Spotlight on Jobs for English Majors: If it’s not teaching, then what’s next?

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

My Back Pages (Grey), painting by Stanford Kay 2009

The last two posts have focused on how to pursue teaching after you’ve obtained the M.A. For this post, I want to offer some insights on thinking about other possibilities for meaningful work that pays the bills. The most important thing to know is that the process of finding that work won’t begin and conclude in one sitting. It’s not unlike writing your thesis. You probably had days when the words were flowing, when you had clarity in your analysis, and when your advisor said “Great work! Keep going.” And then you probably had days when writing a single paragraph was agony, when your thoughts were muddy, when your advisor diplomatically said, “I’m not sure what you were trying to say here….”

The good news is that you can apply exactly the same toolbox to writing your thesis to finding work. Here’s how:

  • Research jobs based on your existing interests: When you picked the text or texts to write about for your thesis, you embraced your curiosity and desire to contribute something valuable; the same impulses will help narrow your search for work that engages you. What’s important to you? What makes you feel motivated to act? Here’s a tip: it doesn’t have to be explicitly related to English, literature, teaching, or anything that seems an obvious “fit” to an English major. Just observe your interests and see where they take you.
  • Stop researching and reflect on your findings: The internet is your friend until it’s your enemy. There comes a point when you must cease looking for information and turn your attention to the information you gathered in order to make sense of it. What kind of patterns have emerged in your research? What connections emerge?
  • Organize your findings: In the same way you created a record of your research for your thesis in the form of an annotated bibliography, organize your research based on the themes, topics, patterns, and connections you’ve observed. Don’t judge what you’ve found. Instead, let it unfold. Your tendencies toward criticism are useful, but sometimes you need to set them aside to see the bigger picture.
  • Share your findings with someone who’s smarter than you and get feedback: When I say “smarter than you” I’m not talking about IQ or degrees. I’m talking about someone who has a job that you admire and who’s achieved what you seek: finding meaningful work. This person (or people!) has perspective that will help you to see what’s working in your approach and what you can further do to get where you want to go.

I hope this helps! Remember to be patient with the process AND to celebrate your successes at every step.





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!