More Than One Place to Look

Let's be honest with students about the wisdom of going to graduate school in fields like English, writes Kevin Brown -- but let's remember, too, that there are jobs at non-brand-name colleges.

January 25, 2013

Students often come to talk to me about going to graduate school in English or simply to try to figure out if they should go. They are often interested in becoming college professors, probably based on the glamorous lifestyle of those of us who teach them. I’m honest with them, and I talk about the job market in higher education, should they end up pursuing that route, though I assure them that many people -- most, in fact -- who attend graduate school do not want to do so after attending graduate school. I even tell them about Thomas H. Benton’s article from January 2009.

I make sure to tell them not to go if they are not getting full funding, as there’s just too much of a risk to take out any amount of debt.  I want them to know, as much as they can, what they are getting themselves into.

If they are still interested in talking about a career in higher education, I tell them more than the dismal picture, though, as there are areas of hope for those students who want to do what I do for a living. I make it a point to tell them that there are colleges and universities where they could teach who are hiring full-time faculty and where they would actually stand a fairly good chance of finding a job after finishing their doctorate.

You see, I don’t teach at a large research university or a name-brand master’s or baccalaureate university or college. I teach at a smallish (4,000+ students), church-related university that has a few master’s programs, but that is mainly focused on teaching undergraduates. People in the region know who we are, but many people outside of the area do not.  Those who do know us know we have a good reputation for a solid academic program, but we’re certainly not on the radar of many people in higher education.  I would guess that most people teach at places more like mine than like the better-known Ivies or state flagship universities, save for the religious aspect.  Most faculty work at schools that do not focus on research or are not well-known outside their region.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2010, the number of faculty working in doctorate-level programs or larger master’s programs was 587,676, while those faculty working at medium- or smaller-level master’s programs or baccalaureate colleges was 207,392, just over one-third the total of the larger universities’ faculty.  At associate programs, faculty number 397,403, two-thirds the total of the larger school. Combined, then, the smaller master’s programs, baccalaureate colleges, and associate programs’ faculty members outnumber those working at doctorate-level programs or larger master’s programs.

However, we do not talk or write as if these statistics were true. Whenever we talk to students about attending graduate school and getting jobs as college or university professors, we tend to talk (and they tend to think) about large research institutions.  Even in most of the articles on Inside Higher Ed, the discussions come from the point of view of these larger institutions, while most of us actually work at other types of colleges and universities (with the notable exception of community colleges, which are covered fairly well; it’s the vast middle area that I’m talking about).

Thus, when I talk to my students, I tell them that, if they are flexible in terms of location and the type of college or university they’re willing to teach at, they can actually find a full-time, tenure-track position.  I talk about recent searches we have conducted for a variety of positions, whether for foreign language, creative writing, or literature faculty.  In some of our most recent searches, we had 20 candidates who fit the basic criteria, more or less, for the opening, and we can weed that stack down to a solid three to five in one meeting. Compare those numbers to a relatively close state university where one of their searches for a creative writing professor pulled in more than 200 candidates-- a standard number, from what I was told from a member of that search committee.

If one is willing to work in even smaller institutions, especially those that are more strongly connected to a religious denomination (we don’t limit our hiring to those within our sponsoring denomination), those numbers drop even further.  I have friends at various colleges who tell me about receiving two or three applicants for a position, and one friend said that they had looked for several years for a theater position, but had not been able to fill it because no qualified candidate had applied.

While connection to a particular religious faith certainly would limit some people from applying to and working at these colleges, there are other small, not-well-known institutions that are not religious, and they, too, struggle to find qualified applicants who will teach at their schools.  They, too, have excellent academic reputations in their communities, but do not have a name that will attract recent graduates.

Many of us already teach at these colleges and universities, and our students who are thinking about graduate school need to hear that there are jobs at such places, if they are willing to be flexible as to where they live and the type of school they teach at.  We need to tell them that the academic world is wider than some would have them believe.


Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.


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