Sunday, May 20, 2012


Ask the Administrator: Return of the Prodigal Philosopher

A new correspondent writes:

I'm writing in the hope that you can share your insights on the reasonableness of earning an M.A. in order to teach at a community college. I'm 45 with a B.A. in philosophy. My career has been spent in non-profit social justice work (mostly with the ACLU), which I considered a good application of my philosophy degree. I am debating now whether to return to school in order to earn my M.A. in order to teach. I love the subject, love pedagogy, and have a particular interest in being part of the community college mission. I am concerned, however, that my non-academic career trajectory will undermine my applications once I start the job hunting process. I imagine my applications will be competing with those of younger applicants with years of teaching experience. I have taught (as a substitute teacher) several Intro to Philosophy classes at a local community college, but otherwise have no classroom teaching experience.
I am aware of the dangers of pursuing an advanced degree in order to teach, particularly in the current economy. My concern is simply my lack of academic experience and my age. Will I be a viable applicant, or am I being dangerously romantic about a career path that is simply no longer open to me?

My first thought is “don’t do it.”  But that’s not terribly helpful, so I’ll try to flesh it out a little, and then ask my wise and worldly readers for their suggestions.

I wouldn’t worry about age or non-academic experience.  At this level, at least, those won’t be held against you.  (That may be less true at the research university level, where they’re looking for the next superstar, but you’ve specifically addressed community colleges.)  Here, there’s likely to be much more focus on your teaching skills and your knowledge of and desire for the reality of a community college teaching environment.  

That’s a little wordy, so I’ll unpack.  Some applicants here are clearly taking the “any port in a storm” approach, and obviously would rather be elsewhere.  One whiff of that and the candidate is done.  Others profess great love for the community college ideal, but show no sign of knowing what’s actually involved.  These candidates have been known to accept the job and then back out as soon as they get their first semester’s schedule.  

The best candidates at this level aren’t the also-rans for research university positions.  They’re the folks who really want to be here, as opposed to there, and who know what that means.  Career-changers can be attractive, to the extent that they can convey self-awareness about what they want.

The way that age can matter is from the applicant’s side.  An entry-level community college professor’s salary is often far less than someone established in a career expects to make.  Don’t expect to be compensated for the extra experience.  

That said, though, I can’t help but look at “philosophy professor” and “community college” and think hoo boy, good luck with that.  Full-time jobs in philosophy at community colleges are rarer than hens’ teeth, and I don’t see that improving anytime soon.  Adjunct jobs are far more common, of course, but the pay there is nowhere near enough to make getting a degree a good idea.

If you decide that this is the only possible way to be happy, then I’d advise getting the cheapest master’s degree you can and stopping there.  The marginal advantage of a more prestigious degree (whether a doctorate or a higher-ranked program) is likely to be minimal.  Meanwhile, don’t give up the day job.  But honestly, if you can think of almost anything else to do, do that.  The jobs you’re envisioning are rare, and student loans are expensive.  I really don’t like the odds, even without the age penalty you envision.

Good luck with the decision.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Am I just being an Eeyore, or is this a bad idea?

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

Yes, what Dean Dad said.

I am at a large CC (let me repeat, LARGE) and I think we have one t-t professor with a degree in Philosophy. Based on course offerings, he must teach some other humanities classes in addition to Philosophy. That means we might have one opening every 30 or so years, and we are not a typical CC.

Look at some job ads before you decide to go to grad school!

So my college says it isn't impossible to get a job in Philosophy, just VERY highly unlikely. And it also indicates the importance of cross training, even at a large CC. Your experience, if relevant to classes you might teach at this level or to other needs at a college, could be a big plus. If your MA includes 15 grad hours in a related area, or even in an entirely different area related to your work experience, you might even be attractive to a small CC that needs a jack-of-all-trades.

Just don't count on it.

Age is less of an issue than you might imagine. So what if you are likely to retire in 25 years rather than 40? Long enough to have an impact, and short enough that the college can react to changing demand.

Run as fast as you possibly can, and don't even DARE think about looking back.
In the current academic job market, and depending on your geographic location, you may be competing with a large pool of under-employed philosophy PhDs. With very few exceptions, all of the folks I know who teach philosophy at CCs in my area are adjuncts with PhDs in hand, who would dearly love to pick up another couple of sections of classes. This leads me to wonder if having an MA will even get you in the door as an adjunct, unless you have some inside connection to start with.

If you don't have an inside connection (and still want to do this), I'd recommend that you start building those connections while you pursue the MA. Offer yourself as a guest speaker to instructors, dept heads, etc at some nearby CCs. Think not just philos, but also political science, sociology, etc. (ACLU background is exciting to most of us social scientist types - I'd love to have you come talk with my class and I don't teach philosophy). Once you start your MA program, ask your MA advisers to help you forge professional connections with Philosophy faculty at nearby schools, too.
I hope I am not the only one who finds this state of affairs sad. I am not condemning anyone for what they have said, I just find it horrifying that the life of the mind can be so easily discouraged by those who live it, myself included. I fully understand the argument of idealism crashing on the cold, hard rocks of reality, however, the life of the mind ought to be about breaking the rocks into the shapes we want. Hard, yes. But if this is impossible, we've all lost the battle for intelligence and should quit our wasteful government-financed jobs for something that is mundanely profitable, practical and mind-numbingly dull.

I once had a graduate advisor who encouraged me to find where I wanted to be, discover what they needed, then become that. Again, the life of the mind in service to the pragmatism of employment. This "reality" is probably not the one any of us signed up for, but I feel that, as long as we acquiesce, the knuckle-draggers have won.

There is realty, then there are dreams. If you truly want to do this, do it. Fight the good fight and break the rocks with determination and hard-headed will. Find a way to make it happen. Leverage every skill, thought and dime to change the world into a form a little more aligned with your ideals.

As a disclaimer, I just started a PhD program at 47. Ed Psyc with a focus on statistics and measurement. I already work at a community college and I want to get better at what I do. Yes, I typically have a chisel in hand. Damn the rocks.
I agree. Unless you are really committed to teaching at the undergraduate level and that is really your passion in life, I suggest that you give this a pass.

Your chances of landing a full-time teaching position that pays benefits are not very much better than the odds of winning the PowerBall lottery. You will probably drift from one part-time adjunct position to another, teaching at several different schools at the same time. You will probably reach middle age still with no full-time job, with no retirement pension, and no healthcare coverage. You will barely be able to afford to live indoors, you will not be able to afford a house, children, or any of the accoutrements of a middle-class lifestyle. You will become increasingly bitter, feeling that you have somehow wasted your life.

So, unless college teaching is your life's passion, try something else.
Unless teaching Philosophy to undergrads (98% of whom won't give a crap about Philosophy) is the ONLY passion in your life, then don't even think about pursuing this. Do anything else. Hell, work at Wal Mart, if you have to.
Much of this depends on where you are -- I'm a full-time philosophy prof at a large ccc in MN. There are three others like me and several adjuncts teaching nearly full loads.

This is because we have a state-wide transfer curriculum and ALL of our courses are in it. We also have logic in the math track, so students who don't want to do two or three semesters of math can finish that goal in one semester.

That being said, all of our full-time folks and most of our part-time folks have Ph.D.s in hand. I was hired ABD and it took me a while to finish. The basic requirement is an MA, but the norm is a Ph.D. -- at least in my neck of the woods.

The other thing is that teaching experience at the CC level is vital -- or at a minimum showing how you've worked with "diverse" students -- not just in terms of race, but also in terms of age and preparation level.

I'll also say that you may have missed the best of the hiring years for a while. We had a huge enrollment jump several years ago and hired accordingly. Now enrollments are flat and state funding is decreasing (not to the California level, thank goodness).

While I love my job, I wouldn't advise it as a career plan.
"Am I just being an Eeyore,"

No, your analysis was perceptive and entertaining.

As an aside, I wonder what the ACLU does with someone with a BA in philosophy? That experience seems more like a pre-law track than preparation to teach.
Do you want to study philosophy more, or do you want to teach it more? If it's study, then continue your education at night, either in MA classes or in self-study. On-line study of various stripes is increasingly available. But, if you want to teach, in agreeing with the posters above, maybe you could begin teaching non-credit classes with a BA. Either at a CC (although there is great competition even to teach non-credit classes OR in a non-school environment.

No one can keep you from living the life of the mind; they can just decline to pay you to do it.
If you really want to teach philosophy, I would get the MA and try to get adjunct positions on the side to feed that passion. If you really want to teach, I would consider a discipline more in demand - like remedial math or comp and get a Ph.D in that. If you really want to teach philosophy but you're willing to teach in high school, I would talk to someone from a private high school like an east coast prep school or local Catholic high school to see what they have available and what they look for in their teachers.

You have options - but they might not all be the straight arrow march to a CC that you were envisioning.
@Ivory: As a holder of a PhD in Mathematics, I've never heard of a PhD in remedial math. And I pray that I never will (if there is such a thing, then I can chalk that up to yet another reason why I'm glad I left academia).
I also love my job, but would not recommend it. I was an adjunct for quite some time before I was hired for a full time position. I can't iin good conscience recommend that you go after a teaching position. The odds are that you won't get one. Futher, ageism is a big problem in academia - just google "deadwood professors" or "silver back".
Find another field besides teaching to enter for getting your steady income and retirement and health benefits.


You have an independent income so you do not need the teaching income to provide food, shelter, clothing, transportation, retirement savings, health insurance, AND

You do not have to go into debt for your Masters, AND

You love your subject and feel a passion for "passing the torch" to a group of students who may be in your class for a possible easy "A" and are getting their degree requirements with maybe 1 or 2 a year taking the torch, AND

You would enjoy spending 2-3 years being around fellow graduate Philosophy students, AND

You can consider the money for getting this degree is your throwaway fun money, (in case you don't get a full time job).

Don't do it.

Get a CPA, or enter Medicine or some other field which will provide a comfortable living and teach Philosophy as a hobby and joy. Don't taint something you love so much with the worries of not having enough money to live. Nurture that love, but don't put your livelihood on it.
Ivory's comment reminded me that one alternative is to get an MA in a social science (if that fits with your work experience) and pad it out with 15 graduate hours in Philosophy. Then you can teach both but will have a degree in an area that has more openings.

Anonymous @8:58AM -

There is a PhD in Mathematics Education that is quite popular among those concerned with teaching "remedial" math to students who could never learn math in a traditional curriculum.

TalkingNarcissus @6:32AM -

Sorry, but the question being asked did not concern the "life of the mind". That goal can be pursued with or without graduate school. I know someone who was working on his PhD in Philosophy while working as a well-paid software analyst. That is pursuing the "life of the mind".

The question concerned getting an MA in Philosophy with the specific goal of teaching at a CC, just as you are pursuing a PhD in the statistical analysis of education-related data to move up in your job. One is unlikely to pay off; the other probably will.

The difference is that there are MANY more tenured professors of Psychology at my CC than there are professors of Philosophy, and there might be more non-teaching folks with Ed Psych degrees than there are tenured professors of Psychology as we keep hiring people who do not teach anyone just to deal with "outcomes".
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