Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Starting Over

A new correspondent writes:

 I have a question about college teaching as a second career.  Most of the advice I've seen is aimed at twenty-something's finishing grad school.  I am a few months shy of my 50th birthday and live in the DC metro area.  I started graduate school straight out of college and was on my way to finishing my PhD in American History when I was side-tracked: I took a "real" job in an area unrelated to my degree.  I kept plugging away at it though, and finally finished my doctorate in 1999, twelve years after leaving school.  In 2002 I decided to use my degree and launched myself back into the world of academic history.  I spent my first three years working in a local museum as the in-house historian.  However, my job was based on grants and when my project was finished, so was the grant money.

Last Autumn I was hired by a small local university as an adjunct.  I've taught two classes every semester since, both survey classes and some other, more specialized classes.  I get along well with my department chair and get great student reviews.  My chair asked me to cover some classes for her when she was called out of town on an emergency, and I was interviewed for a full-time position by the department even thought it was outside of my specialty (I did not make the final cut).  This semester I am back teaching two courses; a survey and one other, covering for a professor who left the department unexpectedly.

My CV is starting to bulk up a little bit.  My first book is coming out in early 2009, published by a good, small university press.  My first article was published in a decent journal last year and I have another in the editing process now (the first reviewers liked it.)  I have given at least one conference paper each year for past five years and next year I will be presenting at the AHA.

My wife is OK with me being an adjunct but I'm not satisfied with doing that forever.  The pay is dismal and it's straining our family budget.  A good buddy from my undergraduate days, who is now tenured, tells me I'd have a job if I could move to a different area and to not give up.  My wife has a good career here though, so we're not going anywhere for at least another 12 years.  I've sent my CV and letters to the local university history departments, but haven't gotten any replies.  I love teaching and I do not want to give up and besides, I can’t go back to my old job (it's gone).

My question is simple, despite some progress, I am frustrated and wondering if I have taken on an impossible task.  Did I blow my opportunity when I left the academic track back when I left school?

Honestly, I think age is less of a barrier here than location. At my cc, we've hired people in their fifties repeatedly; in fact, over the last several years, most of my hires have been in their forties and fifties. But the catch for you is that the market for tenure-track faculty positions is truly national, and DC is a popular area. If you're ensconced there for the next dozen years, your options are relatively few.

Certainly I'd advocate being open-minded about the 'level' of institution at which you'd be willing to work. Universities are great, and if you can find the job of your dreams there, more power to you. But teaching-oriented four-year colleges and community colleges (which DC itself lacks, for reasons that passeth understanding) can also offer many of the satisfactions of academic life, and even some virtues of their own.

I'd be surprised if the paper equivalent of cold-calling led to a full-time position. In the age of open searches, standard operating procedure is for colleges with tenure-track openings to advertise those in a few generally accepted venues, and for applicants to answer those. Yes, the folks who address job hunting in the corporate world love to talk about networking and elevator pitches and the rest, but academia is still its own world in some ways. Network at will, but actually respond to published ads.

(My favorite job-hunting disconnect is when I read that corporate HR departments will only spend ten seconds or so scanning an application for a few keywords. Can you imagine? Academic search committees tend to veer to the other extreme, which I think reflects a combination of habit, a scarcity of positions, and a surfeit of applicants. When a department only gets to hire once every five or ten years, it isn't going to resort to skimming.)

If you haven't let the cat out of the bag yet, I would go to some length to hide your place-bound status. If your current college thinks that it can keep you on the cheap since you have nowhere else to go, it probably will. That's a cold truth, but it's a truth nonetheless. And certainly don't bring it up elsewhere.

My general advice to folks mulling an academic career in an evergreen discipline is: don't. But since you've already cast your lot, good luck.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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