Many graduate students dream of landing a tenure-track job at a prestigious research university, and advisers are also likely to have such institutions in mind when they assist graduate students in preparing job materials. But it’s possible that when a graduate student enters the job market, there may be few openings at research institutions and a far greater number at teaching-oriented institutions, including community colleges.
At every step of the application process -- from the cover letter to the first-round interview to the campus visit -- applying for a tenure-track job at a community college is likely to be quite different from applying for a job at a major research institution. What should job seekers keep in mind when applying for community college positions?
Understand the job expectations. Carefully read the job ad to learn as much as you can about workload and job expectations. Sometimes those will be explicitly stated and sometimes the job ad requires some decoding. Start by looking for information about teaching expectations. What is the course load? What types of courses will the job candidate be expected to teach? Try to determine, as well, the research expectations for this position. Many community colleges (including my own) have publication requirements for tenure-track faculty comparable to those at four-year institutions, while other community colleges may discourage an ambitious research agenda so that faculty members can focus primarily on teaching and working with students.
Understanding the specific expectations of the job you are applying for should, of course, inform how you tailor your application materials to fit the position. For example, if the job has no research expectations and is a teaching-only position, it might not make sense to discuss your research in depth, if at all, in your cover letter. But it’s also a mistake to assume that a community college is not interested in your research, since, at many community colleges, you will be expected to publish if you get the job.
Forefront your teaching experience. Even if the job you are applying for has research expectations, the search committee will still probably view your teaching experience as equally important as, or more important than, your scholarship. As such, in job letters for community college positions with research expectations, it may be wise to discuss your teaching experience first (whereas a letter for a position at a research institution would focus first and foremost on scholarship). Devote at least the first half of your letter to concrete discussion of courses you have taught, assignments and classroom practices you use, and pedagogies that guide your instruction. Hold off on discussing research interests until later in the letter, and even then, try to demonstrate connections between your scholarly interests and your teaching interests. Show how your research can be made relevant within the context of the community college classroom.
Keep in mind that, at both the letter and the interview stages, candidates who appear too absorbed in their research may not be viewed as a good fit for a community college position. Be sure to show enthusiasm for teaching and to convey that you enjoy working with students as much as you enjoy working on your scholarship. (And if you don’t actually enjoy working with students, you may want to rethink applying for a community college job.)
Recognize the importance of collaboration. In addition to needing a real enthusiasm for teaching, the ideal community college job candidate should have a genuine interest in collaborating with other faculty members, particularly on teaching and pedagogical projects such as curriculum development and assessment. Willingness to work with other faculty to improve students’ learning experiences is an important aspect of a community college job. Even if you are a newly minted Ph.D. who does not have a great deal of teaching experience, you have likely had many experiences collaborating with others as a graduate student, whether by serving as a teaching or research assistant, working in a writing center or learning lab, or teaming up with fellow graduate students and faculty mentors on issues such as program curriculum or course offerings. Think about how such experiences might be productively discussed in job letters and interviews.
Learn about the students. One important thing to consider as you prepare application materials for a community college job is how your experiences and skills are relevant for teaching and working with this particular student population. That requires learning about the student population and the surrounding community of the institution. Who is enrolled? What are the ethnic, economic, linguistic, educational and religious backgrounds of the students? How can your job materials and interview answers take these factors into consideration?
This is worth spending some time on, since community colleges can be quite diverse both in comparison to one another (for example, one might serve a largely rural population and another an urban population) and within a single institution itself. (At my own community college, for example, students come from 127 different countries and speak 78 different languages.) Knowing a little bit about the students you might work with -- and demonstrating that you took some time to learn about these students -- can be a valuable way to set yourself apart from other applicants.
Be prepared to give a teaching demo. While research institutions often ask candidates to give job talks about their scholarship, community colleges are more likely to ask candidates to give a teaching demonstration, which may consist of teaching a lesson to a group of faculty acting as students or teaching actual students in a classroom. If you are applying to a number of community college jobs, and especially if you are invited for a first-round interview, you should start thinking about the lessons, texts and activities you might incorporate into a teaching demo. You may also want to start assembling a teaching portfolio, which you can offer to the search committee as a way to illustrate connections between your demo lesson and other lessons and courses you have taught.
Community colleges are different from research institutions in some important ways that job applicants should be aware of. Treating your community college job application the same as you would an application to a research institution is not likely to yield positive results. Applicants who are interested in community college jobs will benefit from giving some careful consideration to how to frame job materials in ways that speak to the specific goals and expectations of such positions.