What to Expect at a Community-College Interview

Full for vitae 2 year track

Image: Kevin Van Aelst

A complaint I hear frequently from graduate students at research universities is that no one on their campus can advise them on the faculty-hiring process at community colleges.

That’s not necessarily a knock against their advisers. No doubt some of them are actively opposed to their students’ pursuing a teaching job at a two-year college, viewing it as "settling" or "beneath them." (That strikes me as a bit shortsighted, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they mean well.)

Other professors, however, would genuinely like to help — they just don’t know anything about the hiring process at a two-year college because they’ve never been through it themselves. They naturally assume that it’s similar to the process they went through at four-year institutions.

Unfortunately, for their students, it isn’t.

This is a knowledge gap I have tried to fill over the years when I’ve been invited to speak at universities. I’ve also written twice on this topic — first a general essayon hiring at community colleges and, most recently, on the application. This time, with interview season upon us, I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which the community-college version differs from its research-university counterpart.

A couple of caveats:

  • First, just as most professors at research universities have never been involved in a job interview at a two-year college, I have never been interviewed for a position at a research university. So I’m basing this comparison on what I’ve been told by graduate students and job candidates, as well as on my own conversations with university acquaintances.
  • Second, the interview process is hardly standardized, either at two-year colleges or at four-year universities. Indeed, it can vary widely from campus to campus. Interviews at some small, teaching-focused four-year campuses might resemble community-college interviews in some respects. Meanwhile, two-year colleges in certain parts of the country (like the Northeast) might incorporate elements of the research university interview. I encourage readers to post comments below sharing your experiences and/or detailing the interviewing idiosyncrasies you’ve witnessed.

Now let’s turn to the key ways in which the two-year-college interview typically differs from one at a research university:

It won’t be at a conference. If you’re reading this in late February or early March, and you’ve just received an invitation to interview at a community college, you already know this.

(If you haven’t yet gotten an invitation, that doesn’t mean you won’t. The timing of this column reflects the fact that most interviews for full-time faculty positions at community colleges are held between mid-March and late April. But again, that varies. Some readers may have had a two-year interview already, while others might not hear from the search committee for a couple of weeks.)

Perhaps there are some two-year colleges that interview candidates at the big scholarly conferences — for example, at the Modern Language Association or the American Historical Association meetings — but I’ve never heard of one. That probably has to do with the cost of sending a delegation and with the hiring timeline at two-year colleges. We typically don’t approve the creation of new positions until November or later, and don’t form search committees until after the winter break.

Instead, we hold most initial interviews on campus. That said, more and more two-year colleges, like our four-year counterparts, have started to do preliminary interviews via telephone or Skype as a way of reducing the number of candidates who must be brought to campus.

We might not pay your way. If you are invited for an on-campus interview, be sure to ask if the college plans to reimburse you for your travel expenses. Don’t just assume it will, because many two-year colleges don’t.

Of those that do, some will pay only a portion while others might offer you a set amount ($500, for instance), which may or may not cover your actual expenses. You might also want to ask if the college plans to make your travel arrangements, or any portion thereof (like a hotel reservation, for instance), or if you need to make those yourself.

The interview won’t be a marathon. A tenure-track interview at a research university can span a day or two, involving multiple meetings with search-committee members, other professors, students, and various administrators — not to mention a job talk and/or a teaching demo.

That sort of extended schedule is rare for a faculty interview at a community college. There, your interview most likely will last about an hour, perhaps 90 minutes, and might well be one of several the committee is conducting that day with multiple candidates for the same position. (On the hiring side of the table, we sometimes refer to these as "cattle call" interviews.)

You probably will talk only with people on the search committee, although you may get to meet the department chair or dean.

There is no "job talk." I have been through the hiring process at five different community colleges and never had to deliver a job talk at any of them. I’ve never heard a job talk, either. At four-year institutions, the "job talk" is a presentation on the candidate’s research. It’s usually delivered to a larger group of people than just the search committee, and followed by a Q&A.

Not only are you unlikely to give a job talk during a community-college interview, you may not be asked any questions about your research at all. The fact that you do research may be impressive, but it’s not part of the faculty job description at most two-year colleges. In fact, the subject matter of your scholarship might not be particularly relevant to the entry-level courses you would be assigned to teach.

What the search committee will ask about is your teaching — both your philosophy of teaching and your practical experiences as a teacher. You will be asked about hot-button issues like diversity, technology, and classroom management. If your research deals directly with any of those issues, feel free to work it into the discussion. Just be sure that your answers are practical and not just theoretical. (I’ve written more about the specific questions you can expect, and how to answer them, here.)

The teaching demo is a critical part of the interview. I wrote about the misuse of PowerPoint in demos just last fall ("The Teaching Demo: Less Power, More Point"). At research institutions, the teaching demo is usually separate from the interview and conducted in front of students (an actual class or a group invited just for that purpose). Some community colleges do it that way, too.

At most two-year colleges, however, the teaching demo is part of the 60- to 90-minute interview I mentioned above, and the audience is usually composed solely of members of the search committee. That can feel a little awkward and may require some specific strategies (I’ll summarize them below but you can find more detail here):

  • It’s not a presentation. Don’t just tell how you would teach. Show.
  • You may not get to pick your topic, but if you do, choose a manageable one. One of the biggest mistakes I see candidates make in a demo is trying to cover too much.
  • In your demo, treat committee members as if they were students. That will require you to do a bit of role-playing: Ask them questions, try to engage them in discussion, and call on them to answer.
  • Don’t just lecture. Include discussion, Q&A, or activities.
  • Use bells and whistles — in moderation. Don’t go overboard on the tech, and have a backup plan for what you will do if the technology crashes.

There may be an "inside candidate." Because two-year colleges often hire their own adjuncts for full-time positions (something I’m sure many adjuncts wish was the case at four-year institutions), the entire process may be a foregone conclusion. Committee members might already have a front-runner in line for the job, and are conducting interviews only to fulfill institutional, state, or federal requirements.

There’s probably a continuum at work here. Some searches may indeed have a predetermined outcome (Adjunct A is going to get the job) while in other cases, committee members might lean toward certain candidates yet still be open to "new blood." Plenty of searches — maybe even most of them — are truly wide open.

So how can you know if a community college’s hiring decision is foreordained?

You can’t — unless you have a friend on the campus who is willing to give you the scoop. Barring that, if you’re invited to an interview, assume the search is legitimate and proceed accordingly. You should certainly accept an offer for a phone or Skype interview — that won’t cost you anything except an hour or so of your time — and if they’re willing to pay your way to campus for an on-site interview, you should probably accept that, too. (If you have to pay for travel out of pocket, you’ll have to weigh the costs, and decide.)

Worst-case scenario: You’ll acquire some valuable experience in interviewing.

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