Wednesday, October 07, 2015


Ask the Administrator: Retooling to Teach Chemistry

A new correspondent writes:

I have been thinking of going back to school for and Ed.D to teach college in a teacher education program or maybe a MS in chemistry to teach at a community college.  I'm trying to decide what to do and what would be best for me.

Background: I got my biology degree and worked for a biotech company for (more than ten) years, then I taught high school biology for (more than ten) years and 2 years of chemistry as well during that time.  A year ago we moved across the country and now I'm wondering what to do.  I don't want to teach high school anymore. I have always wanted to get another degree but don't have money to do it. Is there any way to get a scholarship or TA to be able to pay for it?

(In a subsequent email, she clarified that the biology degree was a bachelor’s, that she got a teaching certification in bio and chemistry, and that she later got a master’s in education.)

My first thought would be to decide whether you’d prefer to teach chemistry or teacher ed.  If it’s the latter, you already have the basic qualifications for a community college.  (Most cc teacher ed programs that I’ve seen only offer a few courses in the area, leaving most of it to the upper division institution.)  With a background in science teaching, you could be a hot commodity, since science teachers are always in high demand.  In my observation, most of the students who take teacher ed programs cluster in the English and Early Childhood areas, making the ones in STEM that much more desirable.

If you’d rather teach chemistry or biology at a community college, in most cases, you’ll need at least a master’s.  The good news is that with your industry and educational background, a master’s should be enough to attract serious interest.  With graduate degrees in both chemistry and education, you could sell yourself not just as a dedicated scientist and teacher, but as an expert in both fields.  Many candidates are strong in one field or the other, but relatively few are strong in both.

If you choose the chemistry route, then the funding question becomes relevant.  Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and I went to grad school, the rule of thumb was that most fellowship or t.a. funding went to doctoral students, rather than to master’s students.  Many graduate schools seem to treat master’s programs as cash cows, so they prefer to have students pay their own way.  That said, some doctoral programs hand out master’s degrees as consolation prizes if you don’t finish the doctorate, so it’s at least conceptually possible to get funded as a doctoral student to get your master’s, and then drop out.

Not that anybody would ever do such a thing.

Alternately, some community colleges will fund graduate tuition for full-time faculty.  If you find a cc that does that, and get hired on in a teacher ed program, you may be able to swing at least partial funding from the cc for your master’s in chemistry.  You may have to show relevance, but depending on what you’re hired to do, that might not be a deal-breaker.

All of that said, though, I’m not terribly conversant in the current state of master’s degree funding for STEM students, so I’ll throw it to my wise and worldly readers.  Folks out there who know the STEM graduate world well: how can a returning adult get help getting a master’s in chemistry?

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, would you offer any corrections or additions?  Is there a better way?

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

At my institution (public community college in the northeast), every recent full-time hire in the sciences has had, at minimum, a Ph.D. We have a total of eight FT biologists, two chemists, two physicists, and one earth-science person. Of those 13, 8 have Ph.D.s. Of the 5 that don’t, three were hired over twenty years ago and the other two were hired about 10 years ago. Our applicant pools generally have very strong candidates with Ph.D.s that also have impressive qualifications in the classroom. (Ph.D. programs have apparently learned that not all of their graduates will be running their own labs and are doing a much better job getting their students valuable teaching experiences.) To be honest, about 50-60% of our recent adjunct hires also have Ph.D.s.

Also, with the current interest in STEM, having Ph.D.s on the faculty seem to attract more grant money for STEM projects.

If the letter writer is looking for a FT position, I’m not sure an M.S. is going to cut it these days.

(To be honest, most of our recent adjunct hires in biology also have Ph.D.’s.)
I'd ask why the correspondent wants to leave HS teaching because honestly CC teaching is not that different. Personally, I find my HS classes far more rewarding than my CC classes and I am skeptical about how much someone would enjoy teaching at a CC if they want out of HS.

Depending on the institution, you might find that a masters in education -- if it included several graduate level chem classes -- and 10 years of teaching experience might be enough on its own to adjunct. At my CC, teaching experience is valued far more than degree level. In fact, the majority of the adjuncts in our bio dept are either retired HS teachers (who teach day sections) or current HS teachers (who teach evening sections); this is because our department chair and personnel committee both report noticing a higher quality of instruction from those faculty members who have had significant HS teaching experience.

Of course, full time is another story. We almost exclusively go with Ph.D.s there.
I have no idea what qualifications are needed to teach chemistry at the community college level, but it is usually possible for masters students to get TAships, at least at colleges with large undergrad/grad ratios, like UCSC. It may be harder at colleges with huge grad programs and tiny undergrad programs, because there are more grad students to support and fewer undergrads needing TAs.
I'm surprised at the comments above. Although it might be possible in an emergency, the Dean would have to write a memo every time you taught a college chemistry class if you didn't have 18 graduate hours in chemistry. A "few" grad classes will only help when writing the memo, but will not suffice in the long run.

An MS in chemistry is not required to teach as an adjunct, just 18 grad hours, but an MS in the field would be needed to compete. That said, we would hire the MS chem + MS ed candidate on an equal footing with a PhD.
CCPhysicist, it depends on the regional accrediting organization. For SACS the 18 hours is a "credential guideline" -- not requirement. It might vary in other regions. I am aware of a tenured faculty member at a flagship state university in the southeastern United States whose highest earned degree is a high school diploma. He is in a performing arts discipline, and SACS does not have a problem with this; no memos are needed.
The overall job market for biosci PhDs is so very flooded you should classify it as akin to a philosophy PhD. It would suck to pretend to be interested in research enough to get admitted to a funded grad program, tap out with a Master's, and then not be able to find a job, even as an adjunct.
Chemistry is better, but not enough better that a Master's (even with a stellar educational background) will always be enough. I will say the American Chemical Society is an excellent resource for workshops for professional development, their local chapters are often very well run, and they have a good list of grad school funding resources on their website. I'd check that out. I would also meet with several local CCs and see if their recently hired chem faculty (if any) have MS or PhDs. If they all have PhDs and there are no recent hires, you at least know what the market is like.

@ CC Bio Prof & HS Bio Teacher:
There are a lot of reasons people get burned out on teaching HS, only a few of which have anything to do with teaching. Many issues arise from administrative headaches, or anti-union educational "reform" movements, which have hit some states much harder than others... given this corespondent's background in education, I doubt they have failed to consider the similarities and differences between HS and CC.
Yes, you can get funding as a TA while working on an MS in Chemistry. Look for a program where the highest offered degree in chem is an MS and where there is a significant undergraduate population. I teach in such a program. Although we aren't able to pay our students generously, we do pay them. The full-time faculty can't teach all the labs - I'm guessing that each semester, we have something like 2,000 students taking a lab in the department. MS students aren't treated like cash cows here and at similar institutions - they are the ones doing the vital work so that we can publish and advance in our field.
Following up on the qualification/credential issue. My understanding is that my particular accreditation organization (SACS) requires justification for every faculty member. The 18-hours in the field are one way that SACS explicitly gives, but they also give some more open-ended promptings about things like work experience. In my chemistry department, we have profs with PhDs in biophysics, marine science, and oceanography. We certainly don't have to write a special justification for each class, we just have to write a little more on the regular justification form than we do for everyone else. I think the justification we usually give is partly the somewhat circular logic that they have years of experience teaching chemistry and partly that they have published in chemistry journals.
I'd ask why the correspondent wants to leave HS teaching because honestly CC teaching is not that different. Personally, I find my HS classes far more rewarding than my CC classes and I am skeptical about how much someone would enjoy teaching at a CC if they want out of HS.

I've done both.

There's a big difference, at least where I am. Here's a list of things at high school that weren't an issue at community college:

• phoning home every time a student misses class
• phoning home when a student's mark drops
• providing "incidental supervision" in the building while teaching
• dealing with actively disruptive/defiant students in the classroom and elsewhere in the building
• providing counselling and make-up work for students likely to fail a course
• providing a make-up assignment for students who failed the course, so that they can do the assignment and earn their credit
• running make-up labs and classes for students who have missed class for sports, "family emergencies*", "religious holidays*", assemblies, and so forth
• running makeup labs and classes for students who missed the makeup the first time
• running more makeup labs and classes for students who missed the second makeup
• documenting all of the above
• covering colleagues classes when they are coaching, running assemblies, etc
• coaching** (not officially required, but strong administrative pressure to do it, and preference given to coaches when hiring/firing)

College students are usually much more focused on "why do I need this" and "will this be in the test" than high school students. When I started teaching high school I found the curiosity of teenagers refreshing, but after a decade I'm beginning to miss working with grownups. And I'm really not liking the increasing paperwork and extra work caused by catering to every special interest — accompanied by political invective, public scorn, and pay cuts.

*Documentation required: note supposedly signed by parent. Family emergency can include getting cheaper airfare

**Strictly volunteer up here, not a paid duty.
Thanks for that info. I know that the usual justification for some of the cross-disciplinary cases is that the Dean goes through the courses taken in another field and identifies ones where graduate-level work in the other field would be present. In your example, graduate classes in SOME subfields of the fields you mention would contain aspects of biochemistry or inorganic chemistry, just as advanced classes in physics can contain some grad-level abstract algebra or complex analysis.

That said, I don't think my CC is alone in posting job descriptions that explicitly require that there be 18 grad hours in the specific field or an MS in the field (an MS in chemistry that doesn't include 18 grad hours of chemistry is fine) so the SACS requirement is met by default. And we NEVER hire outside of the job description for a FULL-TIME job. You won't get past the first pass without meeting that requirement.

We don't have an explicit preference for persons with a PhD. The very large fraction of our science faculty with a PhD results more from superior teaching that results from a more thorough knowledge of the subject. Teaching is what matters. We also have EdD and MS faculty in chemistry, for example. EXPERIENCE, first as a T.A. (where you don't need any advanced classes because you aren't in charge of the course) and as a adjunct, that results in good teaching is what we look for.

Adjuncts are a different story. After all, the hidden agenda at a CC is that you don't really need to know grad-level organic to teach chem 1, or grad-level number theory to teach college algebra. Universities have a different agenda. Research matters, and you might never teach undergrad chem 1 at a research university if that wasn't in your academic background or skill set.
One option that is gaining a lot of popularity in Canada (and some US universities) is the course-based M.Sc. degree. It is a 1-year, course-heavy (read: 6-8 courses over 2 semesters) program with a small research project. The advantage is that you graduate after 1 year with, in almost all cases, a degree that is indistinguishable from a research-based M.Sc.

Course-based master's degrees were designed with people like you in mind. They are meant for people who are going into non-academic, non-research routes, who need added specialization in an area and have some experiential understanding of how research works. To tailor to professionals who are returning to education after working for a number of years, this program is capped at 1 year full-time. Part-time options are also available; you should talk to the university you intend to attend because PT options are handled very differently amongst different colleges.

One catch is that you have to pay your own way. So that means tuition. If you can make that work financially, then you'll be ready to go in 1 year, and substantially reduce your opportunity cost.
Hi hi,

I'd suggest there's a massive space between "teacher educator in a college of ed" and "faculty in chem" that has a very nice way of being filled. Get a phd in Chemistry Education! Don't get an edd...

Or, STEM-education... (these are more common)

Often STEM-ed jobs are in teacher education, but many chem-ed jobs are in chemistry departments. Plus, there's good NSF funding available.

Here's one such example (I can list others, but so can Google):

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