Landing a full-time community college teaching gig. Part 1.

This past June, I applied and interviewed for two full-time (tenure track) teaching positions at my college. These were the fourth and fifth times I’ve gone through it and feel like I’m almost becoming an expert — at least in the first part. I’m still working on the important part of actually landing the job, though.

It’s a pretty grueling process and just about every time, afterward, left me feeling a little dejected, pessimistic and made me start wondering if all the stress was worth it. Why not just keep teaching part-time and avoid the psychological maelstrom? Oh, yeah… health benefits. A regular salary. Plus, it is what I’d planned my whole professional life around.

After talking with several other adjunct faculty about applying/interviewing for full-time teaching jobs, it seemed like most (if not all) had ridden the same emotional rollercoaster that I had experienced. So, I thought I would do a post about it. In part for myself, as a reminder of the light at the end of the tunnel. In part for other people who might be going through the process for the first time.

Application process

This part might seem straight-forward. But in southern California, full-time teaching jobs a) don’t come around very often, and b) are pretty damn competitive. I’ve bookmarked the “Jobs” webpages of just about all the local colleges and check them fairly regularly. I’m sure this is true at other colleges, but at Southwestern where I currently teach, the Department Chair sends out notifications when positions are first formally announced, so that’s convenient. The time between opening and closing dates for applying can sometimes be short. Like, a week or two, so you gotta stay on it or possibly miss a shot at applying.

The actual application is straight-forward enough: education, experience, etc. It’s all the extras that can take some effort. Read the job announcement carefully for things like number of reference letters required, cover letter or supplemental questions and the like. I’ve applied for some positions that said in the announcement that two letters of reference were required (dated within, say, the past year), and then, when I started the application, it turned out that there were another three professional references required in addition to the letters. And, since I was applying to the school I’d been teaching at, sometimes the people I normally would have been able to ask for a reference were actually on the hiring committee, so they couldn’t do it, leaving me scrambling to find someone… anyone to vouch for me. Seriously, I almost had to ask my mom for a reference since I was so pressed to apply before the closing date. (I’m kidding… kind of.) The lesson: have several back-up references ready.

If there are “supplemental questions” required, they can be a bit of a great white shark in sheep’s clothing. Or a chance to wax philosophical. Or both! One job I applied for had six or seven questions (and another had 15!!). I treated each as mini-essays, writing full-page, well-thought-out, revised, reviewed by colleagues, re-written, edited, re-written… you probably get the point — you don’t want to skimp on a chance to answer something when you actually have some time to think it out and say Exactly. Just. What. You. Mean.

The questions included a bunch of topics:
“Please describe your teaching experiences. What was your greatest challenge and how did you deal with it?”
“What, if any, educational materials have you developed to enhance your teaching of biology courses, especially physiology and/or organismal biology?”
“What have you found to be effective teaching techniques or strategies in the courses you have taught and why? Give two (2) examples.”
“You arrive to lab and find out that the lab technician has not prepared the lab for the day. How would you handle this situation?”
And then the inevitable diversity question…
“The [college] has a very diverse staff and student population with respect to academic, socioeconomic, cultural, disability, gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnic backgrounds. Describe your professional development, community involvement, and professional experience working with these diverse groups.”

For the jobs I’ve applied to without supplemental questions, I was strongly advised that my cover letter better be pretty bang-up. And I took that advice to heart. It was a two-page summary, concisely answering many of the questions I expected that would have otherwise been supplemental questions: experience in teaching, experience developing educational materials, experience working in a diverse community, etc.

To give some perspective on the level of competition in applying and making it to the next step of getting an interview, another adjunct professor and I got to talking, recently. She had also applied for one of the same positions I’d applied for — one looking for a Microbiology professor (a subject I have basically no experience in). I’d gotten the interview, presumably, as a professional courtesy because I’m what’s called “vested” at the college. She, on the other hand, not only has teaching experience in the subject, but a master’s degree AND a Ph.D. in Microbiology… and didn’t even get an interview! I can’t speculate as to why that happened, but it emphasizes how important it is to put a lot of effort into making your application stand out.

Preparation for the interview

There is some mystery behind who gets selected for an interview. Of course, nobody on the hiring committee is supposed to reveal any of the behind-closed-doors discussions and decisions that take place. I’ve heard that the committee is required to interview a certain percentage of people who have never taught at the college (“outside applicants”). I’ve never been told how many people applied for the job, nor how many interviews were scheduled. The best estimate I came up with is that there were between 6 – 12 interviews set up for each position. Of which, three applicants will be selected for the coveted second interview.

Regardless, if selected for an interview, you can probably expect an email and/or phone call to let you know. And then the fun begins.

The interview typically has two parts: a short, 15-minute teaching demonstration, and a 30-45-minute Q&A section. At one school, I was given nearly a month’s heads-up to prepare. At Southwestern, I have gotten between 5-7 days, depending on the particular position.

Sometimes a choice is offered on what your teaching demo subject will be. Sometimes not. The options for topics have ranged from fairly easy, to ones that require either a really in-depth knowledge of the subject or, if not, a pretty hefty amount of research to prepare. Some examples:

“Provide a non-introductory lecture on evolution that you would conduct before a field trip to the zoo.”
“Describe the skeletal musculature of either the pectoral girdle and upper limb or the pelvic girdle and lower limb, including the actions of the muscles.”
“Discuss Proteus vulgaris OX19 strain.”

That last one, simple in its direction, was obviously designed to weed out Microbiology hacks, like me, who’d never even heard of P. vulgaris. Google it yourself and decide if you could pull together a professional-sounding presentation with only five days to prepare. (Did I mention that the two most recent interviews were held on Friday and the next on Saturday? I had my hands full, for sure!) I opted for an “easier” topic on transcription and translation regulation in prokaryotes. That said, I’ve heard that one thing hiring committees look out for are the people who choose the “easy” options. So, if you’ve got the gung-ho, then it’s best to ho your gung to really stand out.

I’ve heard, and again this is circumspect advice, that some colleges weight the teaching demo more heavily than the Q&A. And vice versa. One thing I’m pretty certain of is that when they say you have 15 minutes for your presentation, they mean it. Once the timer goes off, they will cut you off. And that is not a good thing. But if you come up, say, five minutes short that doesn’t look so good, either. Practice, practice, and then practice some more so your timing is down to a tee.

When it comes to the actual interview, be prepared with answers to any sort of question that could come up. Having notes with you are “kind of” okay during the first interview (not so much in the second interview). If there are supplemental questions in the job announcement, print out the answers you have to those. Draw up answers to potential questions with specific examples from the classroom or out in the community. And don’t be surprised if follow-up questions pop up. Ask colleagues what kind of questions they got during their interview. Be prepared.

I’m sure this is enough for you (and me) for now. Part 2 will go into the actual interview process.

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