Mark Tonelli

Assistant Professor of Music at Millikin University

Job-Market Diaries: An English Instructor

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Here is the second in a new series, Job-Market Diaries, in which Mark Tonelli interviews new faculty members about how they found their first teaching job. This month he talks with an M.F.A. about how he got his first full-time teaching job at a community college.

  • Name: Brian Goedde
  • Institution: Community College of Philadelphia
  • Position: Instructor of English
  • Start date: Fall 2015

Describe your background.

Brian: I was an adjunct for six years. I’ll preface my 50-word bio by saying that I learned in my job search that the following background wasn’t enough: “I have a B.A. in literature from New York University, and a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. I’ve written for a variety of academic, literary, and mainstream press publications, including The New York Times, the Huron River Review, and Thought & Action, a peer-reviewed journal published by the NEA.”

That said, getting passed over twice for a full-time job at the institution where I was an adjunct taught me that all of those accomplishments don’t necessarily mean much, at least not in my field of community-college education. People would say things to me like, “You went to Iowa? I thought that would be a golden ticket.” Not true.

What types of things did you do to prepare to teach full time in academia?

Brian: Much of the advice I heard or read suggested that I should “work for free.” I hated that advice: As an adjunct I was already working for little pay and no health insurance, and now I should give my time for free?

What “work for free” means, of course, is not teaching another class for no money, but engaging in service activities (like leading student clubs, putting on workshops at the teaching center, etc.) that take time and effort for which you are not (directly) compensated.

Now that I have been working full time for two years — one year on a temporary contract, one year on the tenure track — guess what I’ve realized? Full-timers actually do a lot of “work for free.” All the out-of-class student engagement, professional-development, and volunteer work is expected, but not necessarily rewarded in a financial sense. You’re paid to teach your classes, but if you hope to get hired full time and earn tenure and future promotions, you also have to show that you’re a good citizen.

What would you have done differently to prepare for the job?

Brian: It took me a while to figure out that, not only should I be doing more “working for free” (i.e., service) but I should be involved at different levels. I’ll put it this way: As a full-time faculty member moving toward tenure and promotion, I need to be successful in these four categories: fulfillment of required teaching duties, service to students, service to the department and college, and service to the field. (Keep in mind that I’m at a community college, where the mantra is not “publish or perish.”)

Before I got my full-time job, most of my service work was for my field. As my bio indicates, I’m a writer, and much of my free time is spent working on articles. What I learned, however, was that my department and college were more interested in what I could do for them.

If I had it to do over again, I would be more strategic about how I spent my professional time outside the classroom. Each semester, I would focus on a different category — perhaps in the fall I’d do some curriculum development, in the spring I’d volunteer to help a student club, and so forth. People advised me to “work on what makes you unique,” which was writing, but I wish I had also been advised to balance that out with other professional activities.

What do you think helped you get your current job?

Brian: I had a general template for cover letters, but what helped me get interviews, I believe, is that I always inserted a unique paragraph about the college and the department to which I was applying. If they had an award-winning student paper, I mentioned it. If they had a robust honors program, I mentioned it. If the interview committee got to the second page of my cover letter, they would see that I’d done a little research on where I was applying.

After I was passed over for two full-time jobs at the campus where I was an adjunct, I asked my colleagues what the chosen candidate had done to get the job. My department chair told me that one successful candidate had done a presentation on where he saw himself in five years. With that in mind, I wrote my own “five-year action plan,” complete with a grid, which I started giving to my interviewers.

Thanks to an article by David Lydic called, “What You’ll Be Asked,” I came to my community-college interviews armed with answers to commonly asked questions — like “Describe what you see as the mission of the community college and how your instruction reinforces this mission” or “Describe a lesson that did not go well, and what you learned from it.” In fact, every question I got in interviews was some variation of a question on Lydic’s list. (After I got my job, I emailed him to say “thanks.”)

I also prepared questions for my interviewers. I always had three: The first one was light, as I wanted to show that I had a sense of humor (for example, in a phone interview with Harper College, I asked if the campus had a statue of William Rainey Harper, who is credited with starting the community-college system). Then I would ask a couple of specific questions about the department or college that showed I’d done my homework.

What advice do you have for academic job candidates?

Brian: When I was looking for a job I found it comforting to learn other job-seekers’ stats, so here are mine: In my first year on the market, I sent out 16 applications, got one interview, and one temporary full-time job. In my second year, I sent out 20 applications, and my search ended with two offers. After accepting my current position, I turned down four other interview requests.

As a job candidate, the hardest thing for me, emotionally speaking, was taking on a measure of humility and overcoming the feeling that I “deserved” a job, or I was entitled to it. Of course I “deserved” it — I had been adjuncting for years, I had good credentials, I got great student reviews, and I’m a nice guy. But, you know what? There are a lot of other nice, deserving applicants.

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