Thursday, August 02, 2012


Ask the Administrator: How Do I Get the Job?

A new correspondent writes:

I've been doing research on how to become a professor, and I've stumbled across your blog. I'm almost done with a B.S. in Astrophysics, and I know I essentially need a PhD in order to have a real chance to be hired at any college/university. My main concern is that when I finish my PhD in a few years, there won't be any jobs at a community college (currently my goal, as I love my tutoring job more than I believe I will ever love research) that will hire a white male physicist with no post-doc, and a degree from a school barely in the top 50. And if I do land a job, how much 'playing the game', as my IT major roommate put it, do I have to do? Is it purely based on how well I teach, or is there a degree of sucking up to the boss and being 'overtly sophisticated at a luncheon', as an example of how my roommate explained he would have to play the game is his field. Don't get me wrong; I'm not asking if I can be a jerk and expect to keep my job. I just want to know how to get a job as a CC professor and keep it.

I’d start by looking at what you can control.  The “white male” thing is out of your control, so spending any time and energy on it is unproductive (and unattractive)..  Besides, in fields like physics, just being an American citizen puts you ahead of the game.  

At this level, the real issue isn’t the relative prestige of your alma mater.  It’s how useful you are.  Full-time astrophysics positions at community colleges are pretty rare.  Even physics jobs more broadly are pretty sparse.  (The level of need for physics instruction at the cc level is usually a function of the size of the engineering program.)  But someone who can teach math, physics, and astronomy as needed is far more useful.  

At this level, whether or not you have a postdoc really doesn’t mean much.  When we hire in these fields, it’s usually people with Master’s degrees.  The real issue for us is that you’re both good at teaching, and happy doing it.  The high-powered PhD who’s constantly pining for an R1 post is far less appealing than someone who just really enjoys sharing his love of a field with students, whatever his publication record.

In terms of “playing the game,” I’ll say that there’s considerable variation from one college to another.  Locally, I can say that people who teach well, meet their obligations, and don’t do anything wildly awful are fine.  That’s apparently not true everywhere.  But I certainly wouldn’t rule out an academic career on the possibility that some amount of internal politics may be involved.  That’s true of any kind of career.  (The reason “Dilbert” is so popular is that it captures some of the politics of the corporate world.)  In the community college world, at least for now, expectations on faculty in terms of schmoozing donors are minimal, when they exist at all.  You could always land somewhere with a martinet dean, but you could also land somewhere with a martinet boss.  

If a community college professorship is really your first choice, I’d advise preparing yourself to teach basic courses in areas outside of astrophysics.  Physics would help; math would help even more.  Don’t sweat the less-than-elite doctorate; that’s not the critical variable at this level.
Good luck!  It’s a brutal job market out there.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or change)?  

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

I would add--don't just prepare yourself to teach basic courses outside of astrophysics, but go ahead and actually teach those classes as an adjunct. At my CC, we usually don't hire anyone for a full time position without at least three years of teaching experience, preferably at the CC level. When I was hired, I had the teaching experience but not specifically at a CC. However, one of my long-time adjunct gigs was at a school of broadcasting/communications, so the student demographic there was somewhat similar to that of the CC. We want to ensure that the candidate understands that teaching CC students is not the same as teaching your traditional four year undergraduates.
First, I've written a lot on this subject. I've put the main link (to an article with my take on getting a CC job) off of my name on this posting. I've looked through it, and it still my advice. It also mentions something DD left out, which is that you need 18 grad hours in math to teach math at a CC (or a Uni) on any sort of a regular basis.

(Before I go too far, I also want to link to an article about starting out in a teaching intensive job. You might also look at several other articles tagged in the "jobs" category. Some will link back to some excellent articles by Dean Dad.)

It is definitely based on how you teach, since that is the ONLY thing we do. Top 50 school is important since there are barely that many astrophysics PhD programs. Top 10 is irrelevant. PhD is not necessary, but I've seen enough MS folks with major knowledge gaps to understand why a PhD is preferred.

Astrophysics is great. We have a huge demand for ultra-basic astronomy classes, so teach that (really well) opens up some jobs that pure physics would not get. However, you want to be able to teach the calc-based class for engineering majors.

Where I would correct DD is on his statement about having an engineering program at the CC. I think I get one student a year who has something to do with our "engineering" program. (It is mostly about surveying and construction.) My students are almost all going to transfer to a state university BS program.

If that didn't make it clear, I'll repeat DD's emphasis on teaching experience, including some work at a CC while doing your degree. And not just the bare minimum teaching part. If you want a job in the near future, you will need to be semi-fluent in the lingo of Learning Outcomes and Assessment and have a solid Teaching Portfolio.

PS - One of my colleagues has a PhD in astrophysics. He also has a personality.
As an astrophysicist, you could easily position yourself to teach physics, math, AND physical science. Trifecta teachers are a rare commodity.

The good news is that, in most states, you can do a credential "crosswalk" such that you don't have to have 18 hours in each of these subjects. For example, most of your physics courses will crossover into the physical sciences, so completing 18 hours of physics will likely also qualify you to teach physical science.

Do whatever you have to do to make this happen. The more classes you can teach, the more valuable you appear to a search committee at a CC.
Given the advice above about astrophysicists being more useful at CCs if they can teach other subjects, you may want to look at a PhD program that is joint physics and astronomy. I am in one such school, and the PhD is technically in physics, but my thesis research is all astronomy, and I have had chances to TA both astronomy and physics courses.
Great advice so far from others. The suggestion I would add (from an R1 perspective) is to talk with your astrophysics and physics profs for their advice. Where do they recommend for a PhD with a teaching career in mind? Visit during their office hours and solicit their input. Ask if they know colleagues who teach at a CC who you can contact with further questions.

Do be prepared for a warning against doing a PhD if you aren't interested in research (and I offer this warning too). An astrophysics PhD can potentially be very career-limiting if you don't want to do research and don't end up in a teaching position.
Not at a CC, but I am at a PUI (primarily undergraduate institution). A few thoughts:

1) Don't rule out 4-year undergraduate institutions. The teaching/research balance at 4-year undergraduate institutions varies substantially, and you should be able to find one heavily weighted toward teaching.

I suggest this because it's a tight job market and it won't get easier, and the person who is willing to consider more than one type of job is in a good position.

2) Find a thesis advisor who doesn't mind you doing a lot of teaching. And then be a TA. A lot. TA intro physics (calculus-based and algebra-based) and GE astronomy. Do something that distinguishes you as a TA, whether that's being Head TA or helping to rewrite the lab manual.

3) After you have some TA experience, get some adjunct experience while you're still in grad school. I did the adjunct thing in grad school, and I am glad I did. Having an understanding advisor helps. A lot.

4) A lot of job ads say something like "Candidates should demonstrate experience working with diverse populations." If you can, do your adjunct stint at a CC with a large minority population. Or, as a TA, be the TA assigned to some sort of support program for minority students. Or, if your PhD program has some sort of REU thing to provide research experience for minority undergrads, mentor a student for a summer.

4) It's a tight academic job market. You say you don't want to do research, but when you do your thesis research you should be asking yourself what aspects of the work you enjoy. Is it the programming and data analysis? Instrumentation? These skills will be useful if you find yourself needing to look at non-academic jobs.

Of course, those skills could also be useful for designing better experiments for a lab class. Getting deep into statistical methods might help you teach Stats 101 (making you more versatile). Getting really into electronics might help you teach some engineering or engineering-prep classes. And so forth.
If you must go for a PhD in physics, aim your career trajectory at industry, because--statistically speaking--you probably won't end up in a tenure track position.
I'd echo the comments of a couple others by saying that you should certainly do what you can toset yourself up for a CC job, but you should also do what you can to make yourself qualifiedfor alternatives. The job market is tight, don't put yourself in a situation where you're only prepared for a small portion of the already small number of available jobs.
Anonymous 1:31 AM's comment is useless. Yes, the statistics work against people landing in tenure track positions, but I've never seen a PREPARED PhD scientist fail to get a position at the CC or teaching-centric 4-year college level. The key word is PREPARED, and the vast of PhD graduates are not. I'm twelve years into a career teaching physics with a doctorate in BIOLOGICAL physics, and my "crossover" discipline is in chemistry. (And yes, I'm totally white male, I daresay white redneck male. ;) )

The bulk of the advice in this thread is extremely useful. You want to be a pleasant enough professional to deal with, as focused on developing your skills as possible (and spending as little time griping about your circumstance as possible - I've been on my share of search committees, too, and positive attitudes win jobs), and you want to get all the teaching experience as you can, as many different ways as you can. TA your fool head off, and do NOT listen to those that say you're destroying your career by not teaching (the people who said that to me were the same people who wound up in the eternal postdoc after I got my first gig). Figure out what lead professors/instructors for your courses give a damn about teaching, and take them to lunch (if they don't take you to lunch first - I had an awesome doctoral advisor in this regard, but I also had some splendid mentors at every step along the way).

Yes, the credential "crosswalk" can happen, and happen effectively. But if you have ANY interest in mathematics at ALL, get the 18 explicit graduate hours in mathematics anyway, and look into adjuncting developmental mathematics at a local CC. It is very difficult for CC's to find talented, knowledgeable teachers who care about the developmental side. I grant that you have to have a passion for developmental mathematics to do that well, but there are jobs out there, dang it.

The biggest thing I'd add, and the single best advice I got when I was in graduate school, was the development of a teaching portfolio - a philosophy of teaching, an academic biography, and a log of every course you teach (either as a TA or an adjunct), evaluations you received from that course, and specific observations you made while teaching that course and anything you used to change your approach or develop a new skill. A good teaching portfolio shows that you're NOT merely pining for that R1 gig in the sky, that you're serious about the craft of undergraduate teaching. I'm not ashamed to say that I was nothing special when I graduated, but I won my first job on the back of a teaching portfolio (WITHOUT a single hour of adjunct experience - just with TA's) despite the fact that, in reality, I wasn't ready for the job. Ultimately, I think I fed into a perception that I was in this for the long haul, and I was worth the investment.

Good luck in the advisor hunt. That process is absolutely huge.
if you're going to accrue that much debt and spend that much time on a PhD, take enough courses so that you get a good ABET engineering degree as well (bachelors is fine). i recommend electrical, computer or mechanical.

that way, when you get out of your PhD program, and you struggle to find any gov't sponsored jobs in the quickly eroding public sector, you will qualify for a ton of high paying jobs out here in the real world.

you'll probably have to take 15-20 more undergrad classes to get it done, but you'll be happy when you see your opportunities later in life. with the online method of applying for jobs now, you can't get your foot in the door if the web filters don't see the right degree. having an ABET degree will get you past the web filters. having the PhD will get you the job and the money.
I take it that New Correspondent is highly interested in astronomy and astrophysics, but is not all that excited about doing physics or astronomy research, but is more interested instead in teaching these subjects in a community college environment.

Would getting a PhD in astrophysics help in achieving these goals? Remember that a PhD program in a R1 university is primarily designed to train you how do do world-class, peer-reviewed, and publishable cutting-edge research. The teaching mission is far less important, and is sometimes even denigrated. If you walk up to a senior faculty member at an R1 university and tell them you are interested in teaching, they will probably look down their noses at you and will conclude that you are not a committed and serious scholar. From their perspective, anything other than a research job at an R1 university is no job at all.

A master's degree is probably a better way to go if you are interested in community college teaching. A PhD won't hurt you, but during an interview with a community college hiring official, make sure that you don't talk a lot about your research interests, since all they are really interested in is your ability to teach elementary, introductory subjects in front of a classroom of students.

But along the way, make sure that you take a lot of mathematics courses, just so that you meet the minimum credit hours in math to teach that subject at a community college. Take as many courses in different widely-varying fields as you can. Also take a lot of computer courses (including programming), so that you look even more attractive to community college hiring authorities. The more things that you are qualified to teach, the more attractive you will be.

Should you aspire to teaching at a SLAC? SLACs are supposedly more teaching-oriented, with the research mission being considerably less important. However, SLACs have recently become a lot more research-intensive, and their faculty members are now expected to publish and to seek out grant support money. The tenure chase at some of the more prestigious SLACs has become almost intensive and stressful as it is at R1 universities. If this isn't your bag, stay away.

Along the way, pick up as much teaching experience as you can. You can do this by becoming an adjunct instructor at nearby community colleges. Adunct positions are are easier to get that are full-time gigs. The adunct game has its own stressful aspects, but you will at least find out if teaching at a community college is your game. And if you get enough experience and find that such a career is to your liking, perhaps you can eventually grab that brass ring and obtain a full time, tenure-track job at one of these places.

But you will find that the students at most CCs are not at all like the students at SLACs or even at R1 universities. They will be quite diverse in their backgrounds--some will have strong backgrounds and will be committed to getting a good education, but others will barely be able to add 1/3 + 1/2 and really don't want to be there. Getting them interested in astrophysics or in any sort of science will be quite a challenge. So get some experience teaching at a CC before you decide that you want to make the leap into that field.

Good luck in whatever you decide to do.
My husband, who has been teaching physics full-time at a CC for 15+ years, will post later, but I wanted to put this in: know the sort of audience you would be teaching at a CC. Why do they take physics? How many are doing it to teach physics at HS? How many as prereqs or reqs for other programs, such as medicine, vet school, or engineering? How many will be transferring to a 4 year institution? Since you will need a graduate degree to teach at any level of higher ed, the advice for TA'ing AND adjuncting is very useful. But keep in mind that the sort of students you will get at a CC will be much more varied than at a university. I teach full-time at an R1, and the range of student issues I have to deal with is very different from my husband's.

BTW, the advice about having a good attitude and being able to work well with others is excellent. I say this because you mention that you're a white male. Focusing on something like that can give the impression you have a chip on your shoulder, and that won't help you. Trust me, there are plenty of white men teaching at all levels of higher ed. A place that's worth its salt will look at what any candidate can add to their institution. It's really in your best interest to just make sure you learn your subjects (including math and perhaps engineering - great advice) as well as make yourself into the best teacher you can so that your application stands out.
BTW, the advice about having a good attitude and being able to work well with others is excellent. I say this because you mention that you're a white male. Focusing on something like that can give the impression you have a chip on your shoulder, and that won't help you. Trust me, there are plenty of white men teaching at all levels of higher ed. A place that's worth its salt will look at what any candidate can add to their institution. It's really in your best interest to just make sure you learn your subjects (including math and perhaps engineering - great advice) as well as make yourself into the best teacher you can so that your application stands out.
One other thing: Do you have a telescope and know how to use it?

That can make the difference in a hiring decision.
Watch out- the retention rate for PhD programs in physics is fairly low (see for instance for 1992-1994 data... based on my PhD program, I don't think things have improved). Plus, it is unlikely that you will be able to find many professors to work for who will respect you if you actually tell them that you want to teach at a CC... if you actually go ahead with your plan, you might want to think about keeping your plans hidden from him/her. Also, your sentence, " I love my tutoring job more than I believe I will ever love research" suggests that you might have 5-7 years of misery ahead of you. You don't get a PhD for teaching. Run. Run far away. I'm not sure to where you should run though, but please continue to think carefully about your decision.
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