In working with candidates on the academic-job market, I hear a recurrent question about the almost-inevitable mismatch between the teaching experience they have and the kind they need.
There are a lot of variations to that scenario, but this month I will focus on the most common: a Ph.D. from a top research university who has applied for a faculty job at a teaching-intensive campus. What if you simply don’t have pedagogical experience at the kind of college you’re targeting in your job search — and, thus, don’t understand the specific needs and issues of its student demographics?
Say you were an undergraduate at a selective liberal-arts college and your new Ph.D. is from an elite private university (a not uncommon combination), yet your job interviews are at regional public institutions with open admissions. Sure, you were a TA in your doctoral program, but the class section you taught was filled with high-achievers who had all the right AP credits and know how to do calculus in French. You have no experience at all with students who are underprepared and/or first-generation college students, let alone with adult learners who are working full time.
But you want the job. You have read enough adjunct horror tales to know that landing (almost) any tenure-track job, anywhere, at any caliber of institution, is a Good Thing.
Meanwhile, professors in the hiring department are highly skeptical of you and your fancy Ph.D. They are (legitimately) concerned that, if hired, you would be back on the job market in no time, looking to move up to a “better” institution. Still, they put you on the shortlist for a campus interview because your research on a rare moss that only grows in a haunted cemetery next to the campus. Now you have to convince the department that (a) you are, indeed, willing to teach a 4-4 course load, and (b) you will do right by its student population.
You can’t change those demographics or your doctoral pedigree. But there are things you can — and should — do to mitigate this kind of disconnect.
Step 1: Really do your homework. I don’t mean the usual stuff about the department and its faculty members. I mean dig deep into the ecology of its student demographics. Look up the data points about the college in places like U.S. News & World Report to get a sense of what percentage of the students are in-state (usually most of them, at a two-year college or a regional university campus), and their average GPAs and test scores. Find out:
- Does the institution draw a hefty population of transfers from a local community college?
- Is the campus popular with active members of the armed services and/or military veterans going back to school on the GI Bill?
- Study alumni profiles to understand the functional mission of your prospective department. Are there preprofessional “pipelines” that successful students get ushered through?
- What commitments does the college have (such as the federal McNair Scholars program) to support first-generation and other nontraditional students who want to become scholars?
You need to be able to demonstrate to the hiring institution that you understand where its students come from, and where they are going.
Step 2: Make sure they know that you know what they’re about. How? Scatter all of the research you’ve done about the place throughout your application materials, teaching demo, and interview talking points. For example:
- Be prepared to talk about how your syllabus design would meet the needs of undergraduates who work full-time. The student demographics, for example, could affect how much homework you can assign. Or you might have to adopt a less-stringent attendance policy, and adjust what counts as an excused absence. An attitude of “learning comes first, more than two absences will result in a failing grade” will not sound reasonable or applicable on a commuter campus with a large population of adult learners.
- When describing the learning outcomes of your courses, use the vernacular that is meaningful in this institutional context. In an interview at a two-year college, for instance, if you are talking about how you might teach a course like “Introduction to Sociology,” think about how the content would be applicable for students who may intend to go into law enforcement or become first responders in their town.
- Mention how you would work with, and support, students who come into college with poor writing skills. Understand the latest trends in writing instruction, and be able to discuss how those trends would figure into your assignments.
- Part of your homework involves looking into the college’s teaching center, writing program, and other resources to aid student learning. Familiarize yourself with how tutors might partner with faculty members on the campus. It might be an all-hands-on-deck situation, so you will need to have specific ideas about how your course on the Victorian novel will also cover the basics of expository writing. Have a syllabus prepared that concretely shows how you will integrate it as a learning goal into the arc of your semester.
- If your prospective employer has, as part of its mission, to encourage undergraduates to pursue doctoral training, show that you take that goal seriously. Be able to have a substantive discussion with the search committee and the dean about the role of faculty mentorship in student success.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it should get you started. A critical point to keep in mind: These suggestions are not a cheat-sheet for how to successfully con a search committee into hiring you so you can turn around and leave if/when your “dream job” comes along. If you learn how to talk the talk at a teaching-intensive college, but don’t really want to walk the walk, you will be miserable, your students will be disadvantaged, and you might not get tenure — or you will but will hate your life.
What I described here are not code words or dog whistles — rather, they are actual issues you need to think about if you interview at the kind of place that you did not attend yourself. Consider this a heads-up about what you will genuinely need to care about in this genre of faculty job.
And here’s the amazing thing: At first, you, with your fancy Ph.D., may indeed view a heavy-teaching, low-research job as a disappointment. A step down. But give it a chance. At The Professor Is In, I’ve seen countless new Ph.D.s learn to truly thrive in such jobs, and end up enjoying balanced lives far more fulfilling than their counterparts at research-obsessed pressure cookers.
Karen Kelsky is founder and president of The Professor Is In , which offers advice and consulting services on the academic-job search and on all aspects of the academic and postacademic career. She is a former tenured professor at two universities. Browse an archive of Kelsky’s previous advice columns here .