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QUESTION: Hi Dr. Converse,

I earned my BA in English, and now I'm interested in pursuing a grad degree in Lit/Creative Writing. I feel like teaching college-level English and writing is my true calling, and I've decided to pursue this goal. I'm content with finding an adjunct position and starting there, perhaps moving toward my Ph.D at a later time. Let me give you a little bit of background which leads up to my question.

I've researched many institutions, and I keep coming back to the Harvard Extension School. You may or may not be familiar with this institution. As part of Harvard University the Extension School offers grad degrees in blended format--that is, divided between online and on-campus coursework.

The Extension School's offered degree is ALM (Master of Liberal Arts) in Literature and Creative Writing. This contrasts with the ground campus/Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS), which only offers a Masters of Arts (AM) as part of their ongoing Ph.D program (Harvard's GSAS doesn't offer terminal Master's degrees).

In undergrad, I was a 4.0 English student at Southern New Hampshire. I graduated summa cum laude. I was senior editor of the school English anthology. I'm a member of Mensa, Toastmasters, and SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Authors & Illustrators). I feel very confident in my academic and personal abilities, and I'm certain I'll find success wherever I seek it.

Now my question: can you tell me whether the Extension School's ALM is a "real" grad degree, or whether it's more of a certificate or honorary degree? Putting in all that work and effort only to discover later that my degree is useless would be dismaying, to say the least. Can you imagine acing all those classes, completing a year's worth of thesis research and writing, and putting up 25k for a degree, only to discover it isn't "real" and doesn't qualify one to teach at the adjunct level? Consternation, that'd be the final result. I'm exploring every avenue and resource to prevent this unfortunate outcome, for naturally I prefer minimizing my weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Upon graduation, Extension students receive diplomas from Harvard University. Students have access to the libraries and other campus perks. It seems like the Extension offers, for all intents and purposes, a "real" Master's degree. Yet I worry. I'm a worrier.

I've queried the Extension about this matter, but so far I've received no reply. Forgive my sudden venom, but I'm feeling certain that their administration is well-tutored in the science of salesmanship and persuasion. I have suspicions the staff will likely tell prospective students most anything to secure their enrollment; as a former (highly successful) admissions adviser at a major university, I was adept at this practice myself. Now I'm trying to avoid any poetic justice or ironic turnabouts of fortune, if you take my meaning.

If possible, Dr. Converse, please furnish any information regarding this matter. I've passed several hours googling, but I've uncovered little besides the Extension's homepage and vitriolic debates between the "real Harvard" and the "phony Harvard" camps--which oddly resemble the clash between Leonidas and his 300 vs. Xerxes' Persians at Thermopylae, if you take my meaning.

I appreciate your patience, and I thank you for your time.

PS - in case you're curious about why I don't apply to Harvard's GSAS, it's because as a working adult I can't pick up my life (and my wife) and move to Cambridge. Hence my interest in the Extension.

Best,
Dan

ANSWER: Hi Dan,

Interesting question; I'll do what I can here to answer it for you since I was in a similar situation some years ago.

First, I cannot definitively tell you that the ALM is a legitimate degree, though I have to say that if Harvard allows their name to be associated with it, and the degree comes from the university, I would, personally, feel comfortable pursuing that path.  I cannot conceive that Harvard would be associated with anything like an overt scam.

The more pressing question, it seems to me, is the perception of the ALM in hiring circles.  In other words, how will prospective employers view your possession of that degree when the time comes for you to actually start job searching?  I was concerned about that aspect when, many years ago (for reasons that are different from yours) I began my Ph.D. work at the University of California by taking doctoral seminars that were pre-requisite for courses at the "heart" of the degree program.  I took these courses through the UC extension and was concerned that they may not have had the academic rigor of the "real" coursework.  My misgivings were ill-founded since the courses turned out to be exactly the same as if I had taken them via the regular route.

Please understand I am not vouching for the ALM simply because I cannot do that.  I have no first-hand knowledge of the degree itself.  Based on my own experience, and my perception of what Harvard would allow their "brand" to be used for, I would personally feel confident, if I was in your shoes, of doing the ALM.  However, I have absolutely no idea what any individual employer will think.  But that's true under the best of circumstances.  Every admissions officer and employer will make their own decision and there is no way for anyone to predict that decision.

On a side note, having served as an university adjunct before taking subsequent tenure-track positions, I would advise you to get the Ph.D. as soon as possible if university teaching is your goal.  It is nearly impossible these days to get one of those positions without the terminal degree.  The reason is, of course, that there are so many unemployed Ph.D.'s out there!

Hope this helps; best of luck to you!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Dr. Converse, you've hit the nail right on the head. After some reflection, I've realized the heart of my worries really IS potential employers' perceptions of the Extension degree.

Still, I'm taking your advice. It's true what you say: it's unlikely Harvard would tarnish its public image by offering subpar education or "phony" degrees. That's an excellent point, and I'm going to pursue this path...especially after hearing about your own UC Extension courses. Clearly this hasn't affected your academic career negatively, so I feel confident it won't affect mine negatively either.

About adjunct positions. You mentioned the difficulty in finding college level teaching positions, yet I see adjunct positions posted everywhere. There's a surplus of these positions for each department...a plethora....a profusion.

Conversely (pardon the pun), there certainly are limited full-time positions, and these require terminal degrees. But these positions are heavy-duty "full professor" positions. To my understanding, being a full-time professor requires not only teaching duties, but contributing research and publishable materials, and also participating in extracurricular activities like college fairs, boards, committees, etc. Mainly, I'm interested in what I call "teaching and reaching"; that is, dealing with students and helping them develop their educations, and reaching them as individuals.

Plus, I can't simply drop everything, leave my job, and attend school full-time for 5-7 years....not to mention racking up $50,000 in debt, which I'd probably spend the rest of my life paying back.

As for research, literary criticism, committees...eh, not so much. Am I correct in this assessment of adjuncts vs. full professors? I befriended several English professors in undergrad, and this is what they told me about teaching full time: it's the toughest job they've ever had, and only about half of their work involves "teaching and reaching".

On a side note: recently I've been reading about adjuncts unionizing, particularly on the East Coast. Several colleges have started giving adjuncts their deserved benefits, full-time positions, and so on. Many faculties, including tenured professors, support these decisions. It seems to be a growing trend. In your opinion, is this shift something future adjuncts can bank on, or should I remain wary about the bright future of adjunct positions? In other words, are adjunct positions worth pursuing?

I'm unconcerned about benefits, for my wife and I enjoy excellent benefits through her employer. I've researched adjunct wages, and it seems like the average range is $22,000 - $30,000 annually. In your experience, is this accurate? Also, are you familiar with the steps necessary for teaching online? Does it require special certifications, training, classes, etc?

I appreciate your time and patience, and I'm looking forward to your response. I've decided to enroll in the Extension School, so thank you for helping me make that decision. This is all new to me, and I'm grateful for your guidance. I've lost touch with the professors from my previous school, so a wise voice of experience is invaluable to me at this point.

Thanks again,
Dan

ANSWER: Hi Dan,

Glad I could help with your previous question.  As to your most recent questions, there are a lot of routes for you to take.  Fortunately for you, I had exactly the same professional goals when I was in the place you find yourself now.

Although I ended my full-time teaching career in a tenure-track position at a university, I enjoyed my time most when I was teaching at the community college level.  I believe strongly in the community college experience for students, most of whom have little idea of what is entailed in making the leap from high school to a big university.  The community college provides a buffer for that experience.  And, in your case, it gives you the opportunity to do exactly what you say you want to do - teach and reach.

Although there are committee obligations and other such mind-numbing requirements in any full-time teaching position, they are less onerous in two-year schools, the students I found to be much more open and receptive in junior colleges, and the requirements that are so prevalent in universities for research and publishing do not exist in the community college environment.  And, as a bonus, you can get employment in most two-year schools with a masters; Ph.D. is nice, but is rarely a requirement.

As to adjunct, I highly doubt that the recent trend you speak of (better teaching experiences for adjuncts) is a trend that will last.  Primarily I have that opinion because, no matter what any high-level administrator tells you, the goal of any school is to make money.  It's just like business in that sense.  That's why you see so many schools offering so many online courses without considering the potential for academic fraud - it's simply cheaper for the school to do that.  Over the years, universities have drifted toward part-time instructors for the same reason: it's more profitable.  They don't have to offer the larger salary and don't have to pay benefits.  I don't see a large number of them changing their mind any time soon.  It's true there are a lot of positions available, but you have to ask yourself the question "why?"  The answer is because you, as an adjunct, are fundamentally a second-class academic citizen.  A lot of teachers simply don't like the atmosphere.

Certainly, if you can find an adjunct position that is desirable, take it (all other things being equal).  It is often an entry point to a full-time gig when one becomes available (that's how I got my first full-time college position).  But there is no guarantee it will lead in that direction.  But the upside for you is that you don't have committee assignments, publishing requirements, etc.  Just teach, reach, and go home.

If some of your colleagues have described university teaching as "the toughest job they've ever had," their experience must be rather limited.  I found it to be the easiest of all possible work situations - except community college teaching.  Teach your classes, do your office hours, and pretty much make up your own schedule.  How many people in the workforce get to essentially create their own schedule?  Not many.

Hope this has answered your questions.  Good luck to you!

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Hi Dr. Converse, I hope you don't mind me responding to your followup. I know I tend toward prolixity in my questions, and I appreciate your patience and thoroughness. To be honest I'm learning so much, and I genuinely enjoy reading your responses. For some time now I've felt like nobody can give me honest, straight answers...so this is like a breath of fresh air. No, more like 100 breaths of fresh air. I feel like I'm finally going to reach a decision about all this after wondering, waffling, and worrying for so long.


(( Although I ended my full-time teaching career in a tenure-track position at a university, I enjoyed my time most when I was teaching at the community college level.  I believe strongly in the community college experience for students, most of whom have little idea of what is entailed in making the leap from high school to a big university.  The community college provides a buffer for that experience.  And, in your case, it gives you the opportunity to do exactly what you say you want to do - teach and reach.

Although there are committee obligations and other such mind-numbing requirements in any full-time teaching position, they are less onerous in two-year schools, the students I found to be much more open and receptive in junior colleges, and the requirements that are so prevalent in universities for research and publishing do not exist in the community college environment.  And, as a bonus, you can get employment in most two-year schools with a masters; Ph.D. is nice, but is rarely a requirement. ))

This is very encouraging. It's mainly community colleges offering the positions I'm investigating (i.e., English and Lit adjunct positions). But I'm unsure what you're saying here. Are you saying I probably SHOULD get my Ph.D and teach at community college? Or should I stick with my ALM in Lit/Writing and seek a position at community college?

I attended community college for two years, I absolutely loved it, and I'd enjoy going back to that environment. So do you advise getting my ALM first and seeing how things go, or heading toward my terminal Ph.D from the get-go? It's just the money thing....$50,000 is a lot to shell out when my best prospects involve part-time positions which pay $22,000 a year. I'm no math whiz, but that disparity seems extreme.



(( As to adjunct, I highly doubt that the recent trend you speak of (better teaching experiences for adjuncts) is a trend that will last.  Primarily I have that opinion because, no matter what any high-level administrator tells you, the goal of any school is to make money.  It's just like business in that sense.  That's why you see so many schools offering so many online courses without considering the potential for academic fraud - it's simply cheaper for the school to do that.  Over the years, universities have drifted toward part-time instructors for the same reason: it's more profitable.  They don't have to offer the larger salary and don't have to pay benefits.  I don't see a large number of them changing their mind any time soon.  It's true there are a lot of positions available, but you have to ask yourself the question "why?"  The answer is because you, as an adjunct, are fundamentally a second-class academic citizen.  A lot of teachers simply don't like the atmosphere. ))

Respectfully, I admit this seems contrary to your previous statement about teaching at community college. It seems like you promote and support the idea of getting my ALM and teaching at community college, but in this section it seems like you're saying adjunct positions are essentially unsatisfying positions...in other words, it's not the position most teachers want to be in. Again, I'm trying to do the best I can with my limited resources. I'm a working guy who's already $26,000 in debt for undergrad. Getting my Ph.D involves 5-7 years of further studies and about $40,000 - $50,000 more debt. It just doesn't seem possible.

What I'm saying here is, does it seem probable that earning my ALM and taking adjunct positions will *ever* lead to full-time teaching? Or will I be stuck in the part-time adjunct rut indefinitely?


(( Certainly, if you can find an adjunct position that is desirable, take it (all other things being equal).  It is often an entry point to a full-time gig when one becomes available (that's how I got my first full-time college position).  But there is no guarantee it will lead in that direction.  But the upside for you is that you don't have committee assignments, publishing requirements, etc.  Just teach, reach, and go home. ))

While this section seems to address my above question, I'm wondering how long (if ever) adjuncts teach before finding full-time positions, on average. If you had to make a ballpark estimate (strictly a rough estimate, not holding you to anything here), what's the percentage of adjuncts who actually transition from part-time to full-time? I'm sure economics, math, and science teachers are in higher demand than English and lit teachers, but still, is there any real hope for full-time? Or is that a pot of gold at the end of the adjunct rainbow--something everyone seeks, but few actually find?

(( If some of your colleagues have described university teaching as "the toughest job they've ever had," their experience must be rather limited.  I found it to be the easiest of all possible work situations - except community college teaching.  Teach your classes, do your office hours, and pretty much make up your own schedule.  How many people in the workforce get to essentially create their own schedule?  Not many. ))

I can't attest to their personal lives, but I think they were mainly referring to the *extracurricular* activities. Some of them spoke of committees, boards, meetings, college fairs, etc, and they were expected to submit research and generally contribute to the institution beyond "teaching and reaching". It's not that I'm unwilling to do these things--it's just that I'm not sure whether I want to commit a large part of my personal time to my teaching job outside the classroom.

One last thing: you mentioned "the easiest of all possible work situations - except community college teaching." Above, you mentioned community colleges not requiring all that "extra" stuff like committees, research, etc. So are you saying university adjunct positions are more desirable vs. community college? I'm a little bit confused, because I can't decide whether you're advising me to pursue community college positions or aim for a university position. I'm unsure whether you're promoting adjunct positions at community college, or advising me to stay away from that.

Please clarify, and kindly forgive me for all the questions and subquestions and confusion. I know very little about this subject beyond some internet research (which is sometimes contradictory), and to be honest, I have nobody else whom I can ask. I do appreciate your honest, straightforward answers, especially because I'm having such a hard time finding simple facts and information elsewhere. I promise I won't continue asking these lengthy questions for much longer. I'm almost ready to make my decision--I just need a bit more info first, so I'm confident about which direction is the best one.


Thanks again,
Dan

Answer
Hi Daniel,

I apologize if my positions sometimes seemed contradictory; obviously that was not my intent.  I am not advising you one way or the other on adjunct or community college teaching.  I was just trying to give you my perspective on both, since I have taught in both situations.  It depends on what your ultimate goal is.  A lot of people who want to go into college teaching believe the community college is second-class; obviously you and I enjoy the teaching aspect.  Others enjoy the research and the "prestige" that comes from a tenure-track position at a top-tier university.

Either the adjunct route or the community college (CC) road would be good for you I think.  If your desire is to go into a tenure-track position eventually, what I was trying to convey earlier was that the adjunct portal would lead you to full-time university work easier than the CC position would.  But the CC position (in my mind) is more desirable since it involves more direct work with the students and much less time doing non-instructional tasks.  So, I wasn't really advising you one way or the other; you just have to decide what your ultimate goal is.

Your question about the odds of going full-time for an adjunct is a question I can't answer because I simply don't know what percentage make the leap from part-  to full-time.  Perhaps there is some research on that available on the internet.

Regarding your degrees and your decision about which path to take, all I was trying to convey in my earlier message was that, I think you should take all this one step at a time.  Get your ALM and simultaneously look at CC jobs in your area.  You might find one that will work for you with your Bachelors; then when you complete the ALM, you could stay at the CC and get a bump in pay on the salary schedule, or you might find that you want to then go the Ph.D. route and try for an adjunct position with an eye toward the full-time job once you finish the Ph.D.  You have a lot of options and all I can tell you is that you need to talk things over with your wife (or other interested parties) and decide what is best for you and your situation.  I cannot tell you that because the decision is different for everyone.

In my own case (for whatever it is worth), I did my BA and then immediately did my Masters work.  I had an opportunity to go directly to the Ph.D. but was offered a job and I was tired of being in school.  I worked for a few years in public school, then community college gigs, then went back to school to start my Ph.D. work while teaching part-time at a CC and part-time as a teaching assistant.  That was my route.  But it doesn't work for everyone because that whole journey lasted more than 40 years and it's difficult to see the road that far ahead for a lot of people.

You have to decide how you want your teaching career to evolve, what you need to do to get where you want to go, and decide on a time frame that seems to suit you and your family.  Everyone is different.  I think you are assuming from some of my answers that many decisions are "either-or" but as you can tell from my own experience, I did a lot of different things over a long period of time.  That was my choice.  I liked the adventure of moving around and exploring all the different possibilities.

It doesn't sound like you are in the same position as I was,  so I doubt the same decisions I made will work for you.  That being the case, you will have to decide what is most important and then determine the path you need to travel to get there.  I hope this has helped you.  Good luck!  

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Ralph D. Converse, Ph.D.

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I can answer questions about general job searches, resume construction, crafting an effective cover letter, and how to prepare for, and conduct, a winning interview. My speciality is the field of education, but I also have extensive background in business and administration. I know what works and what doesn't work and I can make your application package stand out from the rest ... because that is what you have to do.

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