Moving up in teaching, advice on applications
February 21, 2011 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I'm an adjunct lecturer at a community college, and I'm looking to move on up. Some of the positions I'm looking at require recommendation letters. How exactly should I go about this?

I'm going to only be at my current position until the end of summer, although I have not announced this yet and I've informally received my summer assignment.

Given the nature of teaching, it would seem that my former students would be the best ones to write letters of recommendation - but then again, I can see the value in letters from one's supervisors. I have two difficulties with this - one, they have never conducted the formal teaching observation they have been responsible for, and two, they're still my bosses and don't know I'm leaving.

I also have a couple faculty who offered to be references from when I was in grad school for my M.S., but that's reaching back a couple years.

Any advice on this, or on applications in academia as an M.S. in general, would be appreciated.
posted by Sexy Question Bot to Work & Money (38 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Move on up to...?
posted by sesquipedalian at 11:42 AM on February 21, 2011


I'm mostly looking at fulltime teaching positions at smaller universities, but there are some other positions in development of academic materials.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 11:45 AM on February 21, 2011


Yes, this depends what type of job you're applying for and in what field.
Do most tenure-track faculty positions in your field require a PhD?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:46 AM on February 21, 2011


Other community colleges are an option as a last resort - I'm going to have to move regardless - but those don't generally require letters.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 11:46 AM on February 21, 2011


Yes, most do - it's a hard-science/math/stat-y area. Not looking to start a Ph.D program at this time.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 11:47 AM on February 21, 2011


If you're applying to tenure-stream faculty positions at 4 year colleges and universities, the recommendation letters would usually be from professional colleagues or grad school supervisors. They attest to the quality of your research work, your authority in the field -- and to a lesser extent your teaching. An additional letter from someone who can specifically address your teaching is good if you're applying to a position at a teaching-focused place. Letters from students are not typical in my field, although applications do usually include a "teaching dossier" that includes student evaluations.

I don't know what the standards are for positions in the development of academic materials.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:50 AM on February 21, 2011


But be sure to look at the job ad for the positions you're applying for, to see if they want a PhD or someone who is "ABD" (all but dissertation - that is, someone who is mostly done with a PhD program). If the position calls for those qualifications, you'll be wasting your time to apply without them.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:52 AM on February 21, 2011


These would not be tenure-track positions, unless I was fantastically lucky. Almost none will accept M.S. applicants in my field. I have no research experience, sadly.

My colleagues are only known as friends, and have never seen me teach. I could find some to write for me, most likely, but I wonder how valuable that would be.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2011


I have 3 years of M.S. experience but I don't think this qualifies me for ABD work.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 11:53 AM on February 21, 2011


I don't think you have much of a shot here, honestly. The current and near-future academic economy means that many people with qualifications well beyond yours — i.e., completed PhDs and active research programs — will be competing with you for nearly any permanent faculty position.

If I were you I might start focusing on student services positions: many schools have a math/stats center that provides tutoring and support for students and researchers across the disciplines. Positions like this are far less credential-sensitive than permanent faculty jobs.

To answer your question about letters of reference directly: these should come from your supervisors in your graduate work and, ideally, in your current teaching (or at least it'd greatly strengthen the application if some colleague who's familiar with your current teaching could write a letter about it). Sending letters from students would be a sign of a very serious misunderstanding of academic job-application etiquette. The place for student comments on your teaching is your teaching portfolio.
posted by RogerB at 11:54 AM on February 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


So by "moving up", do you mean adjunct teaching positions at 4-year colleges and universities? Do take a look at what the pay is like for those positions - it's often poor and with no benefits. If you are in a position with a reasonable salary and benefits at the CC, be sure you check the compensation at the positions you're applying for before quitting.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2011


No longer in academia, but I did have a faculty position at a s mall college and later at a university. I was offered not just those positions but also at other collegues/universities so I’m just relaying one thing that I had in my application package that I don’t see in yours (and that a few people on committees thanked me for providing, but I don’t really know if they were legitimate comments/compliments or not):

• Don’t have students write letters. However, at universities (and I imagine at a community college, too), you can ask someone at the teaching center to review your class. For me, they sat in on one of my classes and then gave out a questionnaire to my students. The teaching center then wrote up a short document that included the main points (what students liked suggestions for improvement, etc.). To me, it summarized the main points and you still have the comments from students who like your class – it just doesn’t seem as biased as it would coming from an actual student.

• I did have faculty from my grad school days write letters because they did know me as a person, my teaching philosophy, research, etc. Up t a few years later I submitted these letters and no one pressed me for more.

• Can anyone there write a letter for you? One time I did have a faculty member who had permission to read my reviews (one of the requests for an open teaching position was to have current faculty provide a review); as a side note, I did not have this person sit in on a class, just read the reviews.

• Also, check out sabbatical type replacement jobs if you can …someone may open a door, especially if you already have teaching experience (in the sciences, although I can’t tell from reading your response if it is the sciences or math?) To be honest, if you are in the sciences, it was extremely rare or unusual to have someone already have teaching experience, and for the sabat replacement jobs, they needed a body in the room read to go and teach full time.
posted by Wolfster at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2011


Oh, sorry - I see you mentioned that you are an adjunct now, so you know about the low pay situation.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2011


I am in a position with poor pay and no benefits already! I really don't know what else to do with my math/stat degree (it's not a science proper). I have a decent amount of teaching experience - 3 years tutoring in undergrad, 3 years teaching in my MS program at a decent large state university, and 2 years teaching at my current CC.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:00 PM on February 21, 2011


Any advice on this, or on applications in academia as an M.S. in general, would be appreciated.

I have two coworkers at my research lab who used to be lecturers at small colleges and community colleges in math. They are so much happier now that they're not teaching full time. Look for a university-affiliated staff position as a mathematician/statistician and then adjunct at night to make some extra money on the side.

High school teaching should also be considered.
posted by deanc at 12:07 PM on February 21, 2011


I am in a position with poor pay and no benefits already!

Also, how much worse off would you be, economically, if you were in a Ph.D. program? Hypothetically, if you were to apply to a Ph.D. program, who would you consider to be good references? That might give you a starting point for consideration about references.
posted by deanc at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2011


I would think long and hard about trying a job search like this from your position. Just because the pay is low here doesn't mean you could get a better-paying job elsewhere.

As others have said, the pool is chock full of newly-minted PhDs, people fresh off of postdocs or, at minimum, ABDs (or whatever the dissertation equivalent is in such a field). Even smaller regional universities will likely rely on grad students.

Furthermore, the fact that you're unfamiliar enough with the conventions of the application process to wonder if student letters would suffice adds to my feeling that you seem quite underprepared. I'm concerned that you don't seem to have a solid academic mentor behind you, one who should not only be giving you their perspective on a job hunt/the job market in general but who should absolutely be your first rec letter.

If you don't have a PhD, you're going to have to work twice as hard: better references, better teaching evals, better publishing, all that. Even then, you'll have an uphill battle. The department would probably wonder a) why you don't have the PhD and b) when you're going to run off and get it after all, thereby leaving them in the lurch.

Community colleges, even if they aren't your first choice, are way more forgiving of this sort of thing. Personally, I think that teaching there has more of a payoff for students who could really use a smart, world-savvy instructor, but that's just me.

In summary, I'm not trying to be mean, but you probably shouldn't go for academic positions right now. Job searches are incredibly exhausting (as I'm guessing you've already experienced to some degree), and there's no sense spending time and money on applications that won't get anywhere. You owe it to yourself to be more realistic.

One place you COULD get into with your qualifications might be academic advising or another administrative position, even at a larger university. If you like working with students and engaging in problem-solving, that might be a great place for you to go. A lot of positions require a graduate degree without specifying which field. Bonus: a lot of places also offer tuition remission and/or give you the chance to gain job experience through an assistantship while you work on your PhD (should you decide to go for it eventually).

How about academic research, such as a survey center or data analysis?
posted by Madamina at 12:11 PM on February 21, 2011


Also, how much worse off would you be, economically, if you were in a Ph.D. program? Hypothetically, if you were to apply to a Ph.D. program, who would you consider to be good references? That might give you a starting point for consideration about references.

Economically, better. Possibly slightly lower pay, but I would have benefits. The stress of my previous Ph.D program nearly broke me. I want the degree but not enough to damage myself like that again. Maybe someday when I can manage time and stress better.

I am really open to many sorts of positions, so I appreciate the remarks on other options.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:14 PM on February 21, 2011


My colleagues are only known as friends, and have never seen me teach. I could find some to write for me, most likely, but I wonder how valuable that would be.

The answer is "about a million times more valuable than letters from a student." No, really. For academic jobs at four year institutions, whether tenure-track or adjunct, the expectation is that you will have letters from colleagues, peers at other institutions, and/or supervisors (eg the dean or your dissertation adviser). Student evaluations may well be required as well, but those are not "letters" in the same sense as the letters you are asking about.

It is common for the letters to be written by people who have not seen your teaching -- they might be colleagues who can speak to your reputation, or people at other institutions who know you from conferences and research collaborations, say.

A lot of large universities have long-term adjuncting positions (often with titles like "lecturer" or "senior lecturer") to help cover teaching-intensive subjects like mandatory composition classes, intro science labs, etc; those are positions for which you may be qualified. Sabbatical replacements at places I've been are required to have PhDs or be ABD, but that may vary considerably by institution -- the required qualifications would normally be in the position description, or perhaps you can find out what degrees people with those jobs in the department currently have.

All that said, the most obvious move up from an adjunct position at a CC would be to a full-time faculty position at a CC. Another CC will value your current teaching experience more than many four-year places will (because they can be snooty that way); in states with good and decently-funded systems, tenure-track CC faculty earn good salaries with good benefits. That would seem to me to be a better option than continuing as an underpaid and unbenefited adjunct, just at a larger institution.
posted by Forktine at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why is full-time teaching at a CC a "last resort"? (Getting a full-time job at a CC isn't easy these days, either, for the record.)

You should be talking to your colleagues and so on--it sounds to me like you need to do a lot more "networking" in a friendly, normal way, because then you'd already know basic things like who gives reference letters (never students!), and that it's normal in most situations for your colleagues and supervising faculty to give letters of rec while you're still working there if you're an adjunct--NOBODY wants to stay an adjunct forever, and at most places (barring weird politics) it's assumed that you're looking for a full-time position at any place that's hiring. :)

The Chronicles of Higher Education job-seeking forms and relevant columns are very eye-opening, too.

Good luck.
posted by wintersweet at 12:16 PM on February 21, 2011


How about academic research, such as a survey center or data analysis?

Data analysis, etc. sounds like it would be good. I would love to be in some sort of research, but am even more unfamiliar with how I would get in the door there; at least I have several years of teaching experience.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:18 PM on February 21, 2011


I guess I only say CC as a last resort because at my current position I've been primarily teaching stuff that I learned in middle school and it is pretty depressing. I don't mind actual college-level courses. In fact, I've been offered a few recently at my current position, but I will have to move regardless.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:21 PM on February 21, 2011


Your experience is only based on this current CC, right? Who's to say that any other place would be the same? It all depends on the school, your colleagues and most importantly you. "Oh, hi, I'd really like to teach intro calculus somewhere down the line, even if it's not a possibility this year." Then do your absolute best to teach that middle-school-level math class. If you can't teach a simple class, who's to say you can teach something more complex, or relate to your students? All they have to go on is what they see.

Do it for your students. They deserve someone who cares about them. You might have been able to get through three years of grad school, but a lot of these people (like my fiance, for example) are intelligent, hard-working people who didn't even think about going to community college because society told them that "education isn't for me" or "I'm not that kind of person." They're spending good money and coming to class in their off-hours from a full-time job --or two -- to try and move up in the world, like you, but they have to work a lot harder to get there.

This is why community college teaching can be so rewarding and make such a big difference in people's lives. Please don't discount it just because your current job seems to suck.
posted by Madamina at 12:29 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


The stress of my previous Ph.D program nearly broke me.

Look, no shame in leaving a Ph.D. program. But the secret to being successful as a Ph.D. dropout is to get the hell out of academia. Academia has a very strict pyramid. The tenured professors are at the top, under that the tenure-track faculty. Under that the research scientists, under that the non-tenure-track permanent teaching staff, various research staffers, support staff, grad students, and somewhere near the bottom are the adjuncts. If you're not going to get a Ph.D., stay away from teaching. If you want to stay in a university environment, find some way to work as a member of the research staff, not as a teacher.

Look for professional positions in quantitative fields like management consulting, financial management, insurance actuary positions, "national labs" research positions, etc. Your science background gives you the ability to become a patent lawyer.

If you really like teaching, a degree in math is very, very much in demand for high school teachers, especially in private schools where you can get hired with less credentialing.

I would love to be in some sort of research, but am even more unfamiliar with how I would get in the door there

Talk to your old professors and former grad student colleagues about what they're doing. Look at the job postings at Sandia/Argonne/Oak Ridge/Lawrence Livermore/etc. and see if there are openings similar to what you want. Talk to your former university's career office.

Your post reminds me of a guy who posted to AskMeFi saying how he wanted to become a Community College professor and realized he needed a Ph.D. in math and was asking for advice about that. One of the better responses was, "why would you even want to do that?" There isn't very much market for steady work doing college-level teaching outside of tenure-track faculty positions-- as you know, the pay is poor and the work environment isn't good. It's best to stay out of that area rather than trying to pursue it as though it could ever provide decent full-time employment.
posted by deanc at 12:33 PM on February 21, 2011


Yeah, I do value that. I have good relationships with my students and bosses, my evals are all above average, and I'm being offered a higher level class this summer.

The depressing thing for me is that it feels as if my whole graduate (and undergraduate!) education was wasted and I'm doing something I could have done in high school. But I don't deny that it's a good thing for the community. I just always expected more of myself, to do some research or something.

Sorry, I've just been kind of down lately. Your help is very much appreciated :)
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:34 PM on February 21, 2011


My girlfriend is Chinese - would that rule me out of national laboratory type stuff?
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:36 PM on February 21, 2011


Your post reminds me of a guy who posted to AskMeFi saying how he wanted to become a Community College professor and realized he needed a Ph.D. in math Serious? I'm one of the only people at my school that has an M.S....
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:37 PM on February 21, 2011


Institutional research might be something else to look into.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:43 PM on February 21, 2011


My girlfriend is Chinese - would that rule me out of national laboratory type stuff?

No. It won't even interfere with any clearances you need to get, as long as you disclose any ongoing foreign contacts/relationships you have. Depending on the position, you might not even need a clearance, but you will likely need to be a US citizen.

Do it for your students. They deserve someone who cares about them.

If you're going to teach for charity, you should do it on weekends or at night while supporting yourself with a decent-paying full time job. The OP shouldn't struggle his whole life on the death-march of community-college adjunct teaching positions "for the students."

SQB, it sounds like what you really need is to step back for a bit and talk to someone like a career counselor or old classmates or something about what your options in life are. There's really not much of a future for people like you in full-time college-level teaching, but I get the impression that you don't know what goes on outside of that world. You need to start talking to lots of people who've been through your academic program about what else is out there.
posted by deanc at 12:44 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Look, no shame in leaving a Ph.D. program. But the secret to being successful as a Ph.D. dropout is to get the hell out of academia. Academia has a very strict pyramid. The tenured professors are at the top, under that the tenure-track faculty. Under that the research scientists, under that the non-tenure-track permanent teaching staff, various research staffers, support staff, grad students, and somewhere near the bottom are the adjuncts. If you're not going to get a Ph.D., stay away from teaching. If you want to stay in a university environment, find some way to work as a member of the research staff, not as a teacher.

This is not accurate for CCs, which are full of people who did not finish phds and (usually) no degree past a masters is required for tenure. CCs have no research staff, grad students, or many of the other fine-grained hierarchical levels you see in big R-1 institutions.

Honestly, these are conversations you should be having with your current colleagues. There are some odd misperceptions in some of what you have written here, and I think lot could be solved more in person than here.
posted by Forktine at 12:47 PM on February 21, 2011


It just seems that most of my colleagues are moms who teach on the side, career high school teachers who retired, and so on. I'm not sure where to begin, but I will keep my eyes open. I've always been so poor at socializing - it's not natural for me. I guess I'll have to work harder at it. Thanks so much.
posted by Sexy Question Bot at 12:50 PM on February 21, 2011


Yeah, this is definitely about you and your identity. Your job prospects, even if you stick with just the MS, will be infinitely better if you can settle things within your head a bit more. Here's where we break out the old AskMe chestnut of seeking therapy. It's super hard to get a decent perspective on your own thoughts, especially when times are tough like this.

Re: "doing it for the students" -- yeah, do it for yourself, first and foremost, but your attitude toward teaching plays such a huge part. How can you get good teaching evals and earn the respect of your colleagues if you don't value your work? They can tell. Why would they want to come to class if you don't want to be there either?

It's hard work, but if you have a better idea of what matters to you -- exploring it through therapy, professional development, networking, volunteering, whatever -- you'll be a better job candidate overall.
posted by Madamina at 12:52 PM on February 21, 2011


As I am rereading your responses, it sounds like you just want out and would like to slightly improved pay, without questioning whether you can do more. Trust me, if you have the masters degree, you probably have more to offer than “at least I have several years of teaching experience.” OP, you probably have much, much more, you just need to know where to look and how to package what you have.

I’m going to guess like most graduate students, you got very little advice on how to look for jobs, etc. Academic environments are also very isolating (okay, it was for me, I don’t know about everyone else), so it becomes hard to look for opportunities to learn about alternatives outside academia. I believe that this is something that you have to learn – but once you have this skill/these skills, you can get into all kind of jobs on your own.

I would start doing info interviews with statisticians if you can (is that your actual degree?). I’ve known of (not personally, but I have run across them through projects) people with stats backgrounds who work at pharma companies and analyze the results; they get paid very well and get great benefits (their names goes on a lot of academic papers, etc.).

How do you find these positions? Info interviews. The goal is not to have them give you a job but to find out things such as “What are the title of these jobs? And alternate titles?”, “What should the CV look like for someone who works in this type of job?,” and “Are there other things that I need to get this position/job?” I really don’t think that you will find this out unless you talk to people.I list a more elaborate response as to how to do info interviews (or how I did) in a response to this poster's question here. If it helps, use it…if not, ignore.

I'm the last person to suggest this, but from some of your responses ...maybe do see a therapist, mainly to help you reframe your situation (you can do more and this is not the only thing that you can do).

Also, although you may have left under not odd circumstances, can you reach out to your old advisor? Tell him or her that you are looking for job positions? They may point you to better resources and/or give you a bit of guidance, especially in terms of some of the questions that you are asking here.

Please feel free to memail me if you have questions about some of these things, but part of what you need to do is talk to other people (in stats/math)
posted by Wolfster at 12:52 PM on February 21, 2011


Just to quickly follow up about a couple of things you've said in comments here:

I've been primarily teaching stuff that I learned in middle school and it is pretty depressing [...] it feels as if my whole graduate (and undergraduate!) education was wasted and I'm doing something I could have done in high school

There's a bit of a misunderstanding here of way credentialing for teaching works (and this is true of almost any teaching job). You are not, usually, immediately qualified to teach at the highest level you've taken a class in a field, but rather you need an education far beyond the material you teach regularly — in order that you'll easily command that material in a classroom, fully appreciate its structure, and readily see its connections to the rest of your broad field. That is, in order to be a really good teacher of what you call "middle-school" math, you need to understand the logical consequences of each axiom and proof, with a horizon far beyond even the best student in the room; this means it is true that, ideally, a middle-school math teacher should have done at least some graduate work in math. This is a good argument that you aren't wasting your further education, so you should take heart in that — your knowledge of the structure and dependencies of the material must surely be helping your students. But since this argument is (part of) why a professor is generally required to have an active, ongoing research program, it also suggests why you're a bit underqualified to teach at a four-year university.

At least some CC teaching, research support, and student services positions are well within your qualifications (and abilities). A permanent faculty position at a four-year college is likely not.

Forktine is right that you should be talking much more to your colleagues, and Madamina is right that you should try to find (among them or your grad-school teachers) a trusted mentor to ask questions about this stuff. You need to clear up some of your apparent misunderstandings in order to engage in the search process at all effectively. You could take a look at Kathryn Hume's book Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt for some initial help, too.
posted by RogerB at 12:55 PM on February 21, 2011


Even if your MS was obtained as a parachute degree, it might say on the tin "terminal professional degree". My institution (an R-1) has plenty of staff stat MS-holders whose job it is just to wrangle data and do basic analysis. I want to echo that you're way better off thinking about non-teaching jobs.

As a degree holder, you're probably entitled to use the career services offices of your MS-granter and undergrad-granter; give them a call. It's not unusual for someone to "do time" as a do-gooder trying to teach before getting an industry job; my wife did the same at the HS level before going back into the actuarial business.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:20 PM on February 21, 2011


All the people I know with stats degrees (masters and PhDs) work in polling, either for the national polling organizations or for big nonprofits that run their own survey and polling programs. They're paid quite well and have benefits. Just something else to think about.
posted by rtha at 2:18 PM on February 21, 2011


I and many of my friends have masters degrees in maths. We are actuaries, statisticians, high school teachers, scientific programmers, data analysts for toy companies, operations researchers, economic analysts,... All of us earn the same or better than a college lecturer and have easier career prospects should we fall out of love with our current employers.

You can do something else if you want to.
posted by plonkee at 12:01 AM on February 22, 2011


I don't get the impression that you actually enjoy teaching... you just think it's the only thing you're qualified for. I feel a masters in math/statistics is very versatile, and in demand for many many industries. Basically, any company who needs analysts. A family member has a masters in statistics, and she's worked as an analyst in marketing consulting firms, major food distributors, and insurance companies. Biotech companies also need analysts, though I'm not sure if they require biostats background (can't hurt to try though). Really, you have many many doors open for you if you can only see them. And if you want to remain in teaching because you love it, there are also high school teaching positions to go after.
posted by lacedcoffee at 2:14 PM on February 22, 2011


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