Wednesday, March 07, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Positioning For a CC Career

A new, young correspondent writes:

I seem to share your goal of teaching, and eventually filling an administration role, at the community college level since its seems more helpful and effective to the students, since I have little aspiration to achieve a doctorate degree and since I believe in equal opportunity for all having come from a low-income family. My plan for now is to achieve a Masters in Political Science or potentially one in various social sciences I'm interested in (I'll graduate with a dual major in economics and political science). To build experience, I plan on meeting with CC professors and hopefully serving as a free tutor for students during my Senior undergraduate year. Having said that, I was wondering if I could ask for you a few questions. 1) What departments/subjects, in your experience, do community colleges have the greatest demand for? Which, if any, departments do administrations have difficulty filling positions in? Simply put, which Masters degree would make me most valuable as a candidate: Political Science, Economics, History or an MBA? 2) What venues for gaining experience exist for an undergraduate student? Or a masters student? 3) Is there any advice you have to help me on my career path? Are there any career mistakes you see candidates frequently make that I should avoid?

I’m a little struck at the idea of picking a discipline based on market demand.  Usually, people pick a discipline they find fascinating, and then try to figure out market demand.  But there’s no a priori reason you couldn’t do it this way.

Among the disciplines you listed, we typically have the hardest time hiring for economics.   There isn’t a huge demand for economists at the cc level, but when openings occur, they’re remarkably hard to fill.  Political scientists and historians are far more plentiful, so even though spots for historians are more common, they’re harder to get.  In the business area, you probably wouldn’t get hired without years of real-world business experience on top of the MBA, so if you don’t want to do that, don’t.  Like history, that’s a field with many more candidates than positions.

In grad school, the usual training is through a teaching assistantship.  Being a t.a. usually covers your tuition and offers a modest – cough – stipend that will almost cover very basic living expenses.  Ideally, it gives you a first experience in which you’re teaching with a net; the professor for whom you’re assisting is supposed to be there to mentor you.  (Warning: graduate faculty are not uniform in the seriousness with which they approach this role.  Prior to my first semester as a t.a., my entire training consisted of a single statement: “you’ll be fine.”)

If at all possible, I’d recommend finding the campus tutoring center and getting training and experience there as well.  Seeing the ways that students struggle can be revealing.  In my time at the campus writing center, I recall a student who came in complaining that she just couldn’t write, and her class paper suggested that she was right.  But she could tell a hell of a story.  So for lack of any better ideas, I asked her to write me a letter telling one of those stories.  She did, and it read beautifully.  I showed her the letter, showed her the paper, and asked if she could see the difference.   She could.  I suggested that she try writing her papers like she wrote her letters; freewrite first, and edit later.  Once she turned off the editor in her head – the one that said “that’s stupid” at every new sentence – she attained the clarity that she had when she told stories.

That experience came in handy later as a professor.  If you’re in economics, you may find yourself tutoring math rather than writing, but the same principle applies.  If you can see the common ways and places that students make mistakes, you can inform your own subsequent teaching accordingly.

Administration is another matter entirely.  First, get your land legs as a professor.  After a few years of that, if administration still holds appeal, take baby steps and see what happens.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you advise?

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

You didn't address the issue of no doctorate for a career in administration. Although that might be a degree in higher ed administration, our academic Deans typically have a PhD in the field they taught.

The situation seems different on the non-teaching side of the house, which might be a better entry point for your correspondent. Student services staff and leadership seem to come from the social sciences at my CC. Is that typical, DD?

Picking a major for academic job prospects strikes me as very risky. Passion for the subject, or lack thereof, comes through in the interview and sample teaching process. Even good, highly motivated adjuncts can't get permanent jobs because of the supply/demand mismatch right now, but YMMV in the future.

The preparation for college teaching is better than it used to be, but still uneven. There are some universities with formal programs for new grad teaching assistants, but you have to look for them.

I'm older than DD, but had the same experience in grad school. The only training I got that is worthy of that name was as an undergrad TA. My CC does some training for our tutors, so that might be a good place to start getting some experience.
It does seem that the letter writer is contemplating searching for a CC faculty position initially with an MA/MS, rather than a PhD. I'm at an R1 rather than a CC and don't have the background to judge this in context, but from reading posts and comments for years it seems that the PhD is also a necessary calling card for a full-time CC faculty position (along with the ever-elusive "good fit"). I would definitely look into the appropriate degree at CC's in areas across the country that are of interest before committing to a career path.
DD's advice to "get your land legs as a professor" first and then start working toward administration does not reflect the prevalence of non-tenure teaching jobs, from which the path to administrative positions like deanships is typically closed. A basic condition of administrative jobs on most campuses is frequently that you have tenure, first. Given the scarcity of tenure-track hires and the marked increase in non-tenure positions in the last decade (and it is likely to continue in the future), you could effectively end up as a professor in a low-paying, non-tenure, non-promotable position for years, with little chance of moving from that position to a position in academic administration (like Dean).
Spouse is a CC prof in Econ. He has been offered 3 CC jobs in the past 6 years and is currently on the search committee for another full-time position in Econ. He holds a PhD and over 13 years of full-time lecturing experience.

MS-holding candidates make it through HR and to the long list because the ad states it is acceptable. But unless they have 20+ years of significant CC part-time experience, they do not make the cut; it is just too competitive. In other words, at least in major metro areas on the west coast, if you don't have a PhD, you are likely not going to make the short list and almost certainly will not be offered the job.
I’m a little struck at the idea of picking a discipline based on market demand.

In these times, you probably shouldn't be so struck. Choosing a discipline based on market demand is an extremely prudent decision for someone who really wants to get into a good academic job position.

The idea of choosing what to study based on passion and interest works great until you apply to a job with 100 other applicants, which is likely to happen these days. When around 80 of these applicants have the same passion and experience as you for a position, somehow getting really excited about a particular topic doesn't really matter as much. If you choose a discipline that you're still interested in but there are 5 applicants for a role, your job prospects are much better. Note that academic jobs tend to last much longer than interest in academic research topics, for what it's worth.

This person obviously wants to teach at a post-secondary level and/or work in a post-secondary environment. They are also being shrewd; avoiding a PhD is a great strategy since it takes into account the opportunity cost of getting one. It may limit your academic career options but, ironically, it might also increase your overall job prospects.

I commend the OP for thinking about the long view of their career. I wish more students would have such ideas exposed to them instead of the usual "follow your passion!" short-term thinking about schooling.
What can you tell this person about the academic job prospects!?!
I teach political science. Here is what I can tell you about job prospects in my field. It is not unusual to get upward of 200 applicants for a position, even at my not-very-prestigious state university where the workload is higher, and the pay lower, than at most comparable schools (tenure track people teach a 4-4 load in most cases). We don't hire people who only have master's degrees. We don't need to. Even at the large community college down the road from us, political science instructors either have terminal degrees, or are retired, beloved, rock-star-type local politicians who teach an occasional class on the side.

The only area of our program where this is not the case is in public administration, where a master's plus 20+ years of real world experience might qualify you to teach as a part timer (at rock bottom pay with no job security and no benefits).

If you are picking a field of study for a master's degree based primarily on the ease of landing an academic job, then sadly, I would say that political science positions are not a great bet for you.
This doesn't fit with the disciplines that the poster was interested in, but to answer the first question, the department/subject my CC has the most difficult time filling is nursing. Nurses don't usually want to come teach for far less money than they'd make actually being out in the field being a nurse.
Interesting post and commentary.

From the perspective of an old bat, my thought is that if you crave a career in academia, you're nuts if you don't select a subject that offers a halfway decent shot at a full-time position. I say this as a Ph.D. in English.

If I had it to do over again, I would get an MBA and then a Ph.D. in business management, accountancy, or economics; alternatively, I would consider anything in health care, or in the business aspect of the health-care industry.

At the Great Desert University, where I spent 15 years in teaching and administration after 20 years in publishing, jobs for people with the terminal degree in these subjects were plentiful and highly paid. While my colleagues were earning $60,000 after 10 or 15 years on the job, a wet-behind-the-ears Ph.D. in accountancy started as assistant in the low six figures. GDU was challenged to staff its nursing program -- why would you teach full-time and put up with academic politics when you can earn more as a part-time contract nurse?

I like to joke by saying "I made myself unemployable by getting a Ph.D. in English." But that's not far off the mark. Though I did manage to find work both in and out of academia, it has been uniformly low-paying. And a layoff that hit on the cusp of retirement has meant a future of permanent hard times.

I would never recommend to a young person that she or he major in the liberal arts, or in any of the many other disciplines where jobs are few and hard to attain. The Net is awash in massive open online courses that, in some subjects, are starting to morph into something like formal programs. If you want to learn about literature and history, you can learn from professors in the Ivy Leagues by watching on iTunes.

Educate yourself, yes. But also get a degree that will earn you a decent living. Assuming you wish to remain in the middle class...some of us don't mind one way or the other, of course.
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