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Pursuing an academic career in the community college system by Monika Sikand

Updated: Mar 4, 2020


Dr. Monika Sikand: a scientist and educator contributing to building a community of excellence at the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.

BIOGRAPHY:

Dr Monika Sikand is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering, Physics, and Technology at Bronx Community College of The City University of New York (BCC-CUNY). She is an atmospheric scientist and educator and a Visiting Faculty Exchange Fellow 2018 at the Cooperative Institute of Modelling in Earth Systems and NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University. Her research focuses on using Arctic in situ cloud and radiometric measurements to understand the Earth’s radiation budget, studying remote sensing using numerical modelling, interdisciplinary education, and numeracy in undergraduate education. She is currently studying the radiative forcing due to Arctic mixed-phase clouds using in situ measurements and NOAA GFDL global climate models. Dr. Sikand graduated with a PhD in Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey in 2012. She joined the Department of Engineering, Physics, and Technology at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York BCC-CUNY as an Assistant Professor in August 2014.



Pursuing an Academic Career in the Community College System

During my 5 years in this academic career, I have met a good number of PhD students and postdocs who ask me, “how has working in a community college been for your academic growth?”. This blog is a response to this question I have informally answered to many of the aspiring young early career scientists. Sometimes we make choices in our career that change our courses in a different direction than we originally planned. These alternative choices could be due to a tough job market, constraint to move to a different city, long commutes disrupting work-life balance, maternity or paternity break, kids’ priorities and more. A few years back, I was ready to join the full-time job market. However, I was limited in my choices to either pursue a research career or to move out of New York where I was settled with my family. So, I made a choice to pursue my academic career, my research and education interests in the Community College system. This blog is intended to share my experiences of working in the Bronx Community College of the City University of New York for the last 5 years. So, this may be most relevant to experiences in colleges similar to Bronx Community College (BCC) [1]. What attracted me to BCC was its affiliation to the City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban university [2] system in the United States, and the tenure-track position. By this, I simply mean that I have opportunities to grow as a professional in both academic environments of BCC and CUNY, learn new skills, and build my professional network and experiences in a way that may help advance my research interests within BCC-CUNY.


COMMUNITY COLLEGE EDUCATION [3]

The Community College career is a teaching track that is heavily focused on teaching and groundwork related to education. Your interaction with students during office hours or during class time is highly valued. Universities, such as CUNY, hire PhDs in a teaching college to teach undergraduates in Associate’s degrees (2-year academic program in Arts and Sciences) as well as to engage in scholarly and creative works. You have a choice to pursue your research along with your teaching responsibilities. Let’s look at various aspects of this alternative career track.



First, the students:

The Community College student population




Next, the position itself:


My analysis of working in a tenure-track Community College job: Community Colleges hire PhDs for a tenure-track full-time job in science and liberal arts departments. There are plenty of career growth opportunities in education and pedagogy in a professional academic environment. However, there is still a gap in getting the necessary infrastructure support unless already in place for STEM research in the Community College. The main focus is on teaching, pedagogical research and support in small-scale research programs funded under a grant or a program for research. The Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Challenges (SWOC) analysis in Figure 2 and navigation tips in Figure 3 may give you some perspective to evaluate your career choices.





Strengths and opportunities in a Community College faculty track

Reassigned time for research: Some colleges may support early-career faculty for research by reassigning teaching time towards research.

Affiliate with advanced research centers: To pursue your research interests, you may seek visiting affiliation to research centers and labs relevant to your work to advance your research goals. For example, CUNY provides an option to affiliate with CUNY’s advanced science research center (ASRC) and Graduate Center depending upon your research and the collaborative nature of your work. The challenge lies in the time management if you are working at two campuses.

Smaller class size: The class size in a Community College is capped at a small number. The small class size helps to interact better with your students, engage in effective instruction strategies, and research in pedagogy and education.

Seed funding opportunities: To pursue your research interests you may seek smaller funding opportunities in the Community College academic career leading to bigger grant proposals.

Visiting Faculty Research Fellowships: If you are keen on pursuing your research interests you are eligible to pursue the research opportunities as Visiting Faculty at various participating federal labs of NASA, Department of Energy, etc. Navigate the right fit for your research and work in collaboration with researchers at the respective lab to submit your proposal.

Eligible to apply for various federal and state grants like a 4-year college faculty: You are eligible to apply to most of the awards funded by DOE, NASA, NSF, or NIH, etc. like a 4-year college tenure-track faculty. Explore your interests via grant writing and work with grants office within your affiliation.



How to Navigate Weaknesses and Challenges in a Community College

Heavy teaching load. This factor depends upon your home institution as well. The Community College faculty teaching load varies from 3 to 4 courses or classes per week in a semester depending upon your department needs, requirements or university bylaws. In a semester you may end up choosing between 12-15 contact hours with students per week. This simply means how many hours in a week you are in contact with your students during a semester or in an academic year. Usually, it is in sync with the number of credits associated with a course. A 4-credit course means 4 contact hours. You may mitigate this challenge by requesting the same course/different sections to teach. However, this could also depend upon your department needs every semester.

No Teaching Assistant support. You may feel burdened by the amount of grading and test preparation. This challenge may be addressed by relying on online technology such as Blackboard for assignments and assessment of student work. The preparation requires a one-time investment of time and effort to create a pool of assignments and rubrics and then modifying assignments or tests depending upon the course outcomes you want to assess in teaching. There are other online forums such as Cengage, Web assign, etc. that could be useful to navigate this challenge.

Limited infrastructure to perform research. If you are thinking of bringing technology or research in the classrooms you may hit a roadblock due to limited infrastructure related to computers, labs, and workspace. This could also depend on your college affiliation and what infrastructure is already in place in premises. The best approach to meet this challenge is by writing grants. It is competitive to get grants, but it will only count towards your scholarly growth in this profession if you get the grant. The challenge is again the time management and how much your affiliation’s senior leadership value this time investment towards the grants.

Limited funds to travel to conferences. Try applying to conference travel support or/and travel support under some grant or program as full-time faculty willing to present scholarly work at the conference.

Slower STEM research growth than a research College/University: The Community College career is a teaching track. You may grow in your career either in education and pedagogical research or STEM research accompanied by your teaching responsibilities. You may pursue your STEM research, but you will likely hit roadblocks related to some of the aforementioned challenges unless you bring in grant money to fund your research. To pursue your research interests, look for affiliations with research centers within your home institutions or labs relevant to your research work. You may also try to mitigate this challenge by writing grants that could be used to offload some of the teaching requirements so you may spend more time in research or bringing research into classroom teaching. Explore the possibility of getting faculty development training in grant writing in your home institution.

Average Pay difference in 2-year and 4-year colleges [4] [5]: The Community College career track does offer a platform to grow in an alternative career path. Evaluate your priorities and create your SWOC analysis. Continue to do the great work you believe in some measurable merit and work towards goals and vision of your home institution.


Common Misconceptions of working in a Community College

The Community College faculty ONLY teach: The Community College faculty have two career tracks. The Lecturer positions are focused on teaching and service to the home institution. The tenure-track faculty are required to teach, publish scholarly and creative works, and contribute towards service to the home institution. The scholarly work can be publications in peer-reviewed professional journals and scholarly books, published reports, editorial works, awarded research grants, etc.

The Community College job is less than 40 hours: The Community College job is a full-time job like any other full-time job. This means you are busy 40 hours each week but have a flexible schedule and at times non-tangible schedule. Having a flexible schedule requires a certain amount of self-discipline to commit 40 hours of work time. If you are working certain hours in a day remotely, you have to be disciplined enough not to get trapped in more than 40 hours commitment.

The Community College teaching is easy: The courses taught in the undergraduate AAS degree are easier than graduate-level courses. However, teaching easy courses to students from different backgrounds in the same class is challenging. Figure 1 describes the practical insight into different categories of students you come across in a Community College. The biggest challenge is how to keep your students motivated and attentive in your class during the semester. The student drop-out rate in the Community Colleges is generally higher than a 4-year college [6].









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