How to Find a College Astronomy Teaching Job

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

It’s no secret.  Teaching introductory astronomy at the college and university level is just plain fun!  I’ve been teaching ASTRO 101 for more than two decades and I love it more and more every year.  After spending six years as the Education Officer for the American Astronomical Society, I have probably been asked more than a hundred times, “how can I find a job teaching ASTRO 101?”  Allow me to tell you some of what I’ve learned.

Before I give you my step-by-step prescription for finding an astronomy teaching job, let me tell you about some of the rules of the game.  First of all, colleges and universities aren’t anything like K-12 schools in terms of the rules about who can and can’t teach courses.  For example, at a K-12 school, you might be a fluent and native French speaker, but if you don’t have the right undergraduate course credits on your transcript, you can’t even begin to teach French in most K-12 schools.  Colleges and universities-and many private K-12 schools-are totally different.  There are rules, but the rules are very different varying state to state; they are more like guidelines that flex, bend, break, and all too often dramatically change at a moment’s notice and are highly dependent on who is doing the interpreting and in which state you are applying for a job.  These changing guidelines sometimes work in your favor and sometimes do not, which can be very, very frustrating for the nascent ASTRO 101 job hunter.

If you want to get a job doing research in astronomy at a large university, you’re probably going to have to hold a Ph.D.  It doesn’t usually matter precisely in what field, but you do have to have the highest degree available, called the terminal degree.  At such an institution, you’re primary job is to conduct research and publish papers, but you can teach some ASTRO 101 along the way.  If you’re interested in that sort of job, there are other resources better than this one to help you find that sort of job (viz. http://theprofessorisin.com/).  If, on the other hand, you don’t really want to do research as your primary activity, I do have some advice that might help you.

A Ph.D. in astronomy can help you get a job teaching ATRO 101, but you certainly don’t need a Ph.D. in astronomy to get a job teaching ASTRO 101.  In fact, according to a survey of college and university astronomy instructors by Andy Fraknoi (viz. http://dx.doi.org/10.3847/AER2004002), only about 25% of ASTRO 101 teachers have degrees in astronomy at all.  Most people teaching ASTRO 101 have degrees in physics, rather than astronomy.  A non-zero number have degrees in geology, mathematics, and education.

There are two important truths to remember as you embark on an ASTRO 101 teaching job search.  The first is that most people who earn Ph.D.’s never go on to publish a single research paper in a refereed journal; rather, most become college faculty.  So, you can dramatically improve your chances at getting hired as an ASTRO 101 teacher if your vita looks like a someone who takes their teaching seriously by attending and presenting astronomy teaching ideas at conferences like the Astronomical Society of the Pacific’s COSMOS in the Classroom, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the Society of College Science Teachers, and even the American Astronomical Society (this list is intentionally non-exhaustive and US-centric).  There are also conferences and workshops you can attend, and list of your vita that are evidence of a teaching focus, including those like CAPER CON (http://www.caperteam.com), CAE (http://astronomy101.jpl.nasa.gov), and even Chautauqua (http://calchautauqua.net/).

The second truth is that most ASTRO 101 courses in the US are taught by part-time, adjunct faculty.  In fact, most community college courses altogether are not taught by full time faculty at all.  With rare exceptions, part-time pay is terrible, but if you’ve got another source of income, part-time work is one way to get you an ASTRO 101 teaching fix. (viz. http://www.nfmfoundation.org/).

In the end, there are a few large research-centric institutions who hire astronomy teaching experts as full-time, permanent faculty.  But those jobs don’t show up very often.  Much more prevalent are jobs at small liberal arts colleges, called SLACs, or community colleges, abbreviated here as CCs.  Community colleges often have much stricter rules about who can teach their courses than SLACS, because CCs are highly concerned about being sure that the larger neighboring universities will take their students’ transfer credits.  In general, the minimum requirement for a CC ASTRO101 instructor is to have 18 graduate credits in astronomy.  To complicate matters, “sometimes” 18 graduate credits in physics counts, and sometimes it doesn’t.  I’m not judging that this is a good policy or a lousy policy, just stating what I am told over and over by CC administrators.

If you really want to teach ASTRO 101, you need to look for institutions that enroll primarily undergraduates where you could mostly teach astronomy.  The bigger of the SLACs might want you to have a research program involving undergraduates if you can, and scholarship of teaching does sometimes count.  You’ll need a CV and a cover letter, and probably a one page description of your teaching interests and philosophy.  Don’t worry about this last one so much, as everyone’s reads the same and you can find lots of examples using Google.  Finally remember, although most jobs get posted in October, but it really is a year round search.

Now, where do you find these ASTRO 101 teaching job opportunities?  Fortunately, it is all done online these days. You’ll want to check them all weekly at a minimum.  Many of these job web sites even have a daily digest email service, which I’d highly recommend you signing up for.  I suggest searching these in the following order.

1.  PER Jobs:  http://perjobs.blogspot.com

2. Chronicle of Higher Education Jobs, http://chronicle.com/Jobs and search keyword ASTRONOMY

3.  Higher Ed Jobs   http://higheredjobs.com and search keyword ASTRONOMY

4. Physics Today   http://careers.physicstoday.org/jobs (I’d probably browse them all rather than search astronomy)

5. AAS Job Site  http://jobregister.aas.org/  .

I’m sure that there are other sites available, but these seem to be the ones where our graduate students have had the most luck.  As always, I’m interested in hearing about other places where ASTR101 people have had good fortune.

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