From R1 to CC: 3 Things I Wish I Had Known About Community College Careers

As of August 1, I am a gainfully employed Humanities PhD. There were many times in my 3-year job search when I doubted I could ever say those words, so I am thrilled to write my first post from a position of relative career stability. My graduate training, however, had little to do with the job I got, so I wanted to write on what I wish I had known while pursuing the disappearing career of English Literature Professor.

Just a few days ago, I was talking with an Art Historian at a nearby university and he was horrified that I had “given up” on the research career I set out to find. He kindly (and somewhat condescendingly) offered to look over my cover letter and CV. I did not tell him that my job materials have been vetted by top scholars in my field; that my job materials got me interviews at two ivy league schools and campus visits at two state research universities; or that my job materials include four publications in top journals. I merely told him no thank you, I am happy where I have landed. So this post is for that well-meaning professor and for those PhD students who think a Community College job will not honor their substantial talents and ambitions.

  1. Community Colleges often pay better than four-year universities, especially for junior scholars. After filing my dissertation, I spent a year adjuncting while continuing to search for a permanent position. I can say with no qualms whatsoever that my current salary and benefits package dwarf my paltry adjunct earnings. But I was genuinely shocked to learn that my paycheck and medical, dental, life-insurance, and vision coverage are substantially higher than what I could have earned as an assistant professor at a four-year university. During a campus visit last year in Texas, I learned that the university I was visiting did not offer partner benefits, and the medical coverage for a professor was little better than my existing Obamacare package. At a community college, PhDs earn a starting salary according to how many years they have taught in addition to a doctoral stipend. While different regions offer different pay for CC faculty, more remote or rural campuses draw talent with high salaries. Because CC faculty are more likely to be represented by teacher’s unions than their research-university peers, benefits packages are stronger as well. By changing to a teaching career, I actually enhanced my long-term financial wellbeing, and the wellbeing of my partner.
  2. You can still do research at a Community College. My biggest fear in leaving the university system was that my research talents would go to waste. I personally love researching and writing, traveling to conferences, spending time in archives, and designing studies. I enjoy the thrill of seeing my name in print and knowing that other scholars in my field may come across my work. I thought that a CC career would leave me yearning for opportunities to write and publish. It’s true that the focus of my institution is the students, and their interests always come before the research agenda of a faculty member. But there is so much research to do that serves students. And my campus is particularly eager to fund faculty with a research background who can study student performance, student equity, and best practices in pedagogy. I may not continue to work with literature as my primary research area, but I have already found funding for two major research projects at my college. Did I mention I just started on August 1st?
  3. You may not need to teach five classes to be a full-time CC faculty member. The general view of community colleges at my doctoral institution is that they are high schools with ashtrays. I imagined teaching a brutal course load and spending my evenings and weekends with endless grading. Don’t get me wrong, teaching is the point at a two-year institution, and I do a lot of grading (survival mechanisms for the research to teaching transition here). But there are many ways to change a course load to fit your needs and interests. I took on writing classes that carry a heavy grading load, and that allowed me to teach fewer classes overall. This year, I was completely floored to learn that I would teach a 3/4 – less than the teaching requirements at a nearby university! Leadership positions and campus service also lead to release time, as do large-scale research projects.

I hope these three points convey the many misconceptions R1 faculty may have about Junior or Community Colleges when advising doctoral students. I am not proud that I believed an ugly stereotype of CCs as a PhD student, and I encourage others to take on a class at a local two-year college just to see what it’s like. You may be shocked at the passionate students, brilliant faculty, and lush campus around you. You may even find your job prospects improving as you widen the net beyond the coveted research professor position you have been trained to pursue at all costs.

13 thoughts on “From R1 to CC: 3 Things I Wish I Had Known About Community College Careers

  1. Thank you! What a refreshing perspective on Community Colleges. My husband spent two years in a CC as a student, and I was always impressed with the dedication of the faculty there. I can’t say I have ever looked down on CC careers and I second your finding that funding institutions WELCOME opportunities to fund projects run by faculty in community colleges. Opportunities are aplenty! Now, to find the time….🙂

  2. Thanks for this — very interesting — and best of luck! I’m especially surprised that the CC pay is better than 4-yr schools. Are you including the Ivies you interviewed at in this?

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  4. From the other perspective, it is really good to see high quality academic staff being employed, and finding satisfying careers, at community colleges. Those students need professional teaching and (perhaps even more) mentoring than those at conventional universities.

  5. As a community college professor, I am extremely happy where I am.
    However, I want to provide a counter example to a few of these points.

    On item #1, in my state starting salaries for CC faculty are significantly lower than salaries at other higher education institutions, specifically $8-18k lower than the 4-year institutions in the state at the Assistant Professor level (with the gap widening as you move up). I agree that the benefits packages can be very good, but I would say that it is generally the exception that a community college would have high pay than other higher ed institutions in the region.

    On item #3, the typical teaching load for CC faculty is 5/5. Yes, there are exceptions at some schools, and yes, writing intensive courses sometimes will lead to a course release. However, in most places and in most fields it is 5/5, and many faculty will teach overload, because they get increased compensation for doing so.

    Becoming a faculty member at a community college is a great career choice for people focused on students, who have a passion for teaching, and a commitment to making their institution better. Thanks for highlighting community colleges, and that they are a valid and vital part of the higher ed landscape.

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