Stepping-Stone?

by Rob Jenkins
Chronicle of Higher Education
Thursday, August 16, 2007

One consequence of the saturated academic market for Ph.D.'s, and the subsequent increase in their hiring at two-year colleges, is that a growing number of applicants have come to view openings at community colleges as stepping-stones to a position at a four-year institution.

That's probably a mistake.

In my experience, faculty members at two-year colleges rarely leave to take tenure-track jobs at four-year colleges. Moreover, such aspirations are generally pretty transparent to the easily disillusioned members of a community-college search committee -- a fact that could cost a candidate the job.

As I began listing the colleagues I know who have moved on to four-year institutions, I could think of, literally, only a handful. And that, in itself, should tell you something, because I've spent 20 years working at five different community colleges in four states, as a faculty member, department chairman, and dean.

One reason so few people make the leap is that there aren't a lot of faculty members at two-year colleges who actually want to leave. That may surprise you if you're one of those job seekers hungrily eyeing our market as a way to gain experience before "moving up."

Oh, sure, we all get frustrated with our jobs on occasion. And it's true, many of us who teach at two-year colleges didn't start out with that end in mind. Like a lot of you reading this, we once pictured ourselves relaxing in the faculty lounge at some prestigious research university.

But then we took jobs at community colleges -- perhaps because those were the only jobs offered, or because we fell into them, or because we too thought we would one day move up. But a funny thing happened: We learned to like working at a two-year college. We found we enjoyed the teaching, didn't miss the emphasis on publishing, and realized we were doing something good and worthwhile by helping those students who need us most.

Within a relatively short time (probably three to five years), we achieved tenure. Our salaries, though modest, at least rose steadily from year to year. We bought homes in the community and enrolled our children in the local schools. And one day we realized, a bit sadly perhaps, but mostly with relief, that we weren't going anywhere.

That's the condensed life story, I daresay, of many, and perhaps most, faculty members at two-year colleges.

Of course, some of us do try to leave, either because we have become disenchanted with the teaching load, we want to devote more time to research, or we had that plan all along. Unfortunately, very few of us succeed in moving on to the four-year level -- mostly because we can't.

A basketball coach who had been highly successful in the "junior college" ranks for many years once told me he wished he had made the move to a four-year institution after his first or second season. By the midpoint in his career, he said, he had been definitively labeled as a "JUCO guy," and despite his winning record, no four-year college would even consider hiring him.

I think the same thing happens to most faculty members. Once we start teaching at a two-year college, we get pigeonholed as "community-college material," and most four-year institutions don't consider people with that background as serious candidates. Part of the problem may be that we don't have the research credentials that many four-year colleges are looking for, having spent so much of our time teaching.

But mostly it's just bias on the part of the four-year institutions.

In fact, the only colleagues I've known who have made the jump ended up at small liberal-arts colleges that also emphasize teaching over research. I've never actually known anyone who went from a two-year college straight into a research institution. I'm sure they're out there, though, and I'll probably get e-mail messages from several of them.

The rarity of such a move makes it impractical to go into your job search with the idea of using a two-year college as a stepping-stone. Moreover, doing so can be positively counterproductive because search committees at community colleges will pick up on that mind-set very quickly and will almost certainly resent it.

Think about it: You're implying by your attitude that what's good enough for the committee members somehow isn't good enough for you. Even if that's true, there's no way you can expect them not to be offended.

That attitude makes itself known in a number of ways: by the points you choose to dwell on in your application materials and during the interview (focusing on your dissertation topic, for instance); by the questions you ask (about time and support for research); and by your ignorance of the community-college work environment, which smacks of both arrogance and laziness ("Couldn't she at least have spent a little time browsing our Web site?" committee members will ask themselves). Clearly, that kind of first impression isn't going to help you land a job at our college.

So if you really want to teach at a four-year institution but plan to apply at two-year colleges as well -- perhaps because there are so many of them and you need a job -- at least put up a good front when compiling your application materials and (if you're lucky) during the interview. Take time to learn about community colleges, our mission, our culture, our jargon. Some of my previous columns can help with that. http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/the_twoyear_track

And if, in the end, you're fortunate enough (or unfortunate enough, depending on your point of view) to get a job at a community college, there are several things you must do if you hope to move on to a four-year campus.

First, make your move within the first three years. Remember the basketball coach I mentioned earlier? It may be true that the day you accept a job at a two-year college, you become tainted in the minds of many faculty members and administrators at four-year campuses. However, there's no question that the longer you stay, the more permanently affixed the community-college label will be.

Second, maintain an aggressive research and publishing agenda. Every colleague I have ever known who got an interview at a four-year college or university had a solid record of publishing scholarly articles in refereed journals. Several had books. And they accomplished all of that while teaching five courses a semester, keeping 10 office hours a week, serving on numerous committees, and advising dozens of students.

Understand that the community college will probably give you very little in terms of tangible support for your research (read: time and money). Your superiors probably won't mind that you're doing research -- as long as it's on your own time. But don't expect them to be too excited that you just published a piece in the Journal of Such-and-Such or that your new book is coming out next spring.

The key phrase is "on your own time." Whatever you do in the way of research and publishing will have to be done outside the time you already put into teaching and other duties. And it will have to be done largely at your own expense. But if you ever want to teach at a four-year institution, it's vital that you carry on with your scholarship.

Finally, don't neglect your teaching. Remember that most faculty members at two-year colleges who make the jump end up at small liberal-arts colleges that emphasize teaching. Even if you're hoping to land a job at a research university, your teaching record will still be an important factor. In fact, if you've been teaching five courses a semester for three years, that experience is probably one of the best things you've got going for you.

So devote the time and energy needed to do a good job in the classroom. Work hard to earn outstanding evaluations from department chairs, peer observers, and students. Strive to be worthy of the college's teaching awards, and talk to your chair about nominating you. The effort is bound to pay off, both during your search for a four-year job and (meanwhile) as you move toward tenure at the two-year college.

If you're willing to do everything I've listed -- teach five courses in award-winning fashion, advise students, serve on committees, keep office hours, and oh, by the way, energetically pursue your research and publish regularly -- you just might get the opportunity to step up into a tenure-track position at a four-year college.

Then again, who knows? You may already have stepped into your ideal job without even knowing it.



Rob Jenkins is an associate professor of English and director of the Writers Institute at Georgia Perimeter College. He writes occasionally for our community-college column.