Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Ask the Administrator: Starting Over

A new correspondent writes:

 I have a question about college teaching as a second career.  Most of the advice I've seen is aimed at twenty-something's finishing grad school.  I am a few months shy of my 50th birthday and live in the DC metro area.  I started graduate school straight out of college and was on my way to finishing my PhD in American History when I was side-tracked: I took a "real" job in an area unrelated to my degree.  I kept plugging away at it though, and finally finished my doctorate in 1999, twelve years after leaving school.  In 2002 I decided to use my degree and launched myself back into the world of academic history.  I spent my first three years working in a local museum as the in-house historian.  However, my job was based on grants and when my project was finished, so was the grant money.

Last Autumn I was hired by a small local university as an adjunct.  I've taught two classes every semester since, both survey classes and some other, more specialized classes.  I get along well with my department chair and get great student reviews.  My chair asked me to cover some classes for her when she was called out of town on an emergency, and I was interviewed for a full-time position by the department even thought it was outside of my specialty (I did not make the final cut).  This semester I am back teaching two courses; a survey and one other, covering for a professor who left the department unexpectedly.

My CV is starting to bulk up a little bit.  My first book is coming out in early 2009, published by a good, small university press.  My first article was published in a decent journal last year and I have another in the editing process now (the first reviewers liked it.)  I have given at least one conference paper each year for past five years and next year I will be presenting at the AHA.

My wife is OK with me being an adjunct but I'm not satisfied with doing that forever.  The pay is dismal and it's straining our family budget.  A good buddy from my undergraduate days, who is now tenured, tells me I'd have a job if I could move to a different area and to not give up.  My wife has a good career here though, so we're not going anywhere for at least another 12 years.  I've sent my CV and letters to the local university history departments, but haven't gotten any replies.  I love teaching and I do not want to give up and besides, I can’t go back to my old job (it's gone).

My question is simple, despite some progress, I am frustrated and wondering if I have taken on an impossible task.  Did I blow my opportunity when I left the academic track back when I left school?

Honestly, I think age is less of a barrier here than location. At my cc, we've hired people in their fifties repeatedly; in fact, over the last several years, most of my hires have been in their forties and fifties. But the catch for you is that the market for tenure-track faculty positions is truly national, and DC is a popular area. If you're ensconced there for the next dozen years, your options are relatively few.

Certainly I'd advocate being open-minded about the 'level' of institution at which you'd be willing to work. Universities are great, and if you can find the job of your dreams there, more power to you. But teaching-oriented four-year colleges and community colleges (which DC itself lacks, for reasons that passeth understanding) can also offer many of the satisfactions of academic life, and even some virtues of their own.

I'd be surprised if the paper equivalent of cold-calling led to a full-time position. In the age of open searches, standard operating procedure is for colleges with tenure-track openings to advertise those in a few generally accepted venues, and for applicants to answer those. Yes, the folks who address job hunting in the corporate world love to talk about networking and elevator pitches and the rest, but academia is still its own world in some ways. Network at will, but actually respond to published ads.

(My favorite job-hunting disconnect is when I read that corporate HR departments will only spend ten seconds or so scanning an application for a few keywords. Can you imagine? Academic search committees tend to veer to the other extreme, which I think reflects a combination of habit, a scarcity of positions, and a surfeit of applicants. When a department only gets to hire once every five or ten years, it isn't going to resort to skimming.)

If you haven't let the cat out of the bag yet, I would go to some length to hide your place-bound status. If your current college thinks that it can keep you on the cheap since you have nowhere else to go, it probably will. That's a cold truth, but it's a truth nonetheless. And certainly don't bring it up elsewhere.

My general advice to folks mulling an academic career in an evergreen discipline is: don't. But since you've already cast your lot, good luck.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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

I agree with DD on everything here. Age is not so much a factor if you've kept current in your field as demonstrated by conference presentations and publications. (I have a number of friends who weren't even through with graduate school until age 40 or beyond, and they all have jobs now.) But location is the killer: while you might get another adjuncting gig out of cold-calling, in my 8 years at my school I have never seen it lead to a TT position.
The DC universities are a pretty prestigious lot to crack into.

And, from what I can tell, times are hard now in Virginia and Maryland State CCs/Us. Budget woes abound. (I'm sure a lot of states are are sharing the pain.)

(I'm in the DC region and share the correspondent's woes, although not his long resume ...)

My sense/hope(/wish upon a star) is that the dearth of hiring going on now will all but force a surge in hiring when state education coffers open back up. Then, one can only hope that age & experience will be an asset in the application rat race.

On another note, I have seen a handful of people parlay adjunct work into full-time jobs. The only thing is that while strong performances may have gained them some "inside guy/gal" status, I haven't seen any adjunct faculty actually create an opening. They were all just in the right place when the academia gods decided to smile upon them.
How about teaching at an elite high school. Most of the kids there are at the college level and their are other benefits like enthusiasm and pliability. Plus, they make bank.
I ditto all of the above.

And while finances are important, you aren't stuck with the committee work and academic politics that are part and parcel of a full-time academic career. My guess is that you would find you have much less time to write.

The presentations and, more importantly, the publications are your ticket. Plus, don't advertise that you are place bound. No one can ask about your spouse in interviews and you don't have to be part of the "family".

My guess, too, is that you are part of the trend where administrators dealing with budget cuts are hiring more and more adjuncts.

I wouldn't ignore your museum background either. You might find some interesting gigs there part time to supplement what you are doing. And there might be some interesting connections later on that would turn into something fulltime.

Also remember that salaries in larger metro areas are not necessary living wages - again, because of supply and demand - they know you want to live there. I've heard more than one colleague in NYC say the same thing.
That was my letter. Thank you for posting it.

A few clarifications.

1. I am open to a regular 4 year college, in fact I'd prefer it to a big university. I am also open to CCs, and in fact applied for an opening at NOVA. I apologize for being unclear when I used the term "university." I am casting a broader net than just official big universities.

2. I know a cold-call won't lead to a fulltime slot. (If I were that optimistic I'd play the lottery.) I do hope it might lead to an adjunct position, and adjunct positions can beef up a CV (as well as provide useful experience). One of my colleagues started as an adjunct, then was asked to interview for a fulltime slot, and got it.

3. High School: That's where I first taught and, to be honest, I didn't like it. However, it was student teaching in a rural school in Indiana ("Yes, yes, that's a very impressive hunting knife, please put it away until after school. Thank you.") and that's not exactly a fair test for teaching kids that age.

4. I hadn't thought about hiding my status. I think that's good advice, thank you. And yes, my current school knows that I am stuck here in DC. To be honest, "stuck" isn’t the right word. As a specialist in American history, there's no better place for me than DC since the National Archives and the Library of Congress are a Metro ride away and the AHA, the OAH and SHAFR all meet here at regular intervals.

So far the other adjuncts I've meet are either ABD/fresh Ph.D.s starting out, retirees who only want to teach a little bit part time, people with fulltime jobs elsewhere who enjoy teaching and/or want a little extra cash. I haven't run into any other folks my age trying to start a new career. I know they're out there, but I haven't run into any yet.

Thank you again for the comments. I look forward to the discussion.
I'm in another popular area, NYC, and the competition is fairly stiff in higher ed for tenure track. Yet I found a TT position at a community college last year. I was 47 and ABD at hire, didn't start college until I was 30, didn't start my Ph.D. till I was 40, and had adjuncted for 5 years (in addition to a FT job--hey, I'm a single parent, adjuncting alone won't cut it).

Salary could be better, but it could be worse, too. And benefits in my world are a solid balance to that 'could be better' salary.

Which I guess is my way of saying don't give up hope.
Make sure you know where to look for advertised openings. I don't know all that much about history, but make sure you check the Chronicle of Higher Education's on-line job listings weekly. I don't know if the AHA has a job listing service, but, if it does, check it as often as they post new jobs.

If you're tech-savvy, or have experience with on-line courses, play thay up. Also, some of the on-line places hire full-time faculty, so your place-bound status might be of lesser importance.

When you attend conferences, do all the networking you can. It can only help.

Best of luck. I know it's hard; my sister got out of HS teaching and returned to graduate school a few years back, and is now finishing a doctorate and directing the freshman math program at a harge southwestern university, so it can happen/
As a general response to your question: no. I had a roommate who went back to graduate school in building technology in his 50s. He got a tenure-track job. (Mind you, it's in the Middle East.)

Location is always hard, but I don't think that age and location have anything to do with each other.
I resemble that situation, having made a career change from research into teaching at a CC, albeit in a somewhat different field.

What I want to emphasize is that a CC is looking for something very different, so you have to sell yourself VERY differently at a CC. Since I have blogged about that at length (once specifically about the CC job hunt and another time collecting together links and comments about several topics related to working at a CC), I won't repeat those general lessons here.

In this case, I see you as a really REALLY strong candidate for a CC job. The book, etc is a plus, but is not nearly as important as the HS teaching experience and the work at a museum. This needs to be pushed hard in the first paragraph of your cover letter to a CC. You have taught teenagers in HS. (Leave out the part you didn't like.) You have worked with adult learners at the museum, even if it was only a tiny part of the job. You have taught the survey classes that are the CC's bread and butter, sharing your love of history. That's more than the competition can say, especially if you say it well, with a CV tailored to a CC job.

You might even know as much or more about using a computer as that young whippersnapper. And if they are looking down the road to possible enrollment declines in a decade or so, they know that the 50 year old won't be on their payroll for the next 35 years.

Retirement replacements are needed even in hard times, so watch for the ads in a month or so, and good luck.
If your family situation allows it, one possibility is considering being flexible on your commute when choosing F/T positions for applications. If you're near the MD or VA commuter rails, then positions far from home may be viable. A long train commute can be a productive worktime, as long as it's easy to reach campus from the train station. Perhaps you can catch sight of Joe Biden on the train ride to/from Wilmington?
I'd second the motion to give elite independent high schools a look. As you note, not liking your previous high school teaching doesn't necessarily indicate how you'd enjoy teaching kids who are motivated, well-prepared, and ambitious. And the larger DC metro area is a great place for independent schools.
Thank you all for your comments. I actually do have a letter just for jobs (such as at a CC) that emphasizes my teaching experience. (My previous job involved a lot of IT training for adults so I have several thousand classroom hours experience.)

I have been told that sometimes it helps to resend a letter before a new semester starts so that my name is in front of the department chair just when they might be needing someone to fill in at the last moment. thoughts?
I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?