Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ask the Administrator: Go or Stay?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a graduate student at a state school with a pretty decent reputation.
 Although I’m ABD (in sociology), I’m just in the beginning stage of
dissertation, although I think once I get going, it will not take me too
long.  (I’m hoping to get my degree either Jan. or May 2010.)  I’ve done
some serious soul searching and, after having taught at a state school, a
private liberal arts college, and a community college, I am now 100%
certain that I was meant to be at a community college.  I love the
emphasis on teaching, community development, the variety of students with
whom I’d get to interact, etc.  A tenure track position has opened up at a
cc school that looks great.  It really appears to be a dream job.  I
suppose my question is – should I apply knowing that I’m so far from
finishing my dissertation?  (The ad says Masters required, PhD preferred.)
 I know that if I were to get the job, finishing my degree would be very
difficult with a full course load – but on the other hand, I’m getting
this degree so that I can land a tenure track CC job, so if I can get the
dream job before finishing, isn’t that a good thing?  I think the other
thing that I have to consider is asking my advisor to write a
recommendation for me.  I definitely want her to write one of my
recommendation letters (although I wouldn’t tell the other members of my
committee that I was applying).  Although she knows that I’m *considering*
a job at a two-year school, my department (as do many, unfortunately),
tends to frown on this type of job – it’s seen as a step down or a
disappointment.  (Most graduates end up at top tier research schools or
major research organizations.)

First, congratulations on being able to see past the prestige hierarchy that some graduate programs live by. Yes, research-intensive jobs at prestigious places have their charms, not the least of which is usually a higher salary. But if teaching is really where your heart is, and research is just something you do to be allowed to teach, then a cc may make good sense. If you combine that with a location that makes sense for you, in a discipline in which even shaky jobs are hard to find, then I can certainly see the appeal of applying.

That said, several caveats:

First, don't underestimate the time and energy it takes just to apply. A thoughtful letter can't be dashed off in a day, and you'll have to get your various stuff together much sooner than you had otherwise planned. You'll have to make a good case with your advisor for a solid reference, obviously, and probably with a few others as well. Figuring this stuff out, and then doing it, will take time and focus away from the dissertation. That shouldn't be a deal-breaker, but it would be naïve to think that you could just fire off a letter in an hour or two and get back to work. There's an opportunity cost involved here.

Second, make sure you have a sense of what the cc pays at the entry level, and of what that looks like on the ground in its region. In the more expensive states (hi!), salaries that seem reasonable on paper often don't go far at all. That's especially true once the student loan deferments run out.

Third, finishing a dissertation – especially one that isn't all that close to being finished now – while teaching a 5/5 load is a herculean task on a good day. Dissertations are hard enough without multiple new preps in a new and very demanding environment. In my observation, most graduate students underestimate how long it will take them to finish, even without full-time jobs. (Not that – cough – that ever applied to me – cough, cough.) Add a very demanding new job to the mix, and you're adding several years. Again, depending on your priorities (and your productivity during the summer), that may not be a deal-breaker, but go in with your eyes open.

Finally, sociology is one of those evergreen disciplines in which even cc's routinely get metric tons of applicants. Chances are, you aren't the only one out there who sees this as a dream job. At your current stage, without cc teaching experience, I'd classify this as a relatively long shot. Whether it's worth diverting a significant chunk of time from the dissertation to spend on a longshot is your call, and it's true that longshots occasionally come in. (In this climate, I wouldn't even be surprised if the funding for the position evaporated by September. That has been known to happen.)

I don't mean any of this to deter you, necessarily, but to help you weigh the decision a bit. If you take all of this (and constructive input from my wise and worldly readers!) into account and still want to go for it, go right ahead. In the meantime, though, if you want to position yourself for other full-time cc teaching gigs in the future, I'd recommend getting some teaching experience at a nearby cc, and becoming familiar with some of the literature about the teaching of sociology. At a cc faculty job talk, too much focus on the dissertation is the kiss of death. If you can go in discussing your experience teaching cc students, and how it informs your sense of the scholarship of teaching in your discipline (and vice versa), you should be much better situated.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what would you add/correct/refute/suggest?

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