A new correspondent writes:
I've been doing research on how to become a professor, and I've stumbled across your blog. I'm almost done with a B.S. in Astrophysics, and I know I essentially need a PhD in order to have a real chance to be hired at any college/university. My main concern is that when I finish my PhD in a few years, there won't be any jobs at a community college (currently my goal, as I love my tutoring job more than I believe I will ever love research) that will hire a white male physicist with no post-doc, and a degree from a school barely in the top 50. And if I do land a job, how much 'playing the game', as my IT major roommate put it, do I have to do? Is it purely based on how well I teach, or is there a degree of sucking up to the boss and being 'overtly sophisticated at a luncheon', as an example of how my roommate explained he would have to play the game is his field. Don't get me wrong; I'm not asking if I can be a jerk and expect to keep my job. I just want to know how to get a job as a CC professor and keep it.
I’d start by looking at what you can control. The “white male” thing is out of your control, so spending any time and energy on it is unproductive (and unattractive).. Besides, in fields like physics, just being an American citizen puts you ahead of the game.
At this level, the real issue isn’t the relative prestige of your alma mater. It’s how useful you are. Full-time astrophysics positions at community colleges are pretty rare. Even physics jobs more broadly are pretty sparse. (The level of need for physics instruction at the cc level is usually a function of the size of the engineering program.) But someone who can teach math, physics, and astronomy as needed is far more useful.
At this level, whether or not you have a postdoc really doesn’t mean much. When we hire in these fields, it’s usually people with Master’s degrees. The real issue for us is that you’re both good at teaching, and happy doing it. The high-powered PhD who’s constantly pining for an R1 post is far less appealing than someone who just really enjoys sharing his love of a field with students, whatever his publication record.
In terms of “playing the game,” I’ll say that there’s considerable variation from one college to another. Locally, I can say that people who teach well, meet their obligations, and don’t do anything wildly awful are fine. That’s apparently not true everywhere. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out an academic career on the possibility that some amount of internal politics may be involved. That’s true of any kind of career. (The reason “Dilbert” is so popular is that it captures some of the politics of the corporate world.) In the community college world, at least for now, expectations on faculty in terms of schmoozing donors are minimal, when they exist at all. You could always land somewhere with a martinet dean, but you could also land somewhere with a martinet boss.
If a community college professorship is really your first choice, I’d advise preparing yourself to teach basic courses in areas outside of astrophysics. Physics would help; math would help even more. Don’t sweat the less-than-elite doctorate; that’s not the critical variable at this level.
Good luck! It’s a brutal job market out there.
Wise and worldly readers, what would you add (or change)?
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