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The Overqualified Professor

During its recent search for a full-time English lecturer, the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) received 75 applications in just a couple weeks.

Dr. Jessica Berman, the chair of the UMBC English Department, noted that the university would have received twice the number of applications if it had placed the job posting on its regular mailing lists. She said that, even though the job required only a master’s degree, a number of candidates with Ph.D’s applied.

“Certainly we have had many overqualified candidates apply for our jobs over the last several years,” Berman said, noting that candidates whose credentials might be more than what a job posting asks for are applying for whatever they can get in a tight academic market.

But four-year colleges such as UMBC are not the primary beneficiaries of an overqualified applicant pool. Instead, community and junior colleges are seeing a substantial increase in the number of job seekers who in other years might have opted for higher-profile opportunities.

While community and junior colleges, many of which have seen dramatic increases in enrollment over the last few years, have always emphasized teaching-oriented faculty, some institutions are receiving job queries from candidates with substantial research backgrounds as well. Some community college representatives acknowledge that the poor economy has bolstered applicant pools but added that their expanded recruitment efforts have helped as well.


For example, Delaware County (Pa.) Community College, which had traditionally recruited from a base in the mid-Atlantic region, has seen job applications from all over the country since posting vacancies on nationally circulated mailing lists and Web sites. Connie McCalla, vice president of human resources at the college, said that, as a result, the faculty hiring pool is more ethnically and regionally diverse and, in some cases, overqualified.

“We’re getting upward of 100 applications per posting,” McCalla said, noting that the college now gets a national response to its openings. “There are people who are not only overqualified but not connected to the position being advertised.”

She added that the college continues to make sure that minority candidates are not lost in the shuffle as a result of a dramatically expanded candidate pool.

“We’ve been pretty successful in terms of diversifying faculty,” she said.

While it’s too early to speculate whether community colleges are seeing more overqualified candidates simply because of the lack of opportunities elsewhere in academia, administrators at these schools do not seem to mind the influx of potential talent.

Some community colleges are even seeing a dramatic increase in the quality of their adjunct faculty pools. Elizabeth Homan, spokeswoman for Montgomery (Md.) College, said that, in areas such as science, psychology, and math, the college has seen an increase in candidates with Ph.D.s.

“We’re in a unique position of being outside of D.C.,” Homan said. “We have an abundance of talented, qualified faculty for adjunct positions.”

However, she admitted that college administrators have been disappointed by their inability to add full-time faculty positions to keep pace with their growing enrollment.

Evelyn Waiwaiole, director of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development, said many community colleges do not have the money to hire additional faculty, even as demand for their services increase.

“Some states are suffering so much,” Waiwaiole said. “The most common mantra I’m hearing is, ‘We don’t have any money; we’re not hiring.’”

Help may be on the way for Montgomery College and other schools looking to boost their capacity to hire faculty and manage costs, thanks in part to President Obama’s promise of more financial support for two-year institutions. This includes a recently announced 10-year, $12 billion aid package designed to help community colleges maintain and expand their spending at a time when many are facing cuts at the state level.

“We’re thrilled,” Waiwaiole said, noting that much of the money will likely be used to preserve existing programs and staff. “We’re glad to be seeing some money.”

Faculty positions are not the only places where community colleges are seeing overqualified applicants. Homan noted that Montgomery College recently received 600 applications – about three times the average – for an office assistant vacancy. She added that one of the applicants even had a Ph.D.

Such stories, while rare, illustrate the degree to which overqualified candidates are willing to go to get jobs in academia. Since community colleges are also more flexible in their hiring schedules, more candidates with Ph.D.s may choose to apply there first.

However, given the unique skills needed to teach community college students, a Ph.D. is not necessarily a guarantee to get a job or even an interview, administrators such as McCalla noted.

Given the importance of community colleges in Obama’s efforts to increase higher education opportunities, it appears that they will continue to be the primary beneficiaries of overqualified candidates. However, some say it’s too early to speculate on how long this trend will last.

“I think it’s connected to the economy,” McCalla said. “As to whether we’re at the beginning or middle of that effect, we’re not sure.”

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