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.

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