Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: Moving from Adjunct to Full-Time

Painting by

Red Bound, painting by Stanford Kay, 2006  

This post is the first in a series I’m writing for former students and recent grads from where I used to teach who want some concrete answers to real questions about the many, many career paths for people who’ve studied English and other humanities fields. My answers for them are borne of both my knowledge and experience from ten years in higher education and my deep reflection on what I’ve observed and learned as someone who coaches people in stages of career transition. I left full-time academic work two years ago to become a full-time dilettante and remain connected to higher education through my clients and my work in course development, design, and online writing instruction.

Question: How does one get a full-time position as a composition instructor at a community college?

Answer: There are a number of paths to full-time work, and the one I’ll focus on today is how to move from adjunct to full-time. I would be remiss if I didn’t address the barriers to this work, so be sure to keep reading.

What helps get there: All community colleges will hire adjunct instructors with an M.A. in English; when it comes to full-time positions this is not always the case because a terminal degree like an MFA or Ph.D is required (this varies from school to school). Many people will start out as an adjunct and eventually qualify for full-time instructorships when these positions become available.  It is a good idea to ask the department chair and director of composition (aka, academic writing or first-year writing) about possible paths to full-time positions. You can learn a lot from what they tell you and what they don’t tell you. For instance, if they say “hmm, I don’t think that’s happened in twenty years,” that should give you some indication of the likelihood that a position might not be available any time soon. If they say, “I’m not sure, but I think so-and-so started as adjunct and became full-time…” then you should go ask so-and-so how s/he got the job.

What you can do to get there: The people who win these jobs almost always have one thing in common: they make themselves valuable to the department beyond teaching their courses. This might include tutoring in the campus writing center and will certainly entail building relationships with other colleagues, especially the director of composition and the department chair.  You will want to prove yourself as a top-notch instructor by way of observations and student evaluations, but you also want to demonstrate a commitment to the philosophy of teaching composition within the department; different programs teach academic writing in vastly different ways and according to different theoretical assumptions, so it’s necessary to learn the practices that are specific to your particular program. Being a potential candidate for full-time work will also entail a continued commitment to one’s own professional development, particularly professional development that complements the department’s needs and vision. For instance: if you are an adjunct who is interested in receiving ESL certification, you can approach the director of comp. on the possibility of offering fellow colleagues a workshop on this topic. Doing this kind of work demonstrates a commitment to the department, and boosts the credibility of a candidate who wants to advance to full-time work. Another way to demonstrate your commitment to professional development is to enroll in a PhD program while you work as an adjunct. Once again, you would position yourself to be an attractive candidate if your research agenda complements the needs and vision of the department (and even the college’s strategic plan, which you can always find on every college’s website).

Barriers to full-time work:

Internal: It’s always vital to remember that academic departments are run by human beings with particular tendencies that are both productive and harmful.  This means that it is always a possibility that no matter how hard you work nor how much evidence you have to support that you would be an asset as a full-time instructor (particularly in comparison to others that might appear quite mediocre in contrast) a department chair or composition director will not create a path for the job you seek. This does not mean there is something wrong with you or that’s there’s something wrong with the powers that be; rather, it just means you and the department are not a good fit. It is tremendously useful to realize when it is time to move on from a place where you are not appropriately recognized for the work you do.

External: Community colleges depend on state budgets, which are often managed by people who do not see the particular and valuable contributions of adjuncts. The unfortunate truth is that the university is a rigid hierarchy wherein there often exists an antagonistic relationship between the administration and faculty, and adjuncts occupy a vulnerable position in that they do not have a platform from which to advocate for themselves (this is especially true of schools that do not have a faculty union).  Thus, if a dept. chair or comp. director is told they can only hire x number of part-time or full-time instructors, their hands are tied.

I hope that helps! Feel free to leave a comment or question below. The next post will focus on getting your foot the door to interview. Thanks for reading!