Tales From 3 Searches

An anonymous faculty member describes the realities of the process at community colleges -- and critiques search committees.
June 15, 2011

I thought I would share my job search experiences of the last three seasons, dispel some general myths about the process, and give some take-it-or-leave-it advice. (It goes without saying that my identity, discipline, and post-prospective employers will not be given, because while my search is no longer ongoing, I’m on the tenure track and I ain’t rockin’ that boat.)

I suppose the best place to start is with the cover letter, but it leads quickly to tales from the interview rounds.

Many sources tell prospective candidates that they should tailor their cover letter to each prospective institution. This advice is a pain, time-consuming, and largely bunk. I actually got more responses and offers for interviews on the untailored versions of my letter than the tailored ones. I had a form and would simply change the name of the institution. The first season, I received 6 interview offers, be it in person or on the phone, out of 18 applications, (six searches were canceled for economic reasons, so 6 for 12): the second season, 8 out of 25 (I lost track of the economic cancellations); third season, 4 for 10. (By the way, I think these numbers are quite good, given that at the interviews, I was told that each of these positions received 100 to 200 applications and the candidate pool was "quite strong.")

My interviews were a mixed bag. Some went exceedingly well, though I walked out of one, because the committee was quite rude (and I paid my way -- cross-country-- to it!). Two of the other offers for interviews required that I pay my way; I declined one of them.

The first year, I was a finalist for two positions and was beaten, both times, by candidates who hold Ph.D.s (I only hold a master’s). Frankly, I would have hired them over me, because they were quite good. Putting things together, the first year I was offered six interviews, went to five; I was a finalist for two positions; two other interviews went well, but left me scratching my head, because I never heard from them again, and one institution … well, you couldn’t pay me enough to have those people as my colleagues, jerks! The second year, I received eight interview offers, four via phone, four in-person, (and I declined one) and I was a finalist for one position. This third year, I was hired pretty early, so I only went to two interviews, and declined two interviews after I accepted a position. (Whew.)

What I take the above information as saying is that I might be a rotten tailor of cover letters, or an abysmal interviewee, or there is something systemically right/wrong in my materials, or there is no telling what/who community colleges want. With so many disjunctions, I think the safest route for a community college job search is to display the specifics about you, rather than match yourself to a particular institution. If they see something they like, they will call. Don’t kill yourself with endless revisions tailored to each institution. If you are like me and applying to positions all over the country, a rather untailored cover letter with specifics about you will get you in the door. But if you are dead-set on one institution in your area, knock yourself out. My advice: unless they give specific guidelines to address, give the institution a nod, but not much more.

So, back to the cover letter. Although I did give some specifics about myself in the cover letter, most of the information was couched in more general community college issues. I discussed how I would teach college-level content to remedial students and students with diverse learning styles. I discussed what makes community colleges so important, their role, and how I incorporate technology into my courses. And importantly, I showed why diversity is important and my experience teaching to diverse student populations.

As well, I included the good old boilerplate of my education and teaching experience. So, the following should be in your punchy and succinct cover letter: your education, your teaching experience and method, role of the community college, diversity, and mention how you deal with remedial students. Also in your letter, be sure to give and discuss a specific assignment that seems to hit everything. (Committees and administrators told me they loved my cover letter and liked the specifics I gave.) Elaborate on the specifics and do not be shy about being too detailed or tooting your own horn a bit. I did. (But then, look at all my rejections, so don’t listen to me.)

Now, about those interviews. What are you going to be asked? Excuse my venting, but here comes the first question (except for at that one place … by the way, they never filled the position that year): "Why do you want to teach at X Community College?" What I wish I could answer is: "I need a job. I applied, and you called me; what do you want to know?"

I’m sick of this question. If a search committee is listening, this question is condescending and is not a softball question to get the interview process going. This question is loaded with potential pitfalls. Here is one: your community college may not be much different from any other. We job-hunters have limited resources for finding out the specifics of your institution. Your mission statement and outcome statements, website, and what not, are basically similar to all the other community colleges out there. (You value diversity, you are student-centered, you are involved in the community, you reach nontraditional students … I get it.) Hence, by asking this question, you are asking us to give you an untailored generic and general response, or we might tell you that we like the location: either answer sucks. Might I propose instead that you give us an anecdote or some context about the college? Say something like, "We have project Y going on, what do you think of it?" Please don’t make it too outlandish, because it is the first question and our nerves are frazzled already.

For the rest of the interview, in no particular order, you are going to be asked roughly the following questions: the diversity question, the different learning styles question, the technology question, the "strength/weakness" question, the unruly/troubled student question, the “greatest challenge” question, and the role of your discipline at a community college. These are the big hits and if you score a phone interview first, you will more than likely only get these. Some of the "B-sides" are: your possible contribution to X CC, your possible contributions to Y Department, your favorite course to teach and why, last book that you read, what books are you thinking of using, what are your plans for the next five years, what are you looking for in a position/institution?

Since I might be an abysmal interviewee, what I say here about the committee interview might be completely wrong. Your interview questions are asked in order by each member of the committee. (It is funny watching them segue from one person to the next. It is so mechanical at times, it hurts.) There is a bit of hesitancy to move from one question to the next, so at the end of your answers, signal to the committee that you are done. I recommend the following preparation for the committee question round. Go to a small room, put a table in the middle and surround that table with empty chairs. Practice giving your answers to the empty chairs, because that almost exactly replicates the committee experience. Talking to empty chairs is nearly the perfect preparation exercise, because committee members check their humanity at the door. The nonverbal cues that committees give off are rarely positive, and are usually neutral or negative.

You need to be ready for talking to blank faces or watching committee members break eye contact to scribble notes. You need to be prepared for giving a well-thought-out and clearly articulated answer, yet feeling that your answer was pure gibberish. You need to practice giving sophisticated answers without getting any feedback. You need to be ready for that feeling that your best answer fell on deaf ears. Or worse, you need to be ready for hostile nonverbals, like furrowed brows, head in hands, near-throwing of pens, and my favorite, the dropping of glasses on the table then looking out the window. So maybe filling the chairs with angry-looking stuffed animals is better. If you are lucky, you will get a smile or nod, but don’t hold your breath, because this is a committee, not a group of humans.

Your teaching demonstration will usually follow the question and answer round-robin. The teaching demonstration topic will either be given to you in advance, or you can pick your own. The topic is usually one of three (so if you are picking your own, I recommend one of these three): an "introductory" or "opening day" lecture, some obscure topic that is impossibly difficult to teach, or "what makes your discipline important"? I’ve been told that the teaching demonstration is the most important part of the process, and I believe this. However, since it is so important, one would think that the committee would want to replicate a community college classroom. Typically, committees tell interviewees beforehand that during the demonstration, the members will act like students. This is one of the biggest farces out there. My recommendation: watch out for the committee!

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that they will act like students. If they interrupt your demonstration with a question, Lord help you. My best advice here is don’t give them the chance to ask questions until the end of the demonstration. Give a tight, focused, and coherent demonstration with clear educational goals (i.e., the points you will be covering, and write these on the board), cover those points and then leave questions for the end. If you try to give something interactive that involves audience participation, where you are expecting the audience to act like students, you are sunk.

And, for the sake of all that is holy, do not say something that challenges anything in another discipline. Imagine the following from a sociology professor on the committee, "Well, what you said does not square with Foucault’s view of 'knowledge as power'; how could you reconcile that?" (I’m giving a lecture in another discipline for 100-level students and Foucault is not relevant, so "No.") At another interview a faculty "guest" came and treated my demonstration as if I were giving a conference paper. At still another, a dean of humanities decided it was a good time to test my knowledge of Civil War history. (I’m not a historian, by the way, and my teaching demonstration had nothing to do with the Civil War.) Midway through a recent demonstration a committee member’s "student" question began "When I was in graduate school...." Thanks a lot.

One could say that they want to see what I’m like as a scholar, but in their own materials they said they wanted a demonstration suited for community colleges. Even with gentle to stern reminders that the committee is supposed to mimic students, it seems like many committee members cannot turn the professor switch off. So, it is my suggestion that you turn it off for them. Let them take their cracks at the end of the 15 or 20 minutes, but don’t give them the proverbial first inch.

If you travel from out of town for the interview, the committee will usually set up a courtesy second interview with member(s) of the administration, usually the dean of instruction or a vice president, or both. I find these much more fun, because they are less scripted and more conversational. These interviews also tend to focus more on your academic background and about teaching in general. I really don’t know what advice to give here, other than don’t let down your guard, because these are the people who make the final decision, or make recommendations to the college president based upon the committee’s recommendation. Give focused answers and show your love of teaching. If you do not love teaching, why did you apply to a community college?

Do you have any questions for the committee (or us)? You should! Focus on the things you want to know, but you cannot find on their website. In particular, ask questions that show you truly care about the students and the institution. A good one is "What is the college doing to close the achievement gap?" Another one is "What resources does the college have to help students who struggle with writing?" Or, "Is there tutoring available for X discipline?"

But don’t forget to ask questions that matter to you. "What is the tenure review process?" And, "What is the percentage of new faculty hires who achieve tenure?" Don’t forget that you will want to go to a conference on the college's dime, so ask "What professional development programs are there and what funding is available?" One for the committee and the administration (flip it accordingly): "What is the relationship like between department X and the administration?" When talking to the administration, ask about the needs of the students, the funding for the college and the position, and the general climate in the county/region/state legislatures concerning the community college. Oh, and if the interviews didn’t go well, give as good as you got: ask them what their greatest challenges are.

After all of that, I will mention the CV and other materials. My CV is fairly Spartan, but arranged in a manner that emphasizes my five years of community college teaching experience over my three years of university experience. There are a couple of other things you might be asked to submit: letters of recommendation, unofficial transcripts, references, sample syllabuses, sample assignments, student evaluations. Have these and more at the ready in PDF format.

Give the committee everything you've got; throw the kitchen sink at them. Sometimes the HR website will have a number of links to attach all of your documents, but often, it does not. Whenever possible make your three (yes, get at least three) letters of recommendation into one PDF document, say. Even better, mash together your letters with a separate sheet of references into one document, and put your cover letter and CV into one document, thus freeing up another link for other material.

Some other observations from these searches: if you haven’t heard anything from an institution within 45 days of the closing date, chances are you are not getting a call. One institution called me around 90 days out, but it was the exception, not the rule. Once they do contact you, your interview will be anywhere from two weeks to 45 days after they make contact. The worst, and I mean worst part, is that after the interviews you will probably not be informed of your status. Your full day of travel and interviewing (sometimes staying overnight) will not merit a turn-down e-mail, or any further correspondence. You typically have to wait until the Board of Trustees meeting notes are published before you find out that you didn’t get the job. And that is usually 30 to 90 days after your interview.

All told, you start putting together materials in October, there is a flurry of applications from November to Christmas, a lull from Christmas to New Years, some activity from New Years to April, maybe an interview or two in February, March, and April, and then the long wait until May or June to hear something, which usually doesn’t happen.

Good luck and watch out for the committee!


Sidney V. is a pseudonym for a recently hired faculty member on the tenure track in a humanist discipline at a community college in the Midwest. Sidney spent five years as an adjunct and two years teaching online. After an exhausting three-year job search, Professor V is not taking any chances and couldn’t be happier about the new position.


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