Thursday, January 21, 2010
Ask the Administrator: PhD's at CC's
I read your blog posting about the reasons people went/go to graduate school in the humanities. The legibility idea made sense to me, I went to grad school for an MA because it seemed like a stable path. I never thought I would make money but it made sense. All through my MA program, I found that I wasn't happy, doing good work, or connecting to a community. I'd put off a dream to join the Peace Corps to go to grad school and decided in my second year that I shouldn't put off that dream anymore. I left for Morocco the week after defending my thesis and didn't look back.
The Peace Corps gave me 2 things I didn't get in graduate school. First, I got some real job skills. I was in charge of projects, I wrote grants, and became a better teacher. I learned to teach without technology or handouts (any future job interview will have stories of me working with a broken chalkboard). Second, I got out of the R1 cult. People in a PhD program from an R1 school tend to think the only good career choice is teaching at an R1 school. When I talked with PhD students about my going to the Peace Corps, they said "I wish I'd done that." Their reason for talking about Peace Corps as impossible was because the students thought a recent grad that joined the PC or another public service group would appear unemployable and get cursed by universities. Is that true?
I'm still considering a PhD program because it could offer an advantage. I decided I'd rather work at a small school or a community college. I found that working with the lower level students was more rewarding because I feel more useful. People that taught at both large universities and ccs told me the cc students were more motivated. This is the point where I ask your advice: is a PhD worthwhile to teach at a community college?
The short answer is that a PhD may help, but so could a lot of other things. And if a community college gig is what you really want, the reward for time and effort getting a PhD is likely to be a bad bargain. (I won't address universities, since they inhabit a different niche.)
Looking at the hires on my campus in the humanities from the last five years or so -- and yes, there have been some -- some have doctorates and some don't. There were enough applicants in the various pools that if the doctorate were a de facto requirement, it would have been easy to fill every position that way, but we didn't. Since there's no publication requirement for tenure, there's no PhD requirement for hiring.
What makes a non-doctoral candidate stand out?
Teaching experience with student populations like ours. Evidence of genuine interest in teaching freshman and sometimes pre-freshman classes. Familiarity with current instructional technologies, philosophies, and practices. Tutoring experience is great.
Non-academic experience certainly isn't a stain on the c.v. To the extent that you've veered from the traditional path, you will have something in common with many of our students. The key is in being able to present it that way, and in coming in with the right attitude.
I'd like to say that cc students are more motivated, but the truth is more complicated. They range from highly motivated to clearly not, with all levels in between. We all enjoy working with highly motivated students; the real craft comes in working with those who aren't quite sure what's going on. The best professors I've seen at the cc level have managed to show respect for students even while challenging them, somehow convincing them that they're more capable than they think they are. That's no small feat, and the people who can do that day in and day out are rare and valuable.
Given the mission of the community college, it wouldn't make sense to get the second- or third-best research faculty. We want the best teachers. Frequently, those teachers also have fairly active research agendas, even if the forms that research takes wouldn't count for tenure at an R1. That's fine with me. If you can show that you love teaching, you keep current in your field, and you can relate to all kinds of people, you'll leapfrog untold numbers of Ph.D.'s. (Of course, the ideal candidates have all that and the doctorate. We have some of those, and they're wonderful. But even now, Master's status is not a dealbreaker.)
From what I've gleaned elsewhere, my impression is that the preference for doctorates is also at least partially regional -- stronger on the coasts, less so in the middle. But even in my neck of the Northeast, it's hardly a requirement.
One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd be curious to see what my wise and worldly readers would add.
Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.
The first time I read transcripts for a search, I was rather surprised at what some reputable universities would consider coursework sufficient for an MA...
Based on my experience on several search committees, an MA with a nice array of coursework AND significant teaching experience at the CC level -- or really, really interesting and applicable work otherwise might make the interview list. The problem is that they'll have to compete with ABDs and Ph.D.s who have the same qualities and a proven ability to write.
The thing is, it doesn't take a Ph.D. to TEACH the courses, but it does take a sufficient amount of knowledge in the field to be a good department member. We have to be flexible -- and we all need to participate in course outline creation/revision, and the best way to insure sufficient grad work in the various parts of a discipline is to hire someone with a Ph.D.
1. When we hire in the sciences at my CC, the posting always states that a Ph.D. is preferred. We do that because we believe that part of what makes college different from high school is that you're learning the material from experts in their field. Ph.D.'s are generally considered to be experts, even if only in a small sliver of the discipline they teach in. Some, but not all, holders of Master's degrees can also be considered experts. For us, it comes down to what they did in their Master's experience. Some only took coursework and wrote a "library" based thesis, while others actually conducted original research and their work was recognized in their field. Luckily, all of the Master's-holders in my department fall into this second category.
2. I really don't consider myself a teacher. I'm a biologist who teaches. I think of myself on the "public relations" side of biology, communicating my field to my students. Do I do research? No, at least not like I did in my graduate and postdoc work, but I still work in the lab, perfecting lab activities for my students. I still peruse journals each month so I know what's happening, and I work new developments into my courses.
3. Speaking only for myself, my Ph.D. makes me much more successful in the classroom than if I hadn't gone through that experience. Does the everyday grind of getting a Ph.D. affect my work today? No, but everyday at my CC, I use professional skills that I can directly trace back to my doctoral training. Things like giving impromptu talks without notes, critically evaluating what I read, how to give and respond to feedback, navigating departmental politics, designing presentations, dealing with red tape and administrators, and how to write. Plus, I feel that there's a lesson for my students about the value of seeing a commitment through to the end, something that lots of them have trouble doing.
I'd add that I'm not a big fan of the idea that some of us are "real" america and upper middle class folks are...not. But that's even more incidental to the content of the post.
I've had this conversation with a fellow adjunct who is on the fence about the PhD. If she could get a teaching job at a CC without it, I think she would skip out on the PhD. She expresses frustration with the fact that people who have the PhD are allowed to teach things as adjuncts that she isn't--teaching master's students, for instance, but also developing new classes. She'll say things like "all you have to do is get those three letters behind your name."
It's an interesting discussion because as a person with most of a PhD, I can emphatically say it's more than three letters. I have a breadth of knowledge and experience that this individual doesn't have. I'm not saying she's a poor teacher. I'm sure she isn't. But as ItPF is saying, being a faculty member isn't just about your interaction with the students. It's about interacting with your colleagues and participation in course and curriculum design. If there is any service requirement, it's about helping to govern the college. That requires some depth and breadth of training. I'm talking both subject knowledge and knowledge about how higher education works.
My point is, the PhD forms a person in ways that I don't think you can really comprehend until you've been through it. At least I didn't. The writer seems to conceive of it as job training and if the job can be had without it, then the training is useless. But the PhD is more than that and it's useful in a lot of ways, some of which can be quantified and some of which can't.
We're repeatedly told that a Master's means you're an expert and a PhD is a research degree, not a teaching degree. If teaching is what a CC is about, then a MA/MS should be sufficient. All the other factors: being a good teacher, knowledgeably in the field, etc are important at any school, not just a CC. Having knowledge in my field (this may be specific to just my field) means reading the work that's being done.
I've been told time and again I'm good at what I do, I reach the students and engage them. My boss at my CC would keep me if she had enough to offer me. I've created and taught new courses, I've worked on numerous assessment projects. I don't like the assumption that without a PhD I just simply wouldn't be refined enough to do this. "Don't get a PhD unless you want it," but that's not an option when you don't want a PhD but you do want to teach at a CC.
The best way for someone to demonstrate that she's a good teacher in a job interview is to talk about her teaching experience. What gets points at my CC is success with "non-traditional" students: first-generation students, mostly African-American and Latino. The correspondent's story about teaching in Morocco without even a blackboard would be a winner.
The practical truth is that to land a full-time CC job, with or without a Ph.D., you have to resign yourself to a long, dreary stretch of adjuncting and do a good job in the classroom during that time. Even that is no guarantee.
Finally, I have to wonder about statements like Transferase's, who says "giving impromptu talks without notes, critically evaluating what I read, how to give and respond to feedback, navigating departmental politics, designing presentations, dealing with red tape and administrators, and how to write" are the result of his Ph.D. Anastasia says the same thing: "the PhD forms a person in ways that I don't think you can really comprehend until you've been through it."
Seems to me that these statements are testable. Here's a Ph.D./non-Ph.D. Turing test thought experiment: We simply talk to people about everything that's going on in their discipline, in their classrooms, in their departments, and on campus. If Transferase and Anastasia are correct, then it should be pretty easy to separate out the more fully-formed Ph.D.s from mere M.A.s, shouldn't it?
It wouldn't happen where I work.
This is a perfect example of what is meant by "knowing how higher education works". You need at least a Masters to teach classes that count toward a Bachelors, and at least a PhD to teach classes that count toward a Masters of PhD. It is only at the level of the "highest degree in the field" that you teach someone who is seeking the same degree you have. And even at that level, only a PhD with "graduate directive" status is considered qualified to oversee the dissertation work of a PhD candidate.
That is why a CC does not REQUIRE a PhD but a regional comprehensive with an MA program needs people with that degree to remain accredited. Or at least enough to teach all of the Masters-level classes.
Otherwise, I agree with the views expressed by DD and others about when a PhD brings in more, and also when an MS can bring in more. We hire both, but we do see instances in the sciences where the MS has some major knowledge gaps that do not exist in someone who has passed a graduate qualifying exam. But everyone has knowledge gaps. A good teacher knows where their individual limits are and does not cross them.
And the original letter writer also made a good point about how the world looks to students getting their degree at an R1. The places where most of the jobs are found (regional universities) don't even have a PhD program and are off the radar your advisers.
I was on the PhD track for quite a while, knowing as an undergrad that I was interested in teaching and possibly doing research (in mathematics). A summer research project that resulted in a publication, along with a semester spent at a research program during graduate school, helped me discover that abstract math research just wasn't for me. I really enjoyed the TAing experience I had done, and so I decided to leave with my master's degree and pursue teaching.
I've been teaching part-time for almost a year and a half at a proprietary university, and this experience has done significantly more to prepare me to teach FT at a community college than having finished my PhD ever would have. I have experience teaching a very diverse group of students that is racially and economically diverse and includes international students, first-generation college students, night students with full-time jobs and children at home, and students dealing with a host of other issues I would have never experienced at the Ivy League university where I went to graduate school. I've taught students who had to retake the same developmental math course three times because they didn't understand how to study well, and I've had brilliant and creative students who continue to surprise me every day and who always seem to challenge me to challenge them. I teach a significantly more diverse group of students than I encountered in the recitations I taught in graduate school, which is more in line with what I expect to experience at a community college. There are more drastic examples, but I hope I have made my point.
In addition to this, I have spent some time tutoring students, working on the tutoring committee (discussing ways to improve on-campus tutoring), helping with curriculum development, and working towards reshaping our placement examination. I'm considered a part-time faculty member instead of an adjunct faculty member because at my school, part-time faculty members can sit on committees and perform other duties that are often left to full-time faculty members. I've also taught courses online for multiple schools, which has exposed me to more successful and less successful models of online classrooms. I've gotten a fairly thorough look at the inner-workings, needs, desires and shortcomings of departments and schools with demographics similar to community colleges, to which I wouldn't have been exposed in the ivory tower.
I'm proud of the path I've taken and the work I've put towards preparing myself to teach FT at a community college. I have had many successes in the classroom (and some failures, as everyone has), and I hope that this experience won't be discredited by someone who thinks that a PhD is inherently a better candidate than an MA.
Furthermore, it would be nice to have an idea of where a candidate with these experiences would stand in such a large applicant pool. I always hear that job postings generally attract somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 applicants (give or take a few hundred depending on location and position). It would be nice to know what portion of that actually consists of competitive applicants. Are there significant portions that are rejected because they don't meet the minimum qualifications, because they are PhDs who don't understand the community college mission, and/or because they don't have enough teaching experience? I suppose I'm really turning this one comment into something of a blog post itself, but these are some of the major questions I keep asking myself every time I think about my future.
I am so frustrated by the entire academic Ph.D. debate that at this point I think a Ph.D. and a $1.50 can get one on the bus. While academia is demanding them, they are not so open with admissions to doctoral programs.
Ivory makes a point that concerns some of us at my CC. There is a cost penalty for hiring someone with a PhD and/or full time teaching experience (say at another CC or in a Lecturer position at a university). Will we pay it with our budgets like they are now? In the past, we (meaning the final hiring authority) would gladly pay it.
Dana makes a good point that a person in the physical sciences might need to be prepared to address by having demonstrated knowledge and common sense along the way. The Turing test in physics would be to ask a graduate level quantum field theory question of the sort students ask all the time based on some vague knowledge gleaned from bad (or good) pop sci articles. This sort of situation is probably less likely in math or composition, but quite likely in philosophy.
Finally, I've never seen 300 applications for a job at our CC, but I'll have to ask folks what they get in other parts of the college. DD, how do they run at your CC? You've got a much greater density of schools nearby than we do.
Our admin takes the viewpoint that our courses are the first two years of college, and the majority of our students will transfer to 4-yr colleges. For us to develop articulations with those colleges, we have to demonstrate that the courses are similar in content, and that they are taught by faculty with similar credentials. While I do hear faculty grumbling, it's not about the PhD/publishing requirements per se, but about the teaching load not being reduced to allow that to happen more easily.
This doesn't seem to be the case at most of the community colleges I have experience with, where traditional students who are planning on transferring to a 4-year college are becoming more and more of a minority. I have to say that regardless of my lack of a desire to do research, it seems as though your school has significantly higher expectations of its faculty than most 4-year colleges. I'd like to know more about the faculty feel about that.
I just checked our website for stats, and 86% of our students transfer to a four-year college (top five: Baruch, Hunter, NYU, Vassar, and the SUNY system), and we're one of the most diverse CCs in the US (our student breakdown:
American Indian/Native American, 2%; Asian/Pacific Islander,14.3%; Black, 35.7%; Hispanic, 34.7%; White, 15.1%).
Maybe we are very different than other CCs -- this is my only CC experience other than attending one at age 18 back in '78, so I have nothing for comparison.
Actually, a couple of the upper-level courses I teach are accepted at schools like NYU in place of their junior year courses in my discipline (through our articulations); given all this, the expectations make sense to me.
Our biggest collective grumble is that we're expected to do research and publish (certainly not as often/as much as at four-year institutions, of course), but we still have the traditional CC teaching load.
A few years back our union negotiated tenure-track release time to facilitate that research and publishing expectation. We have seven course releases during our quest for tenure to use for that purpose. That's great, but taking one course release in a given semester still leaves us with a 4/4 course load, and we're not encouraged to take two releases in the same semester. So, we're supportive but overwhelmed.
So, most faculty I've interacted with do want to do some research (although most of us prefer teaching), but the teaching load is prohibitive. No one I've spoken to has had a problem with the PhD requirement.
I have taught at CC for years, and about a year into it, I realized that my MA colleagues would be my students....if they could get into a PhD program. Completing a serious PhD program that requires competency in 2-3 languages and a truly original dissertation tests both will and skill.
Those who completed 1-year MA programs and claim that it is just as good or better than a PhD simply don't know what they are talking about--and I do know the difference, as I have earned 3 MA degrees in addition to the PhD.
As to those who title themselves ABD, I have only one word: pathetic.