Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Do I Need a Doctorate?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a PhD candidate currently in my 4th year of a neurobiology graduate program. I am drawn towards teaching and very interested in pursuing a career teaching biology at the community college level. I am writing because I am very seriously considering quitting my graduate program and I am wondering if you can give me some advice about career prospects after quitting graduate school. Are those who failed to complete a PhD program usually rejected when applying for FT faculty positions? Will quitting with an MA ruin my job prospects at CCs?

I want to quit for all the standard reasons (overworked, overwhelmed, etc). But also, I would like to use my final year for professional development rather than completing my dissertation. I want to do a teaching fellowship, a CC internship, and take an intensive anatomy course with the medical students (to better teach anatomy and physiology in a CC Bio department). I do not have time or the willpower to do all of these while finishing my dissertation. Doing more research will make me a better instructor and I want to use my time wisely. Would a hiring committee view these activities favorably or view me as someone who is unable to finish what I started? Any advice you or your readers can offer would be greatly appreciated!

I like that you’re making a distinction between completing the doctorate and developing professionally.  The fact that the two are opposed suggests a lot...

The short answer is no, you don’t necessarily need a doctorate for a community college teaching position in biology.  The longer answer is more complicated.

Some community colleges are in the process of moving towards offering bachelor’s degrees.  In those cases, doctorates may be at a premium, depending on state requirements.  In cases of “pure” community colleges, though, most will focus more on what you can bring to the program, and how well you teach, rather than the academic pedigree.

That said, though, hiring committees and deans don’t generally hire candidates they perceive as “settling.”  More important than whether you have the doctorate or not is whether you convey that this is where you actually want to be.  Since it’s hard to read minds, that means looking for clues in behavior. Teaching experience at a community college certainly helps, as does some indication that you’ve gone above and beyond in taking teaching seriously.  Online teaching experience helps dramatically.  For many community colleges, online enrollment is where the growth is, and lab science classes for non-majors can work well online.  If you show up with that experience, you’re ahead of the game.

If you want to build your credibility, some deliberate exposure to “universal design” -- whether through workshops, coursework, or wherever -- would help.  Show that you’ve given serious thought to ways to reach students who sometimes aren’t reachable through traditional means.  And keep in mind that community college faculty often have to cover a wider range of classes in a given discipline than their colleagues elsewhere, since departments are often small.  

Even with that, be prepared for a difficult market.  We’ve done a few biology faculty searches over the last several years, and I can report that the applicant pools are wide and deep.  You’ll be up against some very strong candidates with strong teaching skills and good stories to tell.  Landing a permanent position is far from a sure thing.  

The doctorate is not a requirement in most community college faculty roles, but not having one will often put a cap on your administrative career, should you choose that route later.  Only you will know whether that’s relevant in your case.

I’d advise getting the lay of the land at a local community college by teaching an adjunct section before making a great leap.  See if you like the environment and the students.  If you do, then you know what you’re in for.  If you don’t, you’ve just saved years of frustration.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there something else you’d suggest?

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

I checked the faculty at our local community college: 8 with PhD, 6 with masters (some multiple masters), 1 unspecified degree.

Most of the newer hires had PhDs, so a PhD may be more important than it used to be (thank the huge postdoc holding tank in biology).

Up here, a PhD isn't required, but it is an asset. Given that there are so many unemployed biology PhDs, someone without one is facing an uphill battle…
I have a tenure-track position at a community college and I'm really glad I chose to finish my doctorate. Does it make me more effective at my job? Absolutely not. I would be a better teacher today with a Masters and an extra five years of experience than I would be with my seven-year doctorate.

But the Ph.D. credential has resulted in some job offers that I strongly suspect I wouldn't have received otherwise. The number of biomedical doctorates awarded has been rising at an incredible rate, and multiple colleagues have told me they would have a much easier time on the job market with a doctorate. When biology PhDs are a dime-a-dozen it's hard not worry about the worth of your MS.

My advice to the correspondent is to stick it out and finish the degree, especially if it will only be another year or two. It's totally image over substance. But image matters a lot more in community colleges than it does in the Darwinian environment of research universities.
I'm a full-time anatomy & physiology prof at a community college in Massachusetts. When we conduct searches for FT faculty, we almost always hire people with Ph.D.'s.

Is a Ph.D. necessary to teach A&P? Not necessarily, but I think having an area of expertise in some part of the field is. That being said, we've been getting very strong applicants with Ph.D.'s that not only have the research experience but have also taken advantage of professional development activities aimed at teaching. It's made for some very competitive applicant pools over the past few years.

Personally, I would recommend staying in your program and see if you can get hired to teach a night class at a local CC while you're still in research.
Thank you for the wonderful advice (this was my comment)! I'm glad you brought up the move towards 2 year colleges offering Bachelor's degrees, I hadn't considered that before. I live and hope to work in California, so that alone may be a good reason to finish my program.

@ Daniel Ford- Interesting to hear that the PhD helped your job search even though you feel you would be a better teacher if you had used that time for experience. This is the exact first-hand account I was hoping someone would share!

@ the anonymouos A&P professor in Massachusettes- I am considering taking anatomy with the medical students. In your opinion, would the additional training be worth the time commitment (12+ hours a week for the academic year)?
I can only second what others have already said. I think that you should go ahead and finish your PhD, since you have already put in so much time and effort in attaining it. I gather that you have no desire to pursue a career in biomedical research, which is what a PhD is primarily designed to teach you how to do. You aspire instead to pursue a career in teaching at the community college level. Having your PhD in hand will not hurt you in pursuing a tenure-track gig at such schools. In fact, it will probably help you, since the current job market is so tight that you will be competing with other PhDs for the few openings that are out there.

In a tight job market, there is a gross inflation in the level of credentials that employers require before they will even consider you. Since there are literally hundreds of candidates for each opening, employers often insist on a nearly impossible set of criteria that need to be met, just to whittle down the number of applicants to a more manageable level. It would appear at first sight from these criteria that community colleges are looking for a combination of Peter Abelard, Socrates, and James Watson. Having a PhD will definitely help you in this chase, but it is certainly no guarantee of success in pursuing a tenure-track gig. It is unfortunately still true that many PhDs are reduced to freeway-flying for many years while they chase after that elusive tenure-track job.

In addition, if you drop out of your PhD program and get a Masters, this might be seen by potential employers as a negative. Very often, a Master’s degree in a PhD program is considered as being a “booby prize”, which may mean that potential employers may imagine that there is something wrong with you, assuming that you dropped out of the PhD program because of some sort of failure on your part. The last thing you need in the current job market is for anything that could be interpreted as being negative to appear in your CV. You will be competing with superstars for the few openings that are out there.

While continuing with your PhD, you could get a couple of part-time adjunct gigs at nearby community colleges, just to see if this sort of teaching is really your bag. Good luck in whatever you decide to do.

@Neuro Beans -- (I'm the anon commenter from before!)

If you were applying to my school as a FT A&P professor, your credentials as a neurobiologist would be more interesting to us than having taken the anatomy course. I would only recommend the anatomy course under the following conditions: (1) you're just really interested in human anatomy and want to learn more about it (nothing wrong with that); (2) you feel that you're particularly deficient in some aspect of anatomy and you need the course time (more on this below); or (3) you plan on applying to community colleges that use cadavers and therefore having an almost-clinical knowledge of anatomy will be necessary.

Almost NONE of us who teach A&P every took it in school. I was a developmental biologist in grad school and did a short stint as a postdoc in C. elegans genetics. Of all my colleagues, I'm the one with the closest background to A&P. Although I did very little in grad school that I actually use in the classroom, my Ph.D. training made learning the material on-the-job much easier. If I could go back and take an anatomy course, I probably would, but that's only because I have a base of knowledge now from teaching for 10 yrs that I'd like to expand on.

Remember that you'll mostly be teaching A&P to pre-nursing and allied health students, and much of what you'll be teaching them will be basics and that's where your Ph.D. training will come in handy. The grad class in anatomy probably isn't going to put you over the top.

Good luck!
I concur with others who agree that it's a shame to throw away four years of hard work. I do also think some, but not all, committee members will hold your non-completion against you. But! Using classic interview ninjitsu, you can turn this weakness into a strength by using your hiatus from dissertating to focus on really becoming an effective CC professor. I would look into seeing how long you can sit on the credits and remain in ABD purgatory. It's possible you could actually use the argument that you're shifting gears for now but plan to finish. This is of course predicated on the assumption that you can submit and later defend from pretty much anywhere now thanks to cheap travel and the advent of skype.

Of course, I've never been on any selection committees for faculty at the CC level, but I think common sense would suggest that you can have your cake and eat it too, as long as you're not trying to gobble it up in a single bite.
If you have a biology degree, for the love all that is holy, DO NOT TEACH.

You have a technical degree. Get a technical job. FEED YOURSELF. PAY YOUR MORTGAGE. HAVE JOB SECURITY.

Do not go into a field that is reviled in this culture, and do not put yourself on the bottom of the totem pole when the next round of cuts goes through, assuming you get that far.


Number 1, there is no reason you cannot teach at a CC or in a 4-year program with only an MS. You need a PhD to teach graduate courses, not undergrad (BA or BS degree) major's courses. At least, those are the minimum standards from our regional accreditor.

I'll also add that you would probably not be teaching in a BS program. The mixed 2-yr and 4-yr colleges generally have a BSN degree (where they need bio classes that are 2000 level just like those for a BSN program where you currently are located). They don't offer a BS in biology.

I agree with the remark above that there is some value to finishing the PhD, but more along the lines of "finish what you started" than anything else. (OK, someone with a PhD generally has much deeper understanding of some things than a simple 2-year MS, but there is no guarantee that this insight carries over into teaching freshmen. Besides, you already have most of that extra knowledge already, and also understand why you would treat your investment as a sunk cost and not send good money after bad in the current bio job market.) We have hired some ABD folks who never bothered to finish the degree once they got into teaching. There is a modest salary bump, but that is all. It is more important to do a good job and get tenure.

I have been fortunate to NOT be on a bio search committee. They get a lot of highly-qualified applicants. I am told that many of those appear to not appreciate the fact that they will never teach a class above 2000-level major's biology, and that those sections are outnumbered 10 to 1 by basic A&P or freshman gen-ed bio at a level comparable to a good HS class. Which you will teach several times a day with great enthusiasm for the rest of your life. Hence ...

Actual teaching experience at a CC is essential regardless of your expertise, and your publication record means nothing. Teaching experience matters more than an extra class, but a class specifically tied to what you want to teach (anatomy) has value. That said, what I hear is that lots of people can teach anatomy (which is a lab class where I am located). The challenge is teaching the physiology part to students who do not know very much chemistry. That is where teaching experience and "war stories" can help you get the job you want.

I'd also suggest looking at the last few years of tenure-track job openings at CCs in CA and elsewhere before expecting to get a job in California.
Get a job outside academia and you will have a better life.
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