Sunday, July 27, 2008

Physics Jobs - Part 5 (Community Colleges)

Unlike my other articles on jobs, this one, addressing what is required to get a job at a Community College, contains almost nothing that is specific to physics. That alone says something significant about the difference between the things you need to do to get a job at a CC and the sorts of things I examined in part 4 - where I looked at what tenure standards at universities implied about what you needed to do to make yourself look like a candidate who is likely to meet those standards as well as fit into a particular open niche in a department.

Here I look specifically at the rather different expectations you must satisfy if you want a job at a Community College and have a successful career there. My perspective is from someone who teaches physics to future engineers and has a close working relationship with people who teach chemistry and mathematics, but the differences between what goes on here and on the other side of the campus are much MUCH smaller than they are at a university.

Up front I want to direct your attention to the list of resources at the bottom of this article. Two in particular, the comments solicited by a CC Dean and the postings in the Two Year Track at the Chronicle, are a must read for anyone interested in working at a Community College.

Although I have lots of notes from my initial plan for this article (back in 2007), I'm going to start with my response to an inquiry I got this past year, one that is probably way too typical of how graduate students start looking for a permanent job. That is, they start thinking about their career a few months before graduation. [The failure to prepare for a job search one or two years in advance was also the implicit theme of my remarks in part 4 of this series.]

Letter from a Grad Student

What follows is a heavily paraphrased version of a letter I got from a physics graduate student who was within a month or so of finishing his MS degree:

I came to graduate school [at Wannabe Flagship] with the goal of working at a teaching college after graduating with a thesis-based Masters degree.
I could use some advice on how to get work as a physics or math instructor at a community college with a tenure-track CC job as my eventual goal.

Before I get down to specific advice, I'll list my immediate reactions (none of which were in my e-mail reply to the actual letter I got) as a list of bullets:
  • Why would you do a thesis Masters if you want a teaching job? The only people who care about research are 4-year schools that are unlikely to look at someone with an MS degree.
  • You could have looked into doing some teaching-related research along the lines of a Science Ed study, something like active learning, workshop physics, blogging about homework, whatever.
  • You can't simply teach math at a CC because you know how to do math at a very high level, you have to have 18 hours of graduate credit in mathematics. You actually might have better luck getting a job teaching math in high school than in college.
  • I didn't see any mention of teaching experience at Wannabe Flagship, where it is easy to teach a lab or recitation section without the minimum degree and hours that are necessary to be the instructor of record at a CC.
  • I am pretty sure you never contacted us about teaching a class, or I would have heard about it from my chair. You need some teaching experience.
  • Are you sure you're not getting an MS because you failed the PhD qualifying exam? Going to Wannabe Flagship for a teaching masters does not pass the smell test unless something has really changed there.
Someone with teaching as a career goal and a decent mentor would never have written the e-mail I got.

Community Colleges are Different

Really different. So different that you are unlikely to get any useful advice, any at all, from a professor at a PhD-granting university on how to get a job here. You might get some useful advice if you are working on a Masters at an MS-only university, because teaching is part of the mission there, but it will be fairly limited unless the person you are talking to can answer "yes" to the following litmus-test question: "Did you have to give a sample lecture on a specified topic or be observed teaching a class as part of your interview?"

We don't advertise in Physics Today. We don't have the budget for it. Our ad will run in the Chronicle of Higher Education. (Did you even know that newspaper exists?) You might have to dig to find it in the print version, but the on-line ads are searchable by job type. Our ad will only appear in one or two issues, usually early enough in the fall to have an application deadline in December.

We expect you to actually demonstrate that you can teach. Not only that, we are more impressed if your sample class looks like something you could prepare for two or three different classes every day of the week for three months than a dog-and-pony show just for us. One person practically got the job on the spot when he just picked up the chalk and did it, without any notes at all. Another was dead meat when he gave a talk using PowerPoint slides directly off of a textbook CD and actually read them to us. Ditto for one who had some really nice animations of magical algebra that would have taken an entire day to develop for one half of one class, not leaving much time to prep for the other half of that class or the other classes to be taught that day, let alone grading papers. We will ask questions during your class, questions we know our students will ask. Be ready for anything, and answer those questions seriously. And it does not hurt if you are actually enthusiastic when teaching your class.

The person we are looking for will be still be enthusiastic teaching the class for the 40th time as they were the first time. You better not look bored the first time.

Our student body is different. Questions about how to reach different types of learners or engage a diverse student population are not just throw away questions included on our list to keep some Office of Politically Diverse Correctness happy. Not at all. Every one of us is concerned about this topic because we struggle with it every day. At nearby Wannabe Flagship, the black students are as likely to be middle or upper-middle class as the white students. Few of their freshmen are single mothers or refugees from Haiti or the horn of Africa. Few of their white students work to support themselves or hold a full-time job. One size definitely does not fit all here, and we expect a well-thought out answer to that question.

It really helps if you have taught at a CC or attended a CC at some point in the past, or have taught in a similar environment (high school or an open admissions college). It really helps if you have several stories that give examples of things you have done that worked for different kinds of students.

We don't care about research. At all. Your five publications mean no more than the fifty papers I published or the zero publications our department chair has when it comes to teaching. No one is impressed by your publications. No one gets promoted for doing research. We would only be interested if that research has something to do with teaching or if you have actually involved a typical CC sophomore (think first semester freshman at a university) in your work, but even that is secondary to teaching.

You don't want to do or say anything that gives even the faintest impression that you find research more interesting than teaching or that you are settling for a teaching institution because you can't find a job you would really like to have. We want to hear about specific techniques from the research into physics education that you have tried, and how they worked for you, and what you did to improve the next time.

Our pay system is different. Our system is definitely equal pay for equal work. You will not see the disparity between male and female faculty that show up at research universities. Same rank, same experience, same pay. It may sound like a union contract, but it isn't. (It has more in common with how K-12 systems work.) You can learn more by reading Dean Dad's column about
negotiating your starting salary and the many cogent comments. The only thing you can really negotiate at our college is credit for experience. We only count classes taught as the primary instructor on a fairly full-time or half-time basis in the field you will be working in.

Our work load is different. We teach. A lot. And we have more office hours. You may see the terminology 5/5 used, which means 5 classes in the fall and 5 classes in the spring. A "class" is normally defined as a MWF 50 minute class or a Tu-Th 75 minute class with 30 something students in it. We do offer larger classes, because our college is big enough that it makes sense to have someone teach one gen-ed bio lecture to 70 students instead of two classes of 35. However, those three hours not in class end up as extra office hours, not time working on your tan. (We trade the lack of active learning in such a situation for the efficiency of meeting the demand at specific times within our space limitations. Students who prefer a smaller class still have that option and the ones in the big class have more options to see you in the office.) Unlike a university, where one office hour per week is common, you are likely to see 10 to 15 office hours on our schedules.

In my department, where labs are part of the load, the relevant measure is 15 contact hours in class. Our labs, like our composition classes, have fewer students than a regular class, which helps make up for the heavier grading load. We also might have fewer office hours as a result. The best way to find out about our teaching load without sounding lazy is to inquire about how we assign classes, although that is usually taken up by the Dean during that part of the interview. Ditto for time of day, since we have faculty that teach only in the late afternoon and evening and others who teach bright and early at 8 AM. We have quite a few f-t faculty teaching at night.

And, of course, there is also service. At our college, community service is considered as important as serving on a committee. Some faculty spend time as mentors or tutors. It even counts if you help out at your kid's school.

Minimum Expectations

Our teaching emphasis shows up from the very start of the application process. You would do well to notice the "odd" things we ask for and take them extremely seriously. We will reject out of hand any application that does not include all of the items listed in the job advertisement. We have tolerated one or two where it was possible to interpret a sentence in the cover letter as having addressed that item, but the "cannot follow directions" cluelessness flag meant it did not go past the initial screening phase. Similarly, a very low score on one of those items will likely keep you out of the second phase of the search.

Your CV should be redesigned with teaching in mind. Do not lead with your research experience and goals. Lead with your teaching experience and goals. Present your research and publication record as indicative of the breadth of knowledge you will bring to the classroom to add to what might be in a textbook about quarks or integrated circuits or genetic engineering.

We will ask you about your teaching philosophy. We will expect a well-thought-out essay that does not run much past one page. Remember, we might be reading 50 or 100 of these, so you need to get our attention with specifics, not boilerplate. If we don't ask for a separate statement about dealing with under-represented groups (a big issue for math or science at the CC level, because most of our students fall in that category) or different learning styles, you should include a paragraph on how you have dealt successfully with each of these in your previous teaching experience. The same comments apply to using technology in the classroom. Hint 1: See comments above about PowerPoint lectures as viewed by people who teach math or physics. Similar remarks may not apply to organic chemistry or history, but you must demonstrate active engagement when you use that tool in your sample lecture. Hint 2: If you say you use technology toward a certain end, you had better use it that way in your sample class.

We may ask for a sample course syllabus or an abbreviated teaching portfolio. All colleges and universities have fairly strong policies about what needs to be covered in a syllabus, both as a legalistic framework (for grade appeals) and as a teaching tool. If we ask for this, it will play a major role in our initial evaluation of your teaching and will be discussed in your interview. If we don't ask for it, it may be addressed in your sample teaching exercise. Attention to detail here (or lack thereof) is a sure sign of how much someone has been involved in the actual nuts and bolts of teaching at the CC level. If you have applied for a position at a PhD institution, you might recognize this as the teaching version of a research proposal. Take it just as seriously. Like a research proposal, it is often the difference between interview and no interview.

Even if we don't ask for a portfolio, including an appendix with a sample lesson plan, active learning exercises, sample quiz, etc (ideally including the lesson you will teach if you interview and the ones that come before or after it) is not a waste of your time. Just don't overdo it in terms of volume since we won't look at it until the interview unless we specifically asked for it up front. But don't bring it with you to the interview. We have enough to do without dealing with new information. Our homework will have been done by that point.

Your letters of recommendation need to mention teaching. A set of canned letters about research efforts suitable for an R1 job will count for very little when we read them.

Closing Comments

Be sure you understand the minimum requirements for the job. These are dictated by the accrediting agency, as I explained in the "minimum requirements" section toward the bottom of an earlier article in this series. There I gave links to the relevant policies of one regional accrediting organization. You might also look at this article by Two Year Track for a fairly detailed discussion. We will literally count graduate hours on the official transcript to decide if you meet those standards. This means you need 18 semester hours of graduate math classes and 18 semester hours of graduate physics classes if you want to teach both math and physics at a CC. You also need a Masters degree, but that could be an MA in education. The field of the degree does not matter. Coursework matters.

We expect the same requirements for an adjunct, hence my comments about getting early experience teaching labs or recitations at a university where you are not instructor of record (and thus don't have to meet this requirement). That won't count as experience toward higher pay, but it will count as teaching experience and will help you get appropriate letters of recommendation when you apply here as an adjunct or for a f-t job.

Diversity can help. Astronomy and physics are covered by the same set of rules, and there is a fair bit of demand for people to teach a really basic (no mathematics, very little in the way of numbers that can't be memorized) astronomy class or two along with physics. Or physics along with many astronomy classes. If you are interested in teaching that subject, pick up a grad class in the area to help your CV and/or get some teaching experience in a Stars for Actors class.

For additional insight into the competition, take a look at the statistics in this article from IHE. These are faculty at Masters-level institutions where both teaching and research matter. Just look at the line for "articulate a teaching philosophy". The ones who are weak in that area might not have gotten a job at a CC because the research talk at an MS school won't make up for that weakness. You can see the change that results from experience, and learning from that experience. That will help you get a job at a teaching institution.

My Experience

I have served on several search committees at this CC and have participated informally in some others. (Any faculty member is welcome to attend the sample teaching exercise, which is public, and I have attended all of them for some job searches in math that impacted on the course I teach. I wanted to know what they were looking for and what they had to choose from.) I have also served on a search committee for a research faculty position and was an active, but not voting, participant in another search at an R1. Finally, I have been on the other side of searches at both a CC (this one) and universities (one of which I turned down). [If you did not know it, we are trying to be sure you will like our college enough to take our job if offered while sorting out who we want to make that offer to.]


Highly Informative Resources:

I highly recommend Dean Dad's summary of suggestions for someone seeking a CC job. You should read the comments there as well, and also read the comments on the IHE version and many comments initially offered in response to his Blog Beg on that subject.

There are some other good resources at Inside Higher Education. The Megan Pincus Kajitani (blogging in Mama PhD) writes about community college careers in response to a question to the "Career Coach" from someone still in grad school. That might make a good counterpoint to my observations and those in Dean Dad's blob.

Everything written in the Two Year Track essays at the Chronicle for Higher Education is relevant. Much of what Ms Mentor writes is also highly relevant.

I recommend looking at all of the articles archived in the CHE career news and advice section every week or so. One of those articles was an excellent column specifically on seeking a CC job.

Two older columns about the job interview process (from 2006 and 2004) plus one about discussing your approach to teaching are particularly good. Also look for any articles from the CV doctor. Badly designed CVs are a big problem for CC jobs.

Finally, Chad Orzel wrote a very nice column on what they look for (or look to avoid) when hiring faculty at a small liberal arts college. I strongly recommend it as a detailed description of what they look for at a 4-year school that has a teaching emphasis. Much of that applies to a CC, particularly when it comes to connecting research to teaching a freshman class.

PS -
This pretty much wraps up the priority items on my list of things to do this summer after my first-year retrospective, although there is at least one more to go.


mister Ivy said...

Wow, this is an impressive list of demands! What are the actual perks that go along with such a job?

Otherwise this is like paying a Ferrari price for "Geo Metro". Just work work work with nothing in return ...

Chris Lawrence said...

"Unlike a university, where one office hour per week is common, you are likely to see 10 to 15 office hours on our schedules."

I think you're painting with a very broad brush here; most of the 4-year institutions I've applied for jobs at have office hour expectations on the order of 6-10 hours per week. Maybe tenured faculty can get away with an hour a week, but it would raise eyebrows for anyone untenured (except someone on a 0-credit semester) to have so few hours.

Doctor Pion said...

Chris, that is the difference between a CC and a 4-year, and one of many reasons I say a CC is "completely different".

There is more of a continuum from top R1 (1/1 or 1/0 load with 1 office hour for the 150 students in your lecture where tenure requires a major grant and an international reputation) to those with some research and more teaching to those with a 3/3 or 4/4 load and 6-10 office hours - but possibly with a research requirement. There is a distinct jump to a CC. The only people at our college with fewer than 10 office hours are ones who spend more than 15 hours in the classroom, like teaching studio art.

Mr Ivy must be under the illusion that you never have to work to earn money. Even an R1 prof has to work hard for the first 7 years before retiring in place for the next 33.

My reason for listing those requirements is to help interested candidates with the 1 in 20 to 1 in 50 odds of getting a job at a CC. Compared to the effort required to earn a PhD, those reflect a relatively minor additional effort.

What do you get? Apart from the joy of seeing students grow and succeed, we get a total health care package, a fairly generous defined benefit retirement plan, and a salary that is in the 4th quartile for all jobs - and the summer off. Not what you get at an R1, but not bad either.

Besides, I don't think I can put a price on seeing a former student featured in Time magazine or seeing one place highly in a national competition.