Sunday, October 05, 2014


What I Learned Talking to Grad Students

On Friday, I had the chance to participate in a conference organized by Paula Krebs, from Bridgewater State, on preparing doctoral students for positions at teaching-intensive institutions. (It was the kickoff of what we hope will be an ongoing cross-sectional partnership.)  I was one of several community college representatives there, along with several folks from state universities.  The audience was primarily graduate students at relatively elite institutions, along with a few errant graduate deans and directors.

It was eye-opening.  I honestly wonder what graduate advisors are telling their students.

The format of the conference was refreshing; for once, the community college and state university people were at the podium, and the MIT and Ivy League folk were in the audience.  That almost never happens.  We had some concurrent sessions, in which people presented various perspectives on hiring, but the highlight for me was the one-on-one review of application materials.

The grad students I met were accomplished, earnest, smart, and well-prepared for research university jobs.  But they were also lost, when it came to the realities of applying for full-time faculty roles at community colleges.  It became clear quickly that they really had no idea.  I was a little uncertain, going in, about whether I could actually add any value; when I saw the common mistakes, though, I relaxed.  There’s plenty of work to be done.  

I don’t blame the grad students for that.  They know what they’ve been taught, and what they’ve absorbed by osmosis.  To the extent that their programs have official and unofficial blind spots, the grad students reflect that.  (I don’t exempt myself; coming out of my doctoral program in the 90’s, I had no idea about community colleges.  But that was the 90’s.  I would have expected more progress by now.) The short-term point of the conference was to fill in some of those gaps; the longer-term point is to send some wake-up calls to graduate programs.

Some of the tips that seemed to come as news were pretty basic.  For example, if you’re wrapping up your doctorate in a research-intensive program and applying to a community college, you will raise a red flag with a search committee about whether this is the job you really want.  We don’t want to be settled for.  If the letter is all about your dissertation and subsequent research plans, you probably won’t get the interview.  Similarly, if the cv puts several pages of research before deigning to mention teaching, you’ve tipped your hand.  These should be obvious, but apparently are not.  And for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t do your letter in 8 point font.  Some of us have old eyes, and will struggle to read anything that small.  Using 12 point is not that difficult.  

In terms of experience, getting some online teaching under your belt is helpful.  Whatever your philosophical position on online teaching, it’s a rapidly growing area, and we need people who can roll with it.  Similarly, people who understand the concept of “universal design” and the ways to make their courses accessible to people with disabilities (beyond just honoring the request from the relevant office for extra time on exams) have a leg up on people who don’t.  I would think that would be obvious by now, but apparently it isn’t.  

I tried to convey some sense of the realities of teaching in a community college setting.  On the downside, the teaching loads are relatively high, the students’ academic preparation is uneven, and in some states, the salaries aren’t spectacular.  On the upside, there’s no “publish or perish” moment; it’s possible to have both a job and a life.  (I was heartened to see that male candidates reacted as strongly to that as female ones.  Progress shows in the small things.)  And the knowledge that you’re empowering the students who need it the most can do wonders for one’s conscience.  

I’ll admit upfront that even with helpful hints, the job market stinks.  Yes, some searches fail, and to the extent that we can make a dent in that, it’ll help.  But the larger causes of the poor job market are entirely beyond what applicants do or don’t do.  That said, I still find it shocking that graduate faculty -- whose job it is to prepare students for academic jobs -- are so out of touch with what students need at the institutions that actually do most of the hiring.  The fact that the conference even had to happen is surprising.  I hope that some folks will take the helpful hints back to their grad programs and trigger some discussions about just what, exactly, the programs are doing.  

In the meantime, stay tuned for some postings...

This is actually part of why I left grad school a decade ago. I had a great interest in teaching the subject matter and the department (among the top in the field) made clear in a myriad of large and small ways that they only really cared about creating accomplished publishers. Teaching was very much an afterthought. So I left and became a secondary teacher, since that seemed to be the highest level that cared about quality of instruction. I have learned since that other institutions do care more about quality instruction, but now that is too little too late.

To be honest, in my case, it didn't feel like a blind spot so much as a willful choice to neglect the field. Good teachers don't really up an institutions prestige. Good publishers do. Until that changes, it doesn't matter where the market is, because the market doesn't actually drive external evaluations of their program.
Good point above @7:10PM about the origin of the blind spots, particularly at elite institutions. However, the mere presence of "a few errant graduate deans and directors" suggests that the possibility of new evaluations that include job placement might be sinking in. That would mostly apply to public institutions, I expect, but one never knows if financial aid is what drives it.

I sympathize with your reaction, Dean Reed, but here (and in IHE) you are mostly preaching to the choir. How many of those grad deans and directors, let alone grad students, have read your blog? How many know the true nature of the job market?

My eyes were opened when a colleague told me that she had no interest in changing her ABD status because the bump in pay was small compared to the large pay advantage she had over friends with a PhD teaching at some non-selective 4-year school like a smaller directional state university. And their work load was higher because they also had to publish and she only has to teach. They were shocked at the positive aspects of the full-time t-t CC alternative.

PS - I hope you pointed them all to this blogger version of the blog, with its vast archive of articles and comments on this general topic.
I teach a "how to be a grad student" course for new grad students in an R1 university (and in the department that has "elite" status, bringing in more research dollars per faculty member than any other department). Although I try to teach the students how to teach and that teaching is important, there is a strong message from the university administration and the other faculty that research (or research $ for the administration) are all that matters.

Most of the PhDs from our program would regard a community college job as a last choice (they take postdocs and research positions at even lower salaries instead).

I'm not going to try to tell them they're wrong either—while teaching is important and what I spend most of my time on, the faculty who spend most of their time on research have done some amazing and inspiring things.

I looked over our grad alumni list and saw none teaching at community colleges, a few professors at research universities, and lots who were in industrial research positions (often in startup companies that they founded). So advising students in our department how to apply for community college teaching positions (which pay badly in california) doesn't seem to be that valuable.
It may seem weak, but if you've been at your job at X type of institution for 15 years, how are you to really be in touch with what another type of institution looks for in hiring? I knew I wanted to be at a teaching-intensive school and made no bones about this throughout grad school and my postdoc but advice I got ranged from bad to, "I'll be honest, I didn't go that route, and I don't know what they want." I appreciated the honesty.

Now that I'm in the job, I see the columns on IHE about "How to get a job at..." and they don't apply to me -- they weren't what the place I'm at was looking for, or don't apply to my field. Blaming a grad advisor becomes less productive as I see more and more. In a perfect world, sure, they would give great counsel. In this world, that happens less.
I tend to agree with anonymous 6:37. I'm generally not surprised that faculty at an R-1 institution don't know about community colleges because that's not their environment or their interest. And the reason that they don't know is because they aren't really bothering to educate themselves either.

I think to a large extent, faculty mirror THEIR advisors' opinions and perceptions. So, as for expecting more by now, ask yourself how long a faculty member's career is, and you'll have the answer why there hasn't been more progress. I suspect many of the advisors you had 20 years ago in grad school are still there.
I wonder how much of this is also an east coast thing. In California, elite institutions are far more aware of the state colleges and universities because they have been placing students there for years. At least one Stanford humanities dept has for years had a session for dissertations students featuring grads at different types of institutions, including CCs. That was before their much ballyhooed partnership with San Jose State. We are thrilled when we place a student, though the university brags about the international post docs, not the cc jobs.
Accepting online teaching jobs is an excellent way to earn extra money and gain experience. It can take quite a bit of time to get a job at a university and this helps fill in the gaps.
Perhaps the red flag should be that probably few or none of the PhD students had any experience at community colleges as students.
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