Building a Career at a Community College

By Flannery Amdahl

Photo by Ryan Jacobson on Unsplash

Many GC alum have landed tenure-track jobs at community colleges in the NYC area and around the country. (In fact, if you peruse the faculty webpages on CUNY community college websites, you’ll find quite a few GC PhDs!) This month at our panel on Building a Career at a Community College, we heard from four of them:

  • Lorraine Cohen (Ph.D., Sociology), Professor of Sociology, Coordinator of the Labor and Community Organization Option, and Chair of Social Science Department, LaGuardia Community College
  • Stacey Donohue (Ph.D., English), Professor of English and Chair of Humanities Department, Central Oregon Community College
  • Ilan Ehrlich (Ph.D., Latin American History), Assistant Professor of History, Bergen Community College
  • Paul West (Ph.D., Biomedical Engineering), Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science, LaGuardia Community College

What are some of the advantages of working at a community college?

The emphasis on teaching

Our panelists agreed that the emphasis on teaching at community colleges was a main draw for them. Teaching is considered a “calling” at LaGuardia Community College and there’s a huge commitment to students and pedagogy, Professor Cohen said. “I learned so much about pedagogy and student-centered teaching in my first 3 years [at LaGuardia],” Prof. West later added.

The students

Cohen also noted the extremely diverse student body at LaGuardia, and recommended tapping into the interesting work and life experiences that many students bring into the classroom. West, who had one student go on to receive a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, said one big advantage to his job is “serving and mentoring students for whom college is not necessarily part of their birthright.”

Added geographic flexibility

If your job search includes community colleges, you might be more likely to land a job in your desired geographic region, Prof. Ehrlich said (he grew up in the NYC area and it was important for him to stay here). If you have a desired region in mind, the panelists suggested searching online for community colleges in that area and and checking their websites for job listings (some schools advertise nationally in publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, but not all do).

More research flexibility

Ehrlich said that his own dissertation wasn’t in a trendy field, but he now feels “total freedom” to pursue his own research agenda: “You can go in whatever direction you want as a scholar” and “take your time because there’s no constant pressure [to publish].”

Is teaching at community colleges different from teaching at a 4-year school?

Course load

Note that the course-load for full-time faculty can sometimes be heavier at community colleges than at 4-year schools.  Ehrlich reported teaching about 5 courses during both the fall and spring semesters. Prof. Donahue said that under her college’s quarterly system, members of the English department typically teach 4 courses in the fall, 3 in the winter, and 3 in the spring (with some faculty earning extra money by teaching in the summer, and others focusing on their own research).


Cohen said that the approach tends to be very student-centered, and that, at least in the English and Social Science departments, the emphasis is on student interaction rather than straight-forward lecturing. Ehrlich, who also taught as an adjunct at both Hunter and City College, said he doesn’t teach any differently at a community college.

Do you have any advice for landing a community college job?

Understand the culture of the institution you are applying to

Even various CUNY community colleges have different histories and traditions, West remarked.  You can learn about some of the differences by looking at the college’s websites, especially if they’ve posted their institutional strategic plans. For example, does the college devote extensive resources to an honors program and students who want to transfer to four-year colleges and universities? And/or does the college focus on continuing education programs?

Tailor your cover letter to the institution

Donohue said that although she applied to about 100 jobs when she was on the market, she was sure to add at least one sentence to her cover letters referencing what was special about each school.  “The letter should show that you are in touch with the community college mission of teaching, particularly in CUNY community colleges whose students are very ethnically diverse with different levels of educational preparation,” Cohen explained. 

Think about how you will “add value” to the faculty

West recommended doing some research and learning who your potential colleagues are. How would you create synergy within the department? (“Hard skills will get you the interview, while soft skills will get you the job,” he advised.) And do you have any special training and experience to contribute? For example, West said that many colleges are interested in creating hybrid courses (CUNY just so happens to sponsor a workshop on online/hybrid instruction).

Keep in touch with your adviser

Your adviser can make a huge difference in helping you learn about jobs, Ehrlich said. His own adviser passed along an email about the opening at Bergen Community College, and volunteered to write a letter of recommendation even though it was due in only three days. “If your adviser isn’t looking out for you, get another adviser,” Ehrlich emphasized. But Donohue said that the job search process isn’t only about who you know and their connections: her college, for example, regularly lists openings in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Can current community college adjuncts move to full-time faculty positions?

Donohue said that, while it is unusual, her college has offered adjuncts a full-time line in the past (she also noted that there have been few adjunct applicants; currently, only 1 of the 24 adjuncts in her department has a PhD, and the college conducts national searches with “PhD preferred” in the job description). Cohen said it has also happened at LaGuardia, especially for adjuncts who successfully complete their dissertation by the end of the academic year. West recommended that adjuncts should focus on how visible they are in the department, and be sure to go to as many professional development events as possible that are in support of the department’s agenda.

Will community colleges sponsor work visas for foreign nationals?

Cohen said that although this depends on the institution, “If they feel like you’re really good, the department chair will sponsor you.” Ehrlich said that this is also not a problem at his college.

Additional Resources

Rob Jenkins, an associate professor at Georgia Perimeter College, has written a number of candid articles for the Chronicle, including:

The Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan has posted links to more online articles and resources here.