Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Ask the Administrator: Do I Need a Doctorate?

A new correspondent writes:

I am a PhD candidate currently in my 4th year of a neurobiology graduate program. I am drawn towards teaching and very interested in pursuing a career teaching biology at the community college level. I am writing because I am very seriously considering quitting my graduate program and I am wondering if you can give me some advice about career prospects after quitting graduate school. Are those who failed to complete a PhD program usually rejected when applying for FT faculty positions? Will quitting with an MA ruin my job prospects at CCs?

I want to quit for all the standard reasons (overworked, overwhelmed, etc). But also, I would like to use my final year for professional development rather than completing my dissertation. I want to do a teaching fellowship, a CC internship, and take an intensive anatomy course with the medical students (to better teach anatomy and physiology in a CC Bio department). I do not have time or the willpower to do all of these while finishing my dissertation. Doing more research will make me a better instructor and I want to use my time wisely. Would a hiring committee view these activities favorably or view me as someone who is unable to finish what I started? Any advice you or your readers can offer would be greatly appreciated!

I like that you’re making a distinction between completing the doctorate and developing professionally.  The fact that the two are opposed suggests a lot...

The short answer is no, you don’t necessarily need a doctorate for a community college teaching position in biology.  The longer answer is more complicated.

Some community colleges are in the process of moving towards offering bachelor’s degrees.  In those cases, doctorates may be at a premium, depending on state requirements.  In cases of “pure” community colleges, though, most will focus more on what you can bring to the program, and how well you teach, rather than the academic pedigree.

That said, though, hiring committees and deans don’t generally hire candidates they perceive as “settling.”  More important than whether you have the doctorate or not is whether you convey that this is where you actually want to be.  Since it’s hard to read minds, that means looking for clues in behavior. Teaching experience at a community college certainly helps, as does some indication that you’ve gone above and beyond in taking teaching seriously.  Online teaching experience helps dramatically.  For many community colleges, online enrollment is where the growth is, and lab science classes for non-majors can work well online.  If you show up with that experience, you’re ahead of the game.

If you want to build your credibility, some deliberate exposure to “universal design” -- whether through workshops, coursework, or wherever -- would help.  Show that you’ve given serious thought to ways to reach students who sometimes aren’t reachable through traditional means.  And keep in mind that community college faculty often have to cover a wider range of classes in a given discipline than their colleagues elsewhere, since departments are often small.  

Even with that, be prepared for a difficult market.  We’ve done a few biology faculty searches over the last several years, and I can report that the applicant pools are wide and deep.  You’ll be up against some very strong candidates with strong teaching skills and good stories to tell.  Landing a permanent position is far from a sure thing.  

The doctorate is not a requirement in most community college faculty roles, but not having one will often put a cap on your administrative career, should you choose that route later.  Only you will know whether that’s relevant in your case.

I’d advise getting the lay of the land at a local community college by teaching an adjunct section before making a great leap.  See if you like the environment and the students.  If you do, then you know what you’re in for.  If you don’t, you’ve just saved years of frustration.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there something else you’d suggest?

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