More Than a Plan B: Advice on Applying to Community Colleges

By Tara Coleman

Community college jobs are often considered alternative careers, even though they involve research and teaching in higher education. This says something about the challenges that a newly minted PhD might face when applying to such a job.  It’s important that an applicant not come across as if this is a backup plan; at the same time, they must recognize the real differences between two-year schools and the four-year research institution they’re coming from and demonstrate their potential to succeed in that environment.

As with any sector of higher education, there is a lot of diversity among community colleges, but in what follows, I will share some of the ways in which I attempted to find the balance between these competing demands in the hiring process that led to my current job as an Assistant Professor at LaGuardia Community College in the City University of New York.

Rather early-on in my doctoral program, I started exploring all of my career options, in part because I knew the realities of the job market and in part because I realized that it was teaching that really inspired me to get out of bed in the morning. I considered several possibilities while working on my dissertation, such as community colleges, independent high schools, high school-early college programs and administrative positions. The Connected Academics Proseminar opened up some new options for me, such as working in an instructional support role.

Ultimately, the proseminar helped me realize that I wanted to be an innovative educator, and to work in an institution with a strong social justice component to its mission. Thinking in these terms was immensely helpful for me when I went on the job market. When I applied for community colleges, I was not doing so with the idea that these jobs were my “plan B,” as I might have done a few years earlier; rather, I was applying with the view that these jobs were a perfect fit for my interests and skills.

There are several ways in which I used my application materials to show that I was both prepared and eager to do the work I was applying to do. First, it is essential to know that everyone in a community college puts students first. Although I am required to publish and given support to do so, teaching occupies by far the largest portion of my time and energy. In my cover letter and especially in the interview, I emphasized how I felt my training in Comparative Literature and Chinese studies had prepared me to teach composition and literature courses in an English department. In the application process, I learned that when writing about teaching, it is important to be specific, giving examples and evidence of your adaptability. How do you assess the effectiveness of your pedagogy and how do you modify it when necessary? Abstract philosophies about teaching are great, but in a community college, you never know who your students are going to be, and you need to be able to adapt your plans to fit the class in front of you.

If you don’t have a lot of teaching experience yet, teaching even one or two classes in a community college would be an ideal way to get relevant experience and see if the environment is a good fit for you. I found that teaching different types of classes in different formats (such as online, intensive summer session, and so on) helped me to consider my teaching from different angles before applying for jobs. At the same time, I found that having taught the same class several times gave me the chance to test out different strategies so that I could talk about what worked and why in my pedagogy.

In addition, service is extremely important in a community college. Professors in my college plan student engagement events, mentor student clubs, participate in college-wide assessment, and lead faculty development seminars, among many other things. In my applications, I emphasized my involvement in extra-curricular activities during graduate school. I had always wanted to get involved in student affairs or administration at some point, so I talked about my training in administrative leadership and my interest in student advising. I wanted to demonstrate that I would treat such work as part of my educational mission and professional development goals, not as an unwelcome distraction from my research.

Lastly, as in any job search, it is important to know the mission of the college, its curriculum, and the culture of the department. The student body and the faculty in my college are incredibly diverse, so I knew it was important to talk about my experience studying and working in diverse institutions. I also highlighted my time spent teaching abroad and working with second-language learners, since 60% of our students are foreign-born. Having heard about the importance of collegiality to the department, I addressed that point directly in my cover letter and mentioned my various efforts to create community and continuity among graduate students in my doctoral program.

Most importantly, I would say that if you don’t yet have a lot of familiarity with community colleges, start by talking to someone who works in the institution you are applying to, or one similar to it. Think carefully about whether it truly is a good fit for you, and be able to show that you understand and value what they do there. Like almost everything in academia, community college jobs are highly competitive, so many of the same strategies one would apply to a “traditional” job search apply here too. We are part of the same higher education system, after all.

Tara ColemanTara Coleman is an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. She received her PhD in comparative literature from Rutgers University in 2016. Her dissertation used poetic and film theories from various Chinese and Western sources to analyze how lyricism becomes the formal basis for an alternative historicism in contemporary film and poetry from mainland China and Taiwan. Previously, she completed an MPhil in English literary studies with a comparative focus at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In conjunction with her experience teaching English as a second language, her broader research interests include translation, world literature and world cinema, and questions of transnationalism, especially the dialogues these areas of inquiry open up among scholars, artists, and their audiences.