Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ask the Administrator: Return of the Prodigal Philosopher

A new correspondent writes:

I'm writing in the hope that you can share your insights on the reasonableness of earning an M.A. in order to teach at a community college. I'm 45 with a B.A. in philosophy. My career has been spent in non-profit social justice work (mostly with the ACLU), which I considered a good application of my philosophy degree. I am debating now whether to return to school in order to earn my M.A. in order to teach. I love the subject, love pedagogy, and have a particular interest in being part of the community college mission. I am concerned, however, that my non-academic career trajectory will undermine my applications once I start the job hunting process. I imagine my applications will be competing with those of younger applicants with years of teaching experience. I have taught (as a substitute teacher) several Intro to Philosophy classes at a local community college, but otherwise have no classroom teaching experience.
I am aware of the dangers of pursuing an advanced degree in order to teach, particularly in the current economy. My concern is simply my lack of academic experience and my age. Will I be a viable applicant, or am I being dangerously romantic about a career path that is simply no longer open to me?

My first thought is “don’t do it.”  But that’s not terribly helpful, so I’ll try to flesh it out a little, and then ask my wise and worldly readers for their suggestions.

I wouldn’t worry about age or non-academic experience.  At this level, at least, those won’t be held against you.  (That may be less true at the research university level, where they’re looking for the next superstar, but you’ve specifically addressed community colleges.)  Here, there’s likely to be much more focus on your teaching skills and your knowledge of and desire for the reality of a community college teaching environment.  

That’s a little wordy, so I’ll unpack.  Some applicants here are clearly taking the “any port in a storm” approach, and obviously would rather be elsewhere.  One whiff of that and the candidate is done.  Others profess great love for the community college ideal, but show no sign of knowing what’s actually involved.  These candidates have been known to accept the job and then back out as soon as they get their first semester’s schedule.  

The best candidates at this level aren’t the also-rans for research university positions.  They’re the folks who really want to be here, as opposed to there, and who know what that means.  Career-changers can be attractive, to the extent that they can convey self-awareness about what they want.

The way that age can matter is from the applicant’s side.  An entry-level community college professor’s salary is often far less than someone established in a career expects to make.  Don’t expect to be compensated for the extra experience.  

That said, though, I can’t help but look at “philosophy professor” and “community college” and think hoo boy, good luck with that.  Full-time jobs in philosophy at community colleges are rarer than hens’ teeth, and I don’t see that improving anytime soon.  Adjunct jobs are far more common, of course, but the pay there is nowhere near enough to make getting a degree a good idea.

If you decide that this is the only possible way to be happy, then I’d advise getting the cheapest master’s degree you can and stopping there.  The marginal advantage of a more prestigious degree (whether a doctorate or a higher-ranked program) is likely to be minimal.  Meanwhile, don’t give up the day job.  But honestly, if you can think of almost anything else to do, do that.  The jobs you’re envisioning are rare, and student loans are expensive.  I really don’t like the odds, even without the age penalty you envision.

Good luck with the decision.  

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Am I just being an Eeyore, or is this a bad idea?

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