Thursday, January 26, 2017


Ask the Administrator: Free the ABD!

A longtime reader writes:

I am an ABD student in Geography (with an MA) but have realized that I love teaching and loathe research and would therefore think I am well-suited to pursue a full time tenure track position in the community college world.  I have taught quite a bit throughout my grad studies, including adjuncting at the community college level and I'm confident that it's the right move for me.  A few questions have arisen:
- I am struggling to finish my dissertation and I realize I don't NEED a PhD to get a CC job.  Frankly, I'm a good teacher right now.  How do you feel about whether I need to finish?
- There are (thankfully) more than a couple openings right now at the CC level.  How do I tailor a cover letter to a CC both showing them that I really am dedicated to the work (and it's not a 2nd choice for me) without being overly emotional?
- Speaking of tailoring, how does one tailor job materials to institutions that have very little information on their websites?

My first thought is that relatively few community colleges, at least in my experience, have full-time positions in geography.  Based on what little I know about graduate programs in geography, there’s often a divide between “human” and “physical” geographers, with the former being sort-of sociologists and the latter being sort-of cartographers or geologists.  Many teacher ed programs require a geography course, but entire programs in geography at the two-year level strike me as the exception, rather than the rule.

Of course, context matters.  There may be parts of the country, or very high-population areas, where my misgivings would be misplaced.  If you’re in one of those areas, feel free to ignore them.

Assuming you can find some places that are hiring, at this level, most won’t make a major distinction between an ABD and a Ph.D.  You might get a very slightly lower starting salary without the doctorate in hand, but it’s unlikely to be a barrier to employment.  

The major issue will be conveying that you aren’t settling, and you aren’t washing out; you’re making a life choice consistent with your values and your priorities.  If you come across as settling, or deigning to grace lower life forms with your presence, you won’t be well received.  

The most basic mistake in cover letters at this level is leading with research.  Don’t.  The jobs here are about teaching; lead with that.  Make sure to mention your adjunct experience at community colleges, which may set you apart from others whose only teaching experience is as t.a.’s in their own graduate institutions.  The students in a specialized field at a research university are not interchangeable with the students fulfilling an elective requirement at a community college.  We’d want to know that you enjoy the latter, and that you’re good at working with them.

At this level, candidates who can speak knowledgeably about ways to improve the success of students with disabilities, students with uneven academic preparation, and students with complicated lives are at a premium.  If you’ve taught online, say so.  If you’re fluent in outcomes assessment, mention that.  Be prepared to discuss ways that you’ve helped students from underrepresented groups succeed.  The key is to show that you’re not just dedicated in the abstract, but that you’ve actually made adjustments in your teaching to be more effective with the students you’re likely to have.

Tailoring applications may not be entirely realistic at this level.  Certainly scan the course catalog and the semester course schedule to get a sense of the contours of the program.  Do they need someone who can fill out a lot of upper-level courses, or will you mostly be teaching Intro?  Is your field a major, or does it just supply “service” courses to other majors?  Do you have the credentials to teach in a related field, if necessary to make load?  Most college websites have a “fast facts” page that will give you a quick-and-dirty demographic breakdown of the student body, which may be helpful.  

If you focus on teaching, and show that you’ve rolled up your sleeves and made adjustments to teach students other than majors at a flagship university, you should be in good shape.  

Good luck, and congratulations on your self-awareness!  Some people never quite get there.

Wise and worldly readers, anything to add?  

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

I was in the middle of my dissertation when I realized that library work was a much better fit for me than trying to find work as a professor in my field. I decided to earn an MLS next, and it was the right decision to make. BUT, I went ahead and finished the %$#@ PhD, because I was so close to finishing, and knew I'd rather not have to explain being an ABD for the rest of my professional life.

Everyone's situation is different. But if you're close enough to finishing the dissertation, even if you don't love it, even if you don't need it, I'd say to go ahead and bang it out.

Maybe it will never matter for you in the future, but maybe it will. And it will be much easier to finish it now, and get it behind you, than to deal with it years from now.
If you have a position lined up, very few advisors/committees will hold you up. Just write up something defensible (even if it is just a part of your overall work) and get out of there with your PhD. I've known more than a few people (myself included) who got a "fast pass" through the final stages because we had jobs lined up.


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Certainly apply for the positions. At a minimum, it will give you experience with the process. While some colleges aren't concerned about the degree, others may hire an ABD on the condition (or "strong suggestion") that they finish within a certain time frame.

Regarding tailoring, it is not necessary for the community college. If the position description mentions specific qualifications (e.g. ArcGIS) then speak to that, otherwise focus on your teaching strengths. The search committee will determine whether or not you are a good fit (its nothing personal!).

To finish or not is up to you. Personally, I left my PhD program without finishing. It does limit my salary slightly and I occasionaly have to correct people if they call be "Doctor" but otherwise it is not a big deal.

Good luck!
I'll second the comment above.

One very good prof at my CC (in an Evergreen discipline) came in ABD and never bothered to finish. Between the major prof taking a job at another U and the CC teaching load and the minor salary bump, it wasn't worth it. I was told that a fellow student of my colleague, who had a PhD and a "better" job at a regional state university, was worse off: significantly less pay AND trading a 5-5 load with zero publication requirement for a 4-4 load with a wannabe-flagship demand for publications and MA students. Also trading happiness in the classroom for unhappiness.
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