The Two-Year Track

What Community Colleges Want: Advice for candidates on what hiring committees are searching for in a faculty member

By Rob Jenkins
Chronicle of Higher Education
October 13, 2008

Let me follow up my ambitious title with a disclaimer: I don't pretend to speak for every two-year college in America, nor do I claim to know exactly what all 1,195 of them are looking for in a faculty member.

On the other hand, I have spent my entire career at community colleges 22 years, to be exact, at five different institutions in four states. I've been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member, a program director, a department head, and a dean. I've served on at least a dozen faculty search committees (honestly, I've lost track), chairing about half of them. And I've been a regular contributor to "The Two-Year Track" series in The Chronicle for almost six years now.

So I think I have a pretty fair idea of what two-year colleges are looking for when they conduct a faculty search, as many are doing right now. And if you are thinking about applying to community colleges, or have already done so, you probably want to know what you're up against. Based on my experience, I think search committees are seeking five characteristics, two of which I'll cover in this column, and the other three next month.

First and foremost, search committees are looking for candidates who are clearly qualified for the position advertised. If you're not clearly qualified in a way that is both well documented and easy to demonstrate the committee probably won't even consider you.

I've actually heard candidates say, when deciding whether to apply for a particular teaching position, "Well, I might not exactly meet the requirements, but I think I'll throw my hat in the ring, anyway." And they honestly think the search committee will somehow see that they're perfect for the job, or at least they believe they can make a good argument in their cover letter.

That's not going to work. The first step in any search process is to weed out those applicants who don't meet the minimum qualifications so committee members won't have to waste any more time than necessary reviewing the files.

If that sounds harsh, consider this: The last time I chaired a search committee in English, we received 174 applications. As chair, I conducted the first review and was able to eliminate about 25 people who weren't qualified, based on the original job ad. Then the rest of the committee members only had to look at 150 files, saving a fair amount of grief and wasted time.

Being clearly qualified to teach at a two-year college means that you meet the specified degree and credit-hour requirements. Usually you must have, at minimum, a master's degree and 18 graduate-semester hours in the teaching discipline. And you must have the transcripts to prove it.

Your degree must be in the field specified unless the ad expressly stipulates "or related field." You might think, for instance, that your master's in psychology qualifies you to teach firstand second-year sociology courses, and you may, in fact, be more than able to teach those courses. But don't expect search-committee members to reach the same conclusion, or even to give the matter much thought. If the ad calls for a sociology instructor, the committee is almost certainly looking for someone with a degree in sociology.

The exceptions to that rule: Committees intent on hiring a particular candidate a loyal, long-term adjunct or an administrator's nephew may be willing to overlook certain requirements. In addition, committees hiring in disciplines in which they must compete for good candidates might also make exceptions, as might small colleges that need someone who can teach in more than one field.

Being qualified also means proving that you have the necessary years of experience. Most job ads call for at least a year of teaching experience, some for two or three. Some specify "full-time experience," but many don't. A few even provide a formula for equating part-time experience to full time a certain number of courses equals a year's worth of teaching. This is one area you might be able to fudge a bit, but you have to be close. Search-committee members aren't stupid (contrary to what you might think in a few months, after you've received a rejection letter or two).

The bottom line: If you clearly fall short in either area credit hours in the discipline or amount of experience you probably won't be able to talk your way around that deficiency in a cover letter (although many try). Better to wait until you are qualified, then apply.

After determining who meets the minimum requirements and who doesn't, the next thing search committees look for in reviewing the applicants is good teachers. Very good teachers. Because, as has been discussed ad infinitum in a variety of forums, including this one, teaching is what a faculty career at a community college is all about.

How can search committees determine whether someone is a good teacher simply by looking at an application? The answer is that they can't always. But every candidate's file contains a number of textual clues.

The obvious indicator years of teaching experience is, perhaps, not the most important one. Those of us on search committees also look at the institutions where a candidate has taught community-college experience is always a plus and even at the types of courses listed.

Perhaps most telling is the emphasis that applicants place on teaching in their cover letters. Letters in which candidates give lengthy (and often tedious) summaries of their theses or dissertations are not uncommon. Letters in which the writers speak glowingly of their teaching experiences and accomplishments in the classroom are much rarer.

On this issue I can safely say I'm speaking for all 1,195 community colleges: We want the best teachers we can find.

Next month: What else are community colleges looking for in a faculty member? Here's a glimpse: We want candidates who understand and embrace the community-college mission, who are worker bees, and who are good colleagues.

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. If you would like to write about on any aspect of finding jobs at two-year colleges, getting promoted, or doing the jobs, we would like to hear from you. Send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of previous columns in this series, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/the_twoyear_track