Friday, May 16, 2008

Doctor, doctor

We are not worthy!

Deputy district attorney Zach Williams (Terry Kinney) had the perfect put-down for his nemesis, defense attorney Elizabeth Canterbury (Julianna Margulies), who was being accused of jury tampering. Predicting her disbarment and a stint in jail, he delivers the ultimate rebuke: “You're going to be lucky getting a teaching job at Massasoit Community College!”

Ow! That clip from Canterbury's Law is just brutal! Imagine being being reduced to the point where your highest aspiration is a junior college teaching job. Sad!

As we all know, anyone can have a community college faculty position for the asking. It's just that easy, right? Even for ex-felons!

Not exactly. In reality, you need to beat odds of about 30 or 40 to 1. That's approximately how many qualified applicants vie for each opening. Our hiring process is cleverly designed to attract the attention of dozens of good people and then disappoint the vast majority of them.

I have had lots of experience on both sides of the community college hiring process. Fortunately, it's been several years since I've been on the applicant side, although I remember it well. Applicants get lots of stress and suspense. Members of the hiring committee get hours and hours of reading applications, sitting through multiple interviews, and ranking finalists. It's fun for everyone.

Some of the applications are more interesting than others. They appear to come from people who share the point of view of the television scriptwriters who crafted the Canterbury's Law scene. It's clear from their cover letters that these applicants consider themselves vastly overqualified for our positions. They are willing, however, to lower themselves to our level—at least temporarily:
I am prepared to serve on the faculty at your institution until a more suitable university position becomes available.

The members of the screening committee passed that letter around for some hearty chuckles. The writer held a doctorate in mathematics and had enclosed a nice list of publications as part of his curriculum vita. (Frankly, we prefer a one- or two-page résumé with an emphasis on teaching experience.) We don't mind when candidates have doctorates and a list of publications, but we are a teaching institution. Some applicants don't get that.

In fact, lots of people don't get it. Last year I ran across this comment at Thus Spake Zuska:
I know someone who thought a masters would be enough to get a job at a CC, which is the person's dream job. Nowadays, the competition for Ph.D. level jobs is so fierce that the person is unlikely to get a CC position without a PhD. It's sad that someone with a PhD, trained in research (not teaching) and who probably looks at a CC as a consolation prize will get a position over a person less trained in research but who really wants it as a first choice. When research is not even part of the job responsibilities.

Although the commenter explicitly recognizes the community college's teaching mission, she goes off the rails in drawing her conclusion. Perhaps it's significantly different out there in the big wide world of postsecondary education, but I doubt that my community college is particularly out of step. A master's degree is enough. A Ph.D. is not a get-on-the-faculty-free ticket.

In the case I just cited of the supercilious Ph.D. who was willing to go slumming for a while in the backwaters of the junior college system, his degree was an active liability. He clearly knew nothing about our mission and was utterly unsuited for a position on our teaching staff. (He might have been unsuited for a university position, too, if he was naïve enough to think that taking a community college position would not reduce his future appeal to upper-tier research institutions.)

To be fair, though, I must admit that I once took a healthy bite from the apple of over-qualification years ago when a doctorate-bearing applicant tempted me beyond my ability to resist. The application packet was impeccable and most impressive. I had little experience at that point in serving on hiring committees and had yet to develop the sixth sense that enabled my senior colleagues to distinguish the gilded from the golden. While I had ranked Dr. Superstar as my top choice, my colleagues placed him decidedly lower in their tallies. My advocacy, however, was enough to boost Dr. Superstar over the hurdle that separated the paper-screening phase of the process from the personal interview phase. He was going to get a chance to impress us in person.

On the appointed day at the appointed time, the chair of the hiring committee ushered Dr. Superstar into the conference room where interviews were being conducted. The candidate was nattily turned out in coat and tie. The committee chair directed the candidate to his designated seat and told him to make himself comfortable as the committee members introduced themselves. Dr. Superstar promptly shed his coat and pushed his chair back into a reclining position. (He certainly took direction well.)

The candidate maintained a remarkably relaxed demeanor throughout the entire interview. He answered our questions casually with an occasional wave of the hand. It was all too, too easy for him. We committee members tried to avoid exchanging glances during Dr. Superstar's soigné but insubstantial performance. The looks I couldn't quite avoid from my colleagues were accompanied by barely perceptible smirks. My No. 1 pick from the applicant pool was drifting lazily about and not impressing anyone.

Then came his great opportunity to redeem himself in our eyes. His reasons for wanting to work at our institution were perfunctory and his explication of his teaching philosophy was too terse and abstract, but we had arrived at the obligatory teaching demonstration. Surely he would put the entire panoply of his pedagogical skills on display!

“Oh, you mean the calculus problem that you sent me in the mail?”

Yes, that one.

Dr. Superstar pushed his chair back a bit further and put his feet up on the conference table, crossing his legs at the ankles. “Well, as I recall, the goal was to find the extrema of a cubic polynomial.”

You can use the chalkboard to present your solution.

“Thank you, but it's not really necessary.”

(It is is if you want the job.)

“After all, conceptually it's quite simple. The derivative of a cubic polynomial is a quadratic polynomial, so the existence of two zeros of the derivative is guaranteed. Suppose we assume the zeros are distinct real numbers, since that's the most interesting case for our purposes.”

(‘Assume’ nothing! We gave you a specific problem and the zeros are distinct real numbers. We want to compare how our candidates present their solutions of the same problem. You're showing us nothing!)

Dr. Superstar's hand went up into the air a bit and he waved it gently as he declaimed. “Of course, one zero will be a relative maximum and the other zero will be a relative minimum. You can check which is which with the second derivative. It's really quite a standard situation. No big surprises.”

Yes. Thank you. (Actually, I think there may be a surprise after all.)

Dr. Superstar did not pass on to the next round. If I recall correctly, we ranked him as the least desirable of all the candidates we interviewed. And I helped.


Dana Hunter said...

Dr. Superstar has left me in need of sutures - my sides are splitting!

I think I see now why some people with Master's and PhD's end up working menial jobs. And, while I used to have no sympathy for the "overqualified" argument, I can see now why it applies.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, many hiring committees at teaching-oriented institutions (not just community colleges) are very willing to assume that a research-trained Ph.D. is worthless as an educator.

I went to the thoroughly useless job fair at the 2007 Joint Mathematics Meetings, and it was clear from what interviews I *did* get that I wasn't taken seriously as a teacher. This despite the fact that I had more teaching experience as a graduate student than more graduate programs provide for, and that students in my calculus classes have an uncanny tendency to declare math majors afterwards. Still, I went to [big-name research school], and so I couldn't possibly be a good enough instructor.

Zeno said...

I am sorry (and a little surprised) to hear that, Unapologetic. My sample size has N = 1 so I don't know from personal experience how hiring committees work at other institutions, but my school tries not to pre-judge. We normally have a few doctorates sprinkled among the candidates we interview for teaching positions. We invite applicants to come on campus for interviews based on their teaching skills (either actual, as demonstrated by experience and recommendations, or potential, in the case of younger candidates whose references suggest serious skills). Their possession (or not) of a doctorate is generally a non-issue. If a candidate has an extensive body of research, however, we look for evidence that his or her career goals have shifted toward pedagogy, because our school is not a good environment for getting much research done.

Your experience indicates the existence of a bias against big-U candidates. I hope that's not true at my college, where we've hired applicants with University of California PhDs.

I wish I knew what you could do to break through the barrier and get taken seriously as a teacher. If you were to send me an example of your typical letter of interest, I'd be willing to try to give you some constructive feedback on trying to grab a screening committee's interest.

Anonymous said...

Good luck to unapologetic---I also suspect there's a way to tweak self-presentation to minimize that effect.

Although---it really sounds like Dr Superstar thought you were quizzing him on whether he really knew math, not that this was a teaching demonstration. You are sure there was no misunderstanding?

(Or are you arguing that anyone applying for a CC job ought to *know* everything is a teaching demo?)

Zeno said...

You're right, Dance. For some reason, Dr. Superstar responded as if we really wanted to know if he could find the extrema of a cubic function. As if we would doubt that. It was an odd moment.

He really treated the whole interview process much too casually. Every community college hiring committee I've ever served on (or been interviewed by) required each candidate to prepare a 10 or 12 minute teaching demo on a specified topic. Dr. Superstar was given very specific directions in the letter that gave him the demo topic. The committee even worked over the language of the teaching demo instructions to ensure that the candidates would know what was required of them. We said, "present the material as if you were explaining it to a first-year calculus class." We always note that there'll be a chalkboard or whiteboard and overhead projector available. These days we also tell the candidates that a computer with projector is provided if they wish to bring a data-stick with PowerPoint slides (or whatever).

Dr. Superstar was entirely clueless about what he needed to show us.

(And as for your final comment, Dance: yeah, the entire interview is really a teaching demo and CC candidates had better pick up on that. Good point.)

Anonymous said...

Not so sure there's such a thing as an ex-felon :) It's a label for life. (So avoid it, kids.)

Unknown said...

Just because the derivative is a quadratic doesn't mean it has two extrema. What if the quadratic doesn't have any real solutions? What if the quadratic has one unique solution (such as 3*x^2 = 0)?

Also, why does he think that as a PhD candidate the interviewers would want him to answer a basic calculus question? If I got an e-mail asking me such a question, that alone would tell me that there is something in the e-mail I missed (or the people interviewing me are idiots).

Zeno said...

If you read it again, Brian, you will see that your first point was specifically addressed. The candidate posited real solutions (and the actual problem we had sent him did in fact produce real-valued critical numbers, but he hadn't bothered to check).

Your second point is one we puzzled about as well. Why on earth would he have thought we were asking him about something from elementary calculus? He replied to it as if we were testing him on his knowledge. Bizarre. He had no idea what we were looking for.