The Right Resources for the Job You Want: Preparing for a Career at a Community College

time by stafanos papachristou under CC BY 2.0.

By Amanda Lerner

Time is a valuable commodity in graduate school. We all have competing obligations and opportunities, and the question of how to use our time to best prepare for the next stage of our careers is a critical one.

Time was a recurring theme when the Connected Academics proseminar cohort visited LaGuardia Community College in January 2017 to meet with faculty members about making the transition from PhD student to community college professor.  The faculty members, most of whom were housed in the English and ESL departments, were fulfilled in their jobs and thrilled to be at a place like LaGuardia, which allows them to serve an extraordinarily diverse student population. But they also made it clear that  time was a finite and precious commodity—even more precious than it is for graduate students. I came to realize that there is a significant disconnect between how graduate students are encouraged to spend their time producing scholarship and making connections in their field—especially at a place like Yale, where I’m  studying Russian literature—and what is necessary to land a job at an institution such as LaGuardia.

It didn’t surprise me to learn that instructors at community colleges teach a lot. They have a heavier teaching load and larger class sizes than you find in most research universities and small liberal arts colleges. Community college instructors certainly continue to do research and produce scholarship, but the focus of their careers is the classroom.

What did surprise me, however, was hearing that a PhD and a few years’ experience as a TA would not sufficiently prepare me for a position at a community college. In particular, the panelists emphasized that I would need a much broader range of teaching experiences to be a successful applicant for community college jobs. Many of our panelists found adjunct positions while still in graduate school. This occasionally involved subterfuge, since graduate students are often actively discouraged, or even prohibited by university policy, from teaching outside their departments. But all the panelists were certain that without this extra teaching, they would never have landed the jobs they eventually did.

I realized as I listened to the panelists talk about their career paths that to gain the necessary experience, I would have to reexamine the resources available to me at Yale and in my larger community and consider how to spend my remaining time in graduate school. After our visit, I decided to diverge from the normal course of my program and teach an online course as the instructor of record (a vital experience for community college professor applications).

The most critical piece of advice for graduate students interested in careers at community colleges is therefore quite straightforward: teach, teach, and then teach some more! Focus especially on opportunities to be the instructor of record. In addition to this, the panelists shared a few other pieces of advice.

    • Develop your statement of teaching philosophy carefully and thoughtfully. Your teaching philosophy should not boil down to “I love teaching.” You should be able not only to demonstrate what pedagogical theories you use in the classroom and why but also, ideally, to show growth in your students’ records. Pedagogy is a research field, and, while it might not be your research field, you should demonstrate familiarity with it.
    • Leverage the MLA convention to network and find out more about different types of careers. For instance, Tara Coleman, a former Connected Academics proseminar fellow who is now an assistant professor of English at LaGuardia, reminded us that the MLA convention is one of the most comprehensive resources available to us as job seekers. After attending a panel centered on community college opportunities, Coleman retooled her CV and statement of teaching philosophy to better showcase her teaching skills.
    • Do your research on community college teaching, which is unfortunately often presented as a fallback for graduate students who do not find a position at a four-year institution. As our panelists made clear, teaching at a community college is an entirely different career path, and one that needs to be chosen consciously and deliberately. If you want to teach at a community college, that passion should come through in your application.

It would, of course, be helpful if graduate programs became more flexible in allowing students to manage their time in ways that make sense to them—for instance, letting students take on extra teaching or different types of teaching. However, graduate students should not wait for those changes to happen. Students need to take charge of managing their most valuable resource—their time—in ways that best prepare them for their careers.

Amanda LernerAmanda Lerner is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University. She specializes in science fiction as both a genre and a mode. Her dissertation, tentatively titled “In Dialogue with the Future: Time Travel in Soviet and Post-Soviet Russian Fiction,” focuses on how a traditionally generic device such as time travel can complicate and supercede the generic distinction of “science fiction.” She uses time travel as a means to explore the creation, and ultimate destruction, of the Soviet identity. In addition to writing, researching, and cuddling with her dog, Amanda works at the McDougal Center for Graduate Student Life, where, as a graduate student life fellow, she coordinates events for the graduate and professional student community at Yale.