Teaching at a Community College 101

Post written by guest blogger Ana M. Ribeiro, Special Programs Coordinator within OITE. 

What researchers need to know when applying for a faculty position at a Community College

Teaching at a Community College is a potential career choice for academics in the biological sciences who want to use their research skills and background knowledge to educate the next generation of college students. There are multiple aspects you should consider when applying to teach at a Community College, most importantly, you need to be passionate about teaching, and using this job as a steppingstone until you get your next research position might not be the best solution for you, the faculty administrators or the students. In Community Colleges, teaching always comes first and the hiring committees expect the same from anyone they choose to become faculty members in their institution. Before you consider applying to teach at a Community College, ask yourself some questions that can help you consider whether or not this might be the right career path for you and, if that’s the case, how can you become a competitive candidate.

Can being a researcher help me build a better application for a faculty position?

Although in academia there are certain achievements that can help you thrive as a researcher like number of publications, where you publish or what’s your h-index; when applying to teach at a Community College these metrics are less important. Your research experience, however, will give you an advantage during the selection process if you can describe how being a scientist can make you a better educator. Although having a PhD doesn’t necessarily help you teach, it will help you become a better generalist, someone who is able to make connections, to solve problems fast and to adjust their teaching material to the different students’ needs. In addition, being able to understand and maintain equipment used for classes and research projects is easier to do when you’ve used it in the past. Having extra experience from your research background helps you be a versatile critical thinker and problem-solver. And who’s better at solving problems on the spot than scientists? But remember, to teach at a Community College you’ll have to be able to take off your ‘scientist hat’ and put on a ‘teacher hat’ – even though you understand the concepts you’ll be teaching in all its complexity, you’ll have to translate it into a language that can be understood by everyone, including students who have no background knowledge in the area you’re teaching. Using your expertise and your passion for science to your advantage as an educator will engage your students and ultimately help them thrive, whether they use that knowledge professionally in the future or not.

What makes a good application for a faculty position at a Community College?

To teach at a Community College you’ll need to have a master’s degree plus 18 credit hours or a PhD in the field you’ll be teaching. Besides your academic qualifications, and particularly for permanent faculty positions, expressing a desire to teach, to connect and listen to your student’s goals, being enthusiastic about the idea of improving yourself professionally over time to promote your student’s success, and explaining why teaching at a Community College is part of your mission will give you a competitive edge. As opposed to four-year institutions, Community Colleges are extremely diverse, not only in terms of race or socioeconomic status, but also regarding motivations to become a student there. As an applicant, it is essential that you do your homework by learning about the College you’ll be applying to, it’s demographics, and to be prepared to explain not only that you can work with this diverse population, but how you’ll thrive in this environment. If you’re not sure if this is the right population of students to work with, consider investing some energy in diversity trainings before applying; this will help you understand whether or not you’ll honor the commitment of serving your students with the respect, empathy and dedication they deserve.

               When applying, avoid explaining to the recruiters what you want to get out of the job for yourself. Instead, focus on the reasons why you want to join this institution and what you can do for the students as a professor and the other faculty members as their colleague. If you make yourself seen and a valuable asset to the department chairs by emailing them shortly before the semester starts (even if you weren’t selected for the position), they may think of you as the faculty member they need in an emergency hiring situation.

What will my responsibilities be as a Community College professor?

               If you’re wondering how can your time in the lab doing experiments and writing manuscripts or detailing in an education or policy office help you become a professor, the sky is the limit if you’re enthusiastic and well aware that you have to keep on improving professionally. As an educator, your teaching job won’t be just teaching. In fact, being a Community College faculty member means that you’ll combine multiple skills developed in your past (or current) career path to fulfill your responsibilities successfully. Communicating science in a confident and engaging but simplified manner, dealing with the challenges of finding new ways of presenting the material (from in-person to online format, for example) and  keeping your material scientifically accurate and up to date (as well as exciting for the students) for example by reading scientific journals, attending conferences and inviting speakers, are ways of ensuring your inner scientist can help you be an engaging professor. Additionally, you may be responsible for supervising student’s research and you’ll probably have to advise students as well as to serve in multiple committees. As a Community College professor, you’ll be coordinating multiple tasks concomitantly, including serving the students and the university but also developing your own professional aspirations, which means you’ll need to be extremely organized and manage your time well.

As a final note, if you’re thinking about applying to teach at a Community College, you have the right to seek support from your employers in order to accomplish your professional goals. Be honest about what those goals are from the moment you apply and, if you join the institution, ask for help from more experienced faculty members whenever you need it. Always remember that your students’ success depends entirely on yours.

This text is based on a panel discussion with faculty members entitled ‘Teaching at a Community College 101’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfAzD1Kz5Rg&feature=youtu.be), recorded in the context of the NIH 2020 Community College Day. A big thank you to Drs. Nadene Houser-Archield, Margaret (Maggie) Emblom-Callahan, Lori M. Kelman and Suman Mukherjee.

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