Thursday, December 18, 2008

 

Ask the Administrator: Go or Stay?

A new correspondent writes:


I am a graduate student at a state school with a pretty decent reputation.
 Although I’m ABD (in sociology), I’m just in the beginning stage of
dissertation, although I think once I get going, it will not take me too
long.  (I’m hoping to get my degree either Jan. or May 2010.)  I’ve done
some serious soul searching and, after having taught at a state school, a
private liberal arts college, and a community college, I am now 100%
certain that I was meant to be at a community college.  I love the
emphasis on teaching, community development, the variety of students with
whom I’d get to interact, etc.  A tenure track position has opened up at a
cc school that looks great.  It really appears to be a dream job.  I
suppose my question is – should I apply knowing that I’m so far from
finishing my dissertation?  (The ad says Masters required, PhD preferred.)
 I know that if I were to get the job, finishing my degree would be very
difficult with a full course load – but on the other hand, I’m getting
this degree so that I can land a tenure track CC job, so if I can get the
dream job before finishing, isn’t that a good thing?  I think the other
thing that I have to consider is asking my advisor to write a
recommendation for me.  I definitely want her to write one of my
recommendation letters (although I wouldn’t tell the other members of my
committee that I was applying).  Although she knows that I’m *considering*
a job at a two-year school, my department (as do many, unfortunately),
tends to frown on this type of job – it’s seen as a step down or a
disappointment.  (Most graduates end up at top tier research schools or
major research organizations.)


First, congratulations on being able to see past the prestige hierarchy that some graduate programs live by. Yes, research-intensive jobs at prestigious places have their charms, not the least of which is usually a higher salary. But if teaching is really where your heart is, and research is just something you do to be allowed to teach, then a cc may make good sense. If you combine that with a location that makes sense for you, in a discipline in which even shaky jobs are hard to find, then I can certainly see the appeal of applying.

That said, several caveats:

First, don't underestimate the time and energy it takes just to apply. A thoughtful letter can't be dashed off in a day, and you'll have to get your various stuff together much sooner than you had otherwise planned. You'll have to make a good case with your advisor for a solid reference, obviously, and probably with a few others as well. Figuring this stuff out, and then doing it, will take time and focus away from the dissertation. That shouldn't be a deal-breaker, but it would be naïve to think that you could just fire off a letter in an hour or two and get back to work. There's an opportunity cost involved here.

Second, make sure you have a sense of what the cc pays at the entry level, and of what that looks like on the ground in its region. In the more expensive states (hi!), salaries that seem reasonable on paper often don't go far at all. That's especially true once the student loan deferments run out.

Third, finishing a dissertation – especially one that isn't all that close to being finished now – while teaching a 5/5 load is a herculean task on a good day. Dissertations are hard enough without multiple new preps in a new and very demanding environment. In my observation, most graduate students underestimate how long it will take them to finish, even without full-time jobs. (Not that – cough – that ever applied to me – cough, cough.) Add a very demanding new job to the mix, and you're adding several years. Again, depending on your priorities (and your productivity during the summer), that may not be a deal-breaker, but go in with your eyes open.

Finally, sociology is one of those evergreen disciplines in which even cc's routinely get metric tons of applicants. Chances are, you aren't the only one out there who sees this as a dream job. At your current stage, without cc teaching experience, I'd classify this as a relatively long shot. Whether it's worth diverting a significant chunk of time from the dissertation to spend on a longshot is your call, and it's true that longshots occasionally come in. (In this climate, I wouldn't even be surprised if the funding for the position evaporated by September. That has been known to happen.)

I don't mean any of this to deter you, necessarily, but to help you weigh the decision a bit. If you take all of this (and constructive input from my wise and worldly readers!) into account and still want to go for it, go right ahead. In the meantime, though, if you want to position yourself for other full-time cc teaching gigs in the future, I'd recommend getting some teaching experience at a nearby cc, and becoming familiar with some of the literature about the teaching of sociology. At a cc faculty job talk, too much focus on the dissertation is the kiss of death. If you can go in discussing your experience teaching cc students, and how it informs your sense of the scholarship of teaching in your discipline (and vice versa), you should be much better situated.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/correct/refute/suggest?

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

Comments:
I like DD's notes of caution.

I'd add: Don't expect to make any progress on your diss in your first year teaching. After that it is quite possible to finish it, if you've already got the data, while working FT. It's just hard, really freaking hard.

If you apply and don't get it, but want to make yourself a better candidate, go see the Center for Teaching Excellence at your school. Hang out with them a lot, learn how to talk about the stuff they talk about, have them document your teaching...

If your univ. offers a concentration in "College Teaching" as some do, do that as part of your program. Show that you're really devoted to being a good teacher both by your coursework preparation and your focus on improving your practice.
 
I'd encourage the questioner to apply for the job, in spite of the (admittedly valid) problems DD raises.

1. You have to spend the time to get a job packet ready someday (yes, has to happen while you're still writing your dissertation), so why not now?
2. Unless you're way more together than I was at that stage, your first serious job application is likely to be pretty bad (I still shudder when I come across back ups of my early cover letters). Even if DD is right and you only have a slim chance of getting an interview, go ahead and write an application now so that when you're more qualified, you'll be able to craft an application shows how qualified you are.
3. From the tone of the question, it sounds like having that job is more important than whether or not you get your disseration done.
4. I'm not sure what the questioner means by a "well-regarded state school," but unless its someplace like Michigan or Berkeley, I'm skeptical about the questioner's concern that faculty won't approve of applying to a cc. It's a tenure-track job, and it goes in their placement percentage as a tenure-track placement. My first job was teaching at a R1 outside the top 25 programs, and faculty there considered placing students in tenure-track cc jobs a success.
5. If it's your dream job, how can you not apply? Seriously. You're risking years of your life going after your dream of an academic job, how can you not risk the day or two it takes to apply?
 
I say apply too.. you are qualified. DD is right that this is a long shot -- so make it count.

Make sure your CV focuses first on your teaching experience (be specific as to classes and numbers of sections), and then on anything that demonstrates your ability to teach the basic classes and, if necessary, do curriculum development in lower-division courses.

In your cover letter, be clear and interesting. Explain why you want to teach at a CC and why teaching is your focus. Also be sure to include the way you satisfy the preferred qualifications, if that isn't clear in your CV.
 
Depending on the viewpoints of the members of your committee, you want to do all you can to reassure them how seriously you take the dissertation and finishing the degree. I've seen some grad students mistakenly think that the job is leverage toward the committee and, while placement is important, they will still expect a good dissertation - and maybe even a better one since you will not be in their immediate presence anymore.

Again, this all depends on the individual personalities. I followed someone in the dissertation stage who assumed that the committee had to pass him because he had a job and found out that that simply wasn't the case.

Finally, do NOT underestimate what it will take to do everything at the cc while finishing your dissertation. And, DD is right - the application process itself takes much more time and psychic energy than you may realize.
 
When asking your advisors to write recommendation letters for you be very clear (though tactful) about what aspects of your skills you'd like them to cover. Do not assume that all faculty know how to write an effective recommendation letter. I, unfortunately, did assume that, and later found out that my committee chair had written a letter in which she said nothing specific about me whatsoever and misspelled my name three different ways. Another committee member wrote only to say that I understood academia because my father is a professor.

You will be doing your references and yourself a favor by outlining two or three high points for each of them to hit. This will keep them from having to struggle to remember what differentiates you from their other students, and will make sure that the entire body of your reference letters represents you well.

Yes, apply. The worst that can happen is that you don't get that particular job. You don't have that job now, anyway. So you are already experiencing the worst possible outcome. There is no risk.

Good luck!
 
Definitely apply. Would your adviser throw you out if you don't get it, after years of investment in you? Only a PhDComics adviser would write a bad letter to keep you out of the job and keep you where you are now.

Most of what I would add about the general issue of getting a job at a CC are in an article I blogged this past summer. You have to think differently for this kind of job, and even get your letter writers to write differently (to emphasize teaching skills, which can include the ability to present a coherent seminar).

I will back up what mthgeek wrote: A colleague in the humanities came here ABD and it took her a couple years to get back to "work" on her dissertation. However, quite a few of our young faculty have finished their degrees, typically around year 4 or 5 on the job (that is, post tenure in our system). Our college is very supportive of that.

We probably like ABD candidates because they are cheaper (MA wages until you get the PhD) yet have the additional credential of having passed exams. If your dream CC job is close to where you are in school now, so much the better.
 
Hiring committees at my SoCal CC don't give a hoot whether candidates have a Ph.D. And once someone's hired, no one cares whether s/he finishes the dissertation. Our salary schedule, by the way, pays for units after a masters degree, but the actual Ph.D. is only worth an additional $2K/year. Over a 30-year career, finishing your dissertation is worth only $60K.
I've looked at dozens of CA CC salary schedules, and this is fairly typical.

So what are we looking for in a new tenure-track hire? Three words: A good teacher. Your CV and your cover letter need to highlight your teaching experience.

--Philip
 
Note that the questioner says that he/she does have CC teaching experience.

I say apply. I agree that you are taking time away from dissertation to write an application BUT I think that it is useful time because even if you don't get the job, you are still a step ahead for the next time you apply. You have a "template" for a cover letter ready to go. You've already written up your CV and teaching statements.

So there are a few things here. 1) As others mentioned, you don't HAVE to finish your dissertation if you get the job you already want.
2) This is the end of my first semester teaching at a CC, and I made huge progress in my dissertation, while teaching 5 classes with 2 new preps. I was MUCH further along than the questioner, but it's possible. It's not the norm, but it happens. I know of two other faculty at my CC (each have been here at least 5 years) who are also hoping to finish their dissertations this year. So it may take much longer than you think.
 
Agree that you should apply--while it does take some time to put together a good application, it's well worth it. Finishing the PhD should you get the job, though, is another story. I never would have been able to do it; an esteemed colleague of mine has been teaching FT 10 years and finally gave up the illusion that he would ever get it done. If you don't have family or other similar responsibilities, you might be able to write while teaching 5/5; no one I know who has, say, kids has been able to get very far because teaching at a CC is a very full-time job and when something has to go to make time for family, it's probably going to be the dissertation. YMMV, of course.
 
An advisee of mine got a tenure-track job in a community college when he had just started his dissertation (in another evergreen discipline). He made relatively little progress on it until after he had earned tenure, at which point he felt he had the necessary breathing room to focus on the project instead of doing all of the other things he needed to do to get tenure. All's well that ends well, I suppose -- but he certainly had the intention of finishing much earlier than he did.
 
Not to be cruel, but without any experience teaching at a community college (slaving away for years as an adjunct) you probably don't have a chance. If this community college is soooo great and in a highly desriable location, highly experienced people, with Ph.D.'s in hand, will apply. You likely won't even make through the first round of cuts. Therefore, if you are serious about teaching in a community college, you should try to get a part-time job teaching sociology at the local community college. You can do that and stay where you are in order to finish your Ph.D. That way... You gain the experience in teaching you will eventually need and you finish the degree (which you will eventually need too... it will mak you more competitive in the hiring process, but don't expect the pay to be all that different). Furthermore, you should look into teaching sociology as an online adjunct instructor somewhere. Nowadays, you almost have to have some experience with distance education to get into the door. Jobs in Academia are highly competitive, even in the community college world, and the current economy is only going to make it more competitive. Get some more relevant teaching experience and finish the degree. If you want to live in a big city or highly desirable area, prepare for difficult times and living in poverty for several years, as you slave away in adjunct hell, doing your "time" and waiting until you have enough experience to get the job and the college has enough money to open a position (or waiting forver for somebody to retire, resign, or die). Yes... sometimes that is the only time an opening occurs... when somebody dies. If you really, really want to get into the community college world, there are really two ways.... 1) Slave away as an adjunct for multiple years, hoping you will eventually be considered for the job at the community college in the great location (suburban or urban campus) or 2) apply for jobs in locations where nobody wants to go (rural). Once you get a few years of experience in the rural community college, you will have enough "time served" to be considered for jobs in better locations. I don't mean to equate teaching in a community college with prison by using all of the time references... It is really great when you get into it. However, it often takes people a long, long time to get into a full-time position. Some people give up after trying for 5+ years to find full-time work in academia. They get tired of living in poverty and busting their butts as an adjunct instructor (teaching 7-9 courses at 2-3 colleges per semester) for peanuts. I guess the best question for you would be "How bad do you want it?" If you want it bad enough and are willing to do what it takes, you will eventually get a full-time job in academia, but it will be hard (perhaps more difficult than completing your Ph.D.). Best wishes in your studies and career. I hope when we eventually have the money and can advertise for a sociology instructor at my rural instituion you will apply.
 
Sorry if I'm a bit late posting this (and since I'm not a regular blogger I don't know if I'm breaking some blogging etiquette by posting so late) - but I wanted to give a big thank you to everyone that posted. I was the one that originally sent the question to Dean Dad - and I'm so glad that I did. You all gave really great advice and comments, and the links were really very helpful.

I think what came out of all of this was that I had to really re-evaluate how much I wanted to finish my PhD. Was I doing it *just* to get a job - in which case I should apply, or did I have other more personal motivations to finish - in which case it would be wiser to either finish or get closer to finishing before applying to tenure track jobs. I really did some long and hard thinking about it and realized that I really want to finish my degree - and can't imagine having those years of working full time, trying to be a mom and wife (I have a five year old), and still having the diss hanging over my head.

So, I've decided that other jobs will come along when I'm a bit more ready. In the meantime I'm going to go full speed ahead on the diss, keep adjuncting at the local 2 year school (that I LOVE - and hope something will open there - although I'm not optimistic), and am also going to try to get some online teaching under my belt which will make me even more marketable. (As I said in my original post, I do have community college teaching experience, as well as teaching at a SLAC, and large state school - I actually have quite a bit of teaching experience already.)

So, thanks again to everyone who posted. It's hard to watch such a good job go by, but in the long run, I think finishing is really the best thing for me right now. All the best to everyone! Thanks, thanks, thanks!!!
 
A good teacher. Your CV and your cover letter need to highlight your teaching experience.
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