Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Adjuncting in Graduate School

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Image: Men reading the want advertisements for jobs, Melinda Street, Toronto, Canada, 1919, by William James (City of Toronto Archives)

Question: I finished up my master’s degree this spring and am heading off to a new city to begin a doctorate in the fall in a humanities program. My career goal is to teach full-time at a community college. I know those positions require significant teaching experience, so I’m thinking about trying to pick up a couple of classes teaching part-time at the large community college in the city where I’ll be studying. How do I find out if the college has any openings for part-timers in my field? And how do I apply for a position?

First, before I am accused of sanctioning an abhorrent practice, let me make clear that nothing I say here is meant to defend community colleges that rely far too heavily on adjuncts — as many colleges do. There are reasons why two-year colleges seem to hire a disproportionate number of part-timers and some of those reasons are the colleges’ fault and some aren’t. Still, most institutions could do better on this front if they tried, but that's another post.

Proviso No. 2: People who want to teach in the humanities at the college level must accept the fact that they will probably not get a tenure-track position — not right away, at least, and maybe not ever. “Picking up a couple classes” as an adjunct can quickly become a way of life, with all that that life entails: low pay, no benefits, lack of job security. You might get lucky and land a tenure-track job but, statistically, you probably won’t, and your odds are only slightly better (if that) at a community college than at a four-year institution.

But if you’re determined to give faculty life a try, and your goal is to teach at a two-year college, then picking up a couple of classes as an adjunct while you’re working on your doctorate is a good idea. It may be true, as I’ve heard some colleagues say, that too much adjuncting can work against you as a candidate for tenure-track openings at research universities. But that is not the case for teaching jobs at community colleges, where a significant number of faculty members began their careers as adjuncts. At many two-year campuses, adjuncting is actually a pretty good way to “get your foot in the door.” It’s also about the only way that graduate students and recent Ph.D.s can get the kind of teaching experience that community colleges are looking for.

A recent Vitae column did a good job of describing the interview process for part-time faculty at two-year colleges, and I strongly recommend that you read it. However, you also need to understand that the hiring process is far from uniform. Some colleges form search committees and hold formal interviews to hire part-time faculty, much like the process to hire full-timers. At other colleges, the department chair (or designee) conducts the interviews. And it’s also fairly common for adjuncts to be hired at the last minute, with a frantic phone call taking the place of a formal interview.

My goal here is to explain how you can get to the point where a college will call you in for an interview or, failing that, call you the day before classes begin. In other words, I want to talk about how you can get your application in front of department chairs so they will at least know you exist and perhaps consider you for a part-time teaching job.

Before you start applying, however, you need to make sure that a part-time teaching gig at a two-year college is not going to get you in trouble with your doctoral program. If you’re receiving some kind of stipend while you work on your Ph.D., then your graduate department has first claim on your time and loyalty. In fact, depending on your discipline and where your funding actually comes from, you might not be allowed to teach at all. Instead, you may be expected to spend all your time doing research.

That’s usually not the case in the humanities, where graduate assistants typically teach a course or two. The question is whether your department will allow you to teach another course or two on another campus. Some will be fine with it, some will absolutely forbid it, and some (most?) will simply turn a blind eye, as long as you don’t neglect your studies or the work for which you are receiving support. But you need to figure all that out before you apply to a two-year college.

Once you determine that an adjunct gig won’t jeopardize your standing in the department, then you can see if the local college has any openings. Two-year colleges don’t usually advertise part-time positions. The best way to find out about those jobs is to go to the college’s website and search its human-resources page for all the available openings at the institution, including part-time teaching positions. Keep in mind: Many of the openings you’ll see listed for part-timers are “rolling” — meaning they are regularly reposted on the college website. Certain disciplines, like English, history, and biology, have a steady need for part-timers because so many students have to take courses in those fields. Other disciplines, like economics, often have difficulty finding qualified adjuncts, so they will list regular part-time openings on the college’s website, too.

Just because the college has posted those openings, however, doesn’t mean it is actually hiring adjuncts in those disciplines at the moment. It might be, but it also might just be building its adjunct pool for a future need. As a former department chair for 10 years, I can testify that a drawer full of applications from qualified people seeking part-time work can become a kind of security blanket, because you never know what might happen: Enrollment can surge unexpectedly; people can quit, get sick, or move away; or someone you hired might just not show up the first day of class. So just be aware: The college might be seeking to hire someone for the next semester, or it might simply be looking to add your application to its pool — which is to say, to the department chair’s file drawer.

Your next step is to follow the instructions — to the letter — of the posted announcement. Send in every document the college requests but nothing more. Specify in your cover letter that you’re applying for the part-time position you saw on the college’s website, and treat the application as if you were applying for a full-time job. I’ve written extensively about cover letters and CV’s for community-college jobs here and here.

But I wouldn’t stop there. If all you do is submit an application to HR, there’s a good chance it will simply disappear into an administrative black hole. So go one step further and make an appointment to talk in person with the department chair.

That advice is somewhat controversial. Some chairs will no doubt object, saying they’re too busy to talk with every would-be adjunct who comes along. But I’m telling you what I would do in your shoes, knowing what I know about how the system works. You have to do something to set your application apart from the others. Ideally, you’d like the chair to remember your name, because he or she is probably involved in the search process. If and when the department needs to make a last-minute hire, you want the chair to think of you first. Some chairs might be annoyed to have you come by, but most would at least be polite and some might even be appreciative.

To be clear, what I’m recommending is that you:

  • Submit your application materials in accordance with the official requirements.
  • Then make an appointment to see the chair and take along hard copies of those same documents.
  • Don’t just drop by uninvited. Chairs have so many meetings, your chances of catching them are no better than 50-50.
  • Go through the chair’s administrative assistant to make an appointment, if possible. You don’t have to say you’re looking for a job, although you shouldn’t be evasive if asked. Initially, though, just say you’re a graduate student at Local University and would like to come by and introduce yourself. Stress that you only need 10 to 15 minutes of the chair’s time. The department will almost certainly schedule such a brief appointment for you. If folks are difficult and unwelcoming about it, well, you probably don’t want to work there anyway.
  • In your meeting, introduce yourself, explain why you’re there, stress your desire to teach part-time at the college, and leave copies of your documents. Keep it light and brief. Your goal is simply to help the chair put a face with name. Make sure your materials include up-to-date contact information, and then hope for the best.

As always, none of these steps guarantees that you’ll get a formal job interview, much less an adjunct job. In today’s faculty hiring market, there are absolutely no guarantees. But following my advice will, I believe, increase your chances of teaching part-time at that two-year college where you really want to teach because it’s convenient or whatever.

And if you do an exceptionally good job teaching part-time for three or four years there, who knows? Most community colleges are very open to hiring their own adjuncts for tenure-track positions (assuming they have those positions available).

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