looking for that top t-t R1 or research lab job, not a teaching job. As he noted and I note in the article linked above, lots of applicants have no idea how to apply to a CC (that teaching portfolio, for example) and are cut early in the process.

In Bio, our applicant numbers are larger than other areas but not overwhelming. We usually are looking for experience with Anatomy and Physiology or Microbiology (for Allied Health majors) as well as gen-ed bio. A PhD is nice but not as important as teaching experience in those specialty courses. Even better if that experience includes diverse backgrounds as the correspondent seems to have.
Some places offer a degree or certificate in College Teaching.

If your correspondent is going to do some Chem grad courses (s)he should see if it's possible to add in such a thing.

Then you're putting academic weight where your mouth is.

Or, what about, heavens, I know it's crazy, a degree in Science Education?
Qualifications for CC teaching vary from state to state. In California an MS in chemistry won't allow you to teach physics or vice versa. And a degree in college teaching or science education won't qualify you to teach anything.

Philip -
Do you mean to say you can't teach physics in a California college if you have an MS in Chemistry and also have 18 graduate hours in physics (in addition to at least 18 hours in chemistry to teach chemistry)?

That would be radically different from the accreditation requirements in my part of the country, where the field of the Masters degree is of secondary importance to the graduate courses you have passed.
One thing you might find instructive is to talk to people at local CC's about what qualifications got them their jobs. If they say that they'll consider someone with a Master's but everyone in the department has a doctorate, I'd be deeply suspicious. Most of our CC's hire almost exclusively Ph.D level people because they're lying around in piles, casualties of a tough biotech job market and an excess of postdocs. (There are 4 major Ph.D granting institutions within 60 miles of me). In bio, the best things to know how to teach would be the allied health related courses like microbiology and anatomy and physiology. But you could also look at certificate programs at specific schools and see if you are a good fit to teach some of the courses of someone who is key to the program and likely to soon retire.

Another tack might be to get a license or certificate in an allied health field that interests you. Nursing, radiology and clinical laboratory science all come to mind as things that take 1-2 years in which to get licensed (much better than the 6+ it can take to get a bio Ph.D, even with a Master's) and would allow you to work per diem for a fairly high wage and work as an adjunct while you looked for a full time CC job. A licensed person with a master's and some experience in the field can become a program director in most of those disciplines. Program directors and instructors are in short supply in allied health - nursing instructors in particular are in high demand.

So think outside the box a bit - you may find that you like clinical work and enjoy combining that with teaching. It worked for me!
The idea behind doing work in science education or college teaching is NOT to make one qualified to be hired (the MA has already done that).

It's to make yourself more attractive as a candidate for the CC. You're saying, "look, I care about teaching and I'm dedicated to ongoing improvement in my teaching."

I know, from my time on hiring committees, that my CC would value that more than a phd in the field.

It's complicated out here in California. In addition to minimum qualifications established by the statewide academic senate (and it's here that a masters degree in a given discipline is listed as a minqual), each CC district sets up Faculty Service Areas which may (or may not)address questions like yours. There are also lots of ways to get around all of this.

Short version: A masters degree is required to teach in a discipline. A masters degree in physics doesn't necessarily qualify someone to teach chemistry, or vice versa. There are plenty of exceptions, but it would be dangerous to assume that a MS in one of the hard sciences will always allow someone to teach in another hard science discipline--even with 18 units of graduate credits.

Thanks Philip.

Anyone interested can read the current (Jan 2008) minimum qualifications here (pdf file).

Interestingly, I am qualified to teach mathematics in a California CC but not in my state (governed by SACS rules), because I have a BS in mathematics (keeping CA happy) but lack a full 18 graduate hours in math (SACS requirement).

PS - I fail to comprehend the references to chemistry. Some of my best friends are chemists, but none of us would ever dare swap classes. There is some sort of oil and water thing going on there.
I am about to graduate with a Master's in Psychology, and begin a Ph.D. program in General Psychology in January. While doing so I would love to teach some online courses, or even get hired as a full time professor while obtaining my doctorate.

Most of what I find job-wise is for Phoenix, Everett, and so on. Any particular search engine and/or advice you could lend to assisting with obtaining an academia teaching position with a masters?
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