Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ask the Administrator: PhD's at CC's

A new correspondent writes:

I read your blog posting about the reasons people went/go to graduate school in the humanities. The legibility idea made sense to me, I went to grad school for an MA because it seemed like a stable path. I never thought I would make money but it made sense. All through my MA program, I found that I wasn't happy, doing good work, or connecting to a community. I'd put off a dream to join the Peace Corps to go to grad school and decided in my second year that I shouldn't put off that dream anymore. I left for Morocco the week after defending my thesis and didn't look back.

The Peace Corps gave me 2 things I didn't get in graduate school. First, I got some real job skills. I was in charge of projects, I wrote grants, and became a better teacher. I learned to teach without technology or handouts (any future job interview will have stories of me working with a broken chalkboard). Second, I got out of the R1 cult. People in a PhD program from an R1 school tend to think the only good career choice is teaching at an R1 school. When I talked with PhD students about my going to the Peace Corps, they said "I wish I'd done that." Their reason for talking about Peace Corps as impossible was because the students thought a recent grad that joined the PC or another public service group would appear unemployable and get cursed by universities. Is that true?

I'm still considering a PhD program because it could offer an advantage. I decided I'd rather work at a small school or a community college. I found that working with the lower level students was more rewarding because I feel more useful. People that taught at both large universities and ccs told me the cc students were more motivated. This is the point where I ask your advice: is a PhD worthwhile to teach at a community college?

The short answer is that a PhD may help, but so could a lot of other things. And if a community college gig is what you really want, the reward for time and effort getting a PhD is likely to be a bad bargain. (I won't address universities, since they inhabit a different niche.)

Looking at the hires on my campus in the humanities from the last five years or so -- and yes, there have been some -- some have doctorates and some don't. There were enough applicants in the various pools that if the doctorate were a de facto requirement, it would have been easy to fill every position that way, but we didn't. Since there's no publication requirement for tenure, there's no PhD requirement for hiring.

What makes a non-doctoral candidate stand out?

Teaching experience with student populations like ours. Evidence of genuine interest in teaching freshman and sometimes pre-freshman classes. Familiarity with current instructional technologies, philosophies, and practices. Tutoring experience is great.

Non-academic experience certainly isn't a stain on the c.v. To the extent that you've veered from the traditional path, you will have something in common with many of our students. The key is in being able to present it that way, and in coming in with the right attitude.

I'd like to say that cc students are more motivated, but the truth is more complicated. They range from highly motivated to clearly not, with all levels in between. We all enjoy working with highly motivated students; the real craft comes in working with those who aren't quite sure what's going on. The best professors I've seen at the cc level have managed to show respect for students even while challenging them, somehow convincing them that they're more capable than they think they are. That's no small feat, and the people who can do that day in and day out are rare and valuable.

Given the mission of the community college, it wouldn't make sense to get the second- or third-best research faculty. We want the best teachers. Frequently, those teachers also have fairly active research agendas, even if the forms that research takes wouldn't count for tenure at an R1. That's fine with me. If you can show that you love teaching, you keep current in your field, and you can relate to all kinds of people, you'll leapfrog untold numbers of Ph.D.'s. (Of course, the ideal candidates have all that and the doctorate. We have some of those, and they're wonderful. But even now, Master's status is not a dealbreaker.)

From what I've gleaned elsewhere, my impression is that the preference for doctorates is also at least partially regional -- stronger on the coasts, less so in the middle. But even in my neck of the Northeast, it's hardly a requirement.

One admin's opinion, anyway. I'd be curious to see what my wise and worldly readers would add.

Good luck!

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