The Community-College Job Search
By Dana M Zimbleman

Personal experiences on the job market

"Supposing is good, but finding out is better." -- Mark Twain After serving on four faculty-hiring committees at community colleges in three different states, I've come to the conclusion that many universities do a poor job of preparing graduate students to negotiate all aspects of the academic job market. Certainly, departments offer sound advice on how to land professorships at four-year institutions, but they fail miserably when it comes to helping master's and doctoral students understand how to apply for jobs at two-year colleges and technical schools.

On my campus, we have just finished searching for a new faculty member in history, and I was truly astonished by how many of the 90 applicants didn't have the foggiest notion of how to promote themselves as a candidate for our opening. Apparently, all of these very well-educated, articulate people had never been told that what works in applying for a teaching job at a four-year institution is the kiss of death if they're applying at a community college. Most applicants had impressive credentials, but their applications failed to convey that they understood what their jobs duties would be at our college. Many seemed to think that our student population was composed exclusively of traditional-age undergraduates planning to transfer to four-year campuses.

It pains me to say it, but one reason that graduate-school professors offer few helpful insights on the community-college job scene is just snobbery and bias. Too many of them view community colleges as "education lite." They think "serious scholars" would never demean themselves by taking such a position in the first place. Their attitudes seep into their interactions with anyone working or considering working at a community college. I've encountered these views myself, with professors asking me, "Why on earth would you want to teach there?" Many of these same professors pat themselves on the back for their "tolerance" and "commitment to diversity."

When I encounter such folks, I have to fight the urge to thump them on the forehead when they bemoan the lack of academic standards at community colleges. Apparently, they don't realize that when they disparage the instruction at two-year colleges, they are also disparaging themselves. After all, community-college instructors are the products of the four-year colleges. Moreover, this disdain for community colleges as a career option is profoundly arrogant coming from people who already have a steady paycheck, health insurance, and retirement benefits.

In fairness, I must emphasize that most university professors are delighted when their students find jobs that make them happy. So maybe the main reason institutions fail to help graduate students understand the community-college job search is that they simply don't know much about it themselves. And that lack of knowledge limits their students' options.

Sure, plenty of students pursue a Ph.D. because they want to teach at a major research university. But I'd guess that just as many have more modest ambitions -- say, a full-time teaching job in a field they love that allows them to have a decent standard of living. That was my goal when I pursued my master's. From the very beginning of my graduate-school days, I thought the community college might be right for me. I just didn't have anyone who could advise me on how to achieve my goal. Left to my own devices, I had to figure out what to do (and what not to do) by myself.

At the risk of sounding like a braggart, I've succeeded: I've landed several full-time, tenure-track teaching jobs in community colleges. I earned tenure in the Alabama system but left there when I was offered an even better job at a community college in Illinois. Then when I wanted to find a job near my fiance (now husband) in Missouri, I managed to pull off that little career miracle too: I found a position at a great community college just south of St. Louis, a 30-minute commute from our home. I'd like to believe my good fortune was the result of my superior intellect and pedagogical skills, but deep down I know better. Luck played a role. I know that scores of people far smarter than I am are working as adjuncts at three or four institutions at once as they attempt to scrape together a living. This, too, could have been my fate if the employment gods had not smiled favorably on me.

Still, luck doesn't fully explain my success, either. I was able to figure out precisely what to do to impress (or at least interest) a hiring committee. I'd like to share a little of what I know about applying for community-college jobs in the hopes that it will be beneficial to those of you who would like to find a similar position but just aren't sure how to crack the market. While my advice isn't foolproof, it may improve your chances considerably.

Ideally, your quest for a community-college position should begin early in your graduate studies. You should take the time to learn about the mission and goals of community colleges before you ever even apply for your first job. Don't wait until two days before your first interview to investigate how community colleges operate. Go to a community college near your university, if there is one, and make a point of talking with some of the faculty and staff members and administrators. Get a feel for the academic culture of the place. Emphasize that you're not lobbying for a job at the campus; you just want to learn about community colleges.

You might also try to understand the student culture at a community college. Volunteer as a tutor or offer your time to help with some student activities. Community service is extremely important to community colleges, so you can enhance your qualifications by showing you are committed to this mission.

Sometimes paid non-teaching positions become available that might provide you with an opportunity to work on campus and learn more about community colleges. Before I was ever hired as a full-time faculty member, I worked as a full-time English tutor for the federally financed Student Support Services program, which offers assistance to low-income and first-generation college students. Other federal programs at community colleges, such as Upward Bound and Educational Talent Search, often have entry-level full-time openings that could give you valuable preliminary experience as well as a paycheck. In fact, some of these positions may require only a bachelor's degree, so you might be able to take the full-time job and go to school part time.

If you already have a master's degree, you certainly would want to check into the possibility of teaching part-time for a community college. If you're in a master's program, I would recommend you get some adjunct experience as soon as you can. The bottom line is that in fields like English and history, you must have some teaching experience (above and beyond being a teaching assistant) before you can even get your foot in the door for a face-to-face interview at a two-year college. Out of the 90 applicants for our history position, at least 30 or 40 had previous experience as adjunct, non-tenure-track, or tenure-track instructors. The humanities job market is too competitive to hope to get a position without having some experience in the classroom.

While you're at it, try to get some experience teaching distance-learning courses. If you have an opportunity to teach courses on the Internet or by interactive television, take it. Familiarize yourself with or WebCT, which are platforms for developing Internet courses. In fact, Blackboard allows instructors to build free Internet courses on their Web site, so even if you don't actually get to teach a distance-education course, you might use this service to enhance your own traditional course content. The very fact that you have used this technology may impress a hiring committee.

From what I've been able to discern, there is no correct answer to the question of whether community colleges prefer candidates with master's degrees or doctorates. It may be that colleges with some measure of prestige (those in large metropolitan areas, for instance) prefer to hire Ph.D.'s. On the other hand, a master's degree may be sufficient if you are a strong candidate with teaching experience, institutional and committee service, distance-learning expertise, and so forth.

My current institution has instructors with both master's degrees and doctorates. (I have a master's in English.) Sometimes, Ph.D.'s are just too pricey for cash-strapped institutions, but as far as your education is concerned, do what will make you happy.

If you're sure you want to teach at a community college, and not a four-year institution, you might consider getting two master's degrees instead of a doctorate, or at least getting 18 graduate semester hours in a second field. Community colleges often look favorably on people who can "wear several hats" and fill in any instructional gaps that might surface at the institution. Back in Alabama I had a friend who had an M.A. in English and significant graduate course work in art. She now teaches in both areas. Likewise, while I have an M.A. in English, I have around 21 semester hours in history and political science, and I taught several sections of "American National Government" in Alabama.

In future columns, I will discuss writing the application letter, going for the interview, and waiting for the results of the search.

Dana M. Zimbleman, an assistant professor of English at Jefferson College in Missouri, is writing a series of columns on how to go about searching for a community-college job.

Not What I Had in Mind
by Christine Rauchfuss Gray

Personal experiences on the job market

It took me about three years to get over my resistance to teaching at a community college. After the anxiety and genteel poverty of plowing through graduate school and the dissertation, I had sworn to myself that my student loan would be paid off by the salary I would earn from a position at a research university.

I was not about to hand over my teaching experience and scholarly expertise to the students at a two-year college. Once sequestered at a research university, I would, in my fantasy, have a relatively manageable schedule: I would be assigned a teaching load of two courses a semester. I would continue my research in African-American drama before 1930, attend conferences, hold intense discussions with my students, and eventually direct dissertations.

But what is the old saying? Man plans and God laughs. Such was my situation, nearly eight years ago now, when God laughed.

A friend had told me about the opening. I needed an income while I wrote my dissertation. The college, only 12 miles from my house, had a good reputation -- for a community college. It would be a temporary position, I thought. My colleagues who had ventured to universities in Ohio, Utah, and California would understand that my teaching at a community college was only for the money and only for a year or two. Besides, I was tired of being a gypsy scholar, teaching at various institutions to pay off that student loan. So I applied.

Because I didn't give much thought to what the search committee thought, I was calm and collegial during the interview. Consequently, the interview went very well. One interviewer, I remember, asked if I would leave the college once I had completed my doctorate. Because I needed money, I lied, assuring him that I had always dreamed of teaching at a community college. My plan, however, was to take those three letters -- Ph.D. -- to a "real" institution.

When the English department offered me the position, I immediately called several of my former graduate professors. Although wary and a bit protective of his junior scholar, my dissertation director advised me to consider my sense of the department and the people with whom I'd be working. He also suggested that I think about the quality of life I would have off campus. The main advantage was that I would be able to remain in Baltimore, a city in which I had become very comfortable. Searching for a university position would almost certainly mean I would have to move.

Other professors, however, told me directly that, if I took the position, I would have to explain at job interviews for university positions why I had been at a community college. Three years tops, I was told, was the length of time I should stay at a two-year college before I would be discredited by those working in my research area.

I had heard horror stories about working at a two-year college: I would live in servitude, teaching five sections of composition each semester to weak and indifferent students, sitting on numerous committees, and fighting off administrative interference in the classroom. I would have to be on campus five days a week, for nearly eight hours a day. My life would resemble that of an office worker.

It took only a year at the college to prove my expectations false. Although I did, and still do, have a five-five teaching load, it has not been the horror I anticipated. Granted, it can be intense, but I've become used to it. I've never been assigned to teach five composition courses in one semester; in fact, no one in our 20-member department has. Instead, I request, and usually get, my ideal schedule: two sections of developmental writing, two sections of writing about literature, and one section of descriptive grammar. No class has more than 20 to 25 students. Although I do spend a considerable amount of time marking papers, I am rarely on campus more than five hours a day.

My students also are not what I had expected. Some are the first in their families to attend college; some take two buses to campus after arranging caregivers for children and elderly parents. Most of them work to pay their tuition. If they drive, their cars are most often paid for with salaries from fairly menial jobs. Few are soft or spoiled by wealthy parents. Several are poor. Some are pregnant and unmarried; others have parents or partners in prison. One is a nightclub stripper. Academically they range from those who were Advanced Placement and honors students in high school to those who are still mystified by commas, let alone semicolons. Most are bright, good-natured, curious, and eager to learn. They seem driven in a way that I did not find in students at universities where I taught as an adjunct.

As would be the case with a position at any institution, I suppose, committees are a part of the package. I've found the ones I serve on, however, to be purposeful. Stuff does seem to happen as a result of committee work: students are tracked for their progress, outcomes assessments have been put into place, the Writing Center has been strengthened, the administrative structure has been revamped.

In the classroom, I do have autonomy. The department chairman does not monitor us; instead, he assumes that we are experienced teachers who know what we are doing. In disputes with students, he sides with the instructors.

In several ways, teaching at a community college differs from a university. We are hired for our ability to teach, to engage, to challenge-- not for our skill in research. When my book, Willis Richardson, Forgotten Father of African-American Drama (Greenwood Press, 1999) was published, the American Library Association wrote that it was an "outstanding academic book." My salary increase that year, however, was based more on my teaching evaluations and service than on my scholarly achievements.

Speaking of salary, mine is, I think, very good and comparable to that of colleagues at universities. I learned that I had been awarded tenure when a colleague congratulated me in the hallway one afternoon. I had no hand-wringing to endure.

My initial fear that my colleagues would be mediocre dissolved in my first few weeks at the college. Then and now, they are involved in completing dissertations, presenting papers at national conferences, and writing books and articles. I've found a truly collegial atmosphere, one without competition, departmental backbiting, and politics.

All is not rosy, of course. The college's library is not designed for scholarly research, at least not in early African-American drama. The Library of Congress is, however, only 35 miles away. Recently I was invited to be a member of a seminar at the National Endowment for the Humanities, where I will have a study carrel for 16 months. And I also have access to the library at the Johns Hopkins University, which is only seven blocks from my house.

Another downside is that I am not able to select the texts for my courses; instead, the department's textbook committee chooses five or so books from which we then choose our composition texts and literature anthologies. Occasionally, I would like to teach an upper-level elective course. Aside from the grammar course, all of the classes I teach are required, so at times students seem to resent having to take the class.

Perhaps the greatest conflict for me personally was how my colleagues in my discipline would regard me. Before my first semester at the community college, I had had a paper accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association. I attended the conference as a faculty member of the community college. I vividly recall covering my badge with a scarf during the entire conference. When some fellow researchers contacted me about what I was doing, I waffled, quickly dismissing my job at the college as temporary.

Over the past eight years, my dreams of teaching at a university have diminished. I realize that I am now, for the most part, out of that loop. But if by some miracle I were suddenly offered a teaching position at a research university, would I seize it?

I think not. At my community college, I realize daily, at times hourly, the immense importance of working with my students. I have learned that in many cases, they depend on the college to give them hope for a future, to add a structure and stability to their lives, to allow them to see that a change in their lives is possible. I see now that community colleges are not competing with universities or trying to be pseudo-universities; community colleges and universities are different animals, serving different populations and having different purposes.

It turns out I'm committed to the mission of community colleges and was all along. Through them, education is possible for those who might not otherwise attend college because of finances, poor academic performance, overlooked abilities by former instructors, and low self-confidence. Rather than theorize on race, class, and gender discrimination as I did in graduate seminars, I now encounter daily victims of it. Rather than leading a graduate seminar, as I had once dreamed of doing, I am in the trenches, and my work is valuable to me personally and, I believe, to those who enter my classes each day.

At times my students ask why I am teaching at a community college when I have a doctorate. That question troubled me for several years. Now I ask them, Why shouldn't I be?

Christine Rauchfuss Gray is an associate professor of English at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. She earned a Ph.D. in 1995 from the University of Maryland at College Park. She recently paid off her graduate-student loan.