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Perspectives: African-American Ph.D.s: Good Enough for America’s Educational Institutions?

For several years after receiving our doctorates, we struggled to find full-time work as tenure-track professors. Despite having more qualifications than many of the fresh Ph.D.s who were getting interviews and job offers, we were relegated to adjunct faculty positions that offered none of the benefits of tenure-track jobs.

As colleges and universities look to cut costs and keep budgets tight, we are concerned that African-American Ph.D.s like us will be left out of the university hiring process. Despite the old adage about higher education institutions being bastions of liberalism, many remain very conservative in their hiring process.

In fact, only 5 percent of university full-time faculty members are Black, and we suspect that there is a disproportionate amount of those at HBCUs. We worry that, as the demographics of universities change, diverse faculty are being shut out of opportunities.

Part of this is the culture of academia, where African-Americans and other minorities are often kept out of the loop of faculty social circles and where White faculty often are more comfortable hiring their own. In conversations with other African-American Adjunct Professors about their experiences in trying to attain full-time tenure-track positions, we found that their stories resemble our own experiences. We thought that, after serving as Adjunct Professors for several years in community college and university settings, it would be easy to attain a full-time professorship position that we knew we were more than qualified for after earning doctorates. THAT DID NOT HAPPEN! 


Faculty Recruitment

We are advising that African-American Ph.D.s spare no effort to make yourselves noticed, particularly at a time when more Ph.D.s are competing for fewer faculty positions.  Although there might be advantages to teaching on an adjunct basis, don’t just “settle” for an adjunct role because that can become a major hindrance to your career development.

While we are critical of the institutionalization of minority adjuncts, we cannot discount the fact that being an adjunct also can have its advantages. such as freedom to teach at your leisure and valuable experience gained that will hopefully lead to a full-time position. 

If you are interested in attaining an adjunct faculty position, be very proactive.  These positions usually are not advertised in national outlets. Knowledge about openings may come from department websites and more commonly by word-of-mouth.  

Prospective adjuncts should contact the department directly (these decisions are usually handled at the department or division level by the chairs or department heads rather than deans) to inquire about how you can become a part of the adjunct pool. This minimally will require a cover letter/e-mail and a curriculum vitae. In the letter and/or e-mail be specific about the courses you desire to teach and your availability. Do your homework and refer to the courses by title and number. Last, follow up by calling the department head to introduce yourself and to see if your materials have been received. Be prepared to answer questions about courses you have taught, the materials you have used, and your philosophical approach to teaching.      

If your goal is to become a full-time faculty member, use these positions to network with current faculty members – particularly those on search committees. This will ensure that you are ahead of any advertised posting. This should hopefully give you a leg-up on any others who are applying for the same job.

While we cannot guarantee results, we know there is an urgency by which we must operate to gain more footing in academia. Otherwise, we will continue to be viewed as mere extras in the faculty hierarchy.

Dr. Omar M. Cook is an Adjunct Professor/Fieldwork Supervisor at Azusa Pacific University and El Camino Community College. Dr. Lawson Bush V is a professor in the Charter School of Education at California State University, Los Angeles.

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