Career Paths

Interviewing for a Two-Year College Faculty Position

Scott Donnelly, Ph.D.

Congratulations! You’ve been asked to interview for the two-year college faculty position you wanted. How do you prepare for the interview to make a positive impression? What will the hiring committee ask you? What should you ask your potential future colleagues?

I just completed my 27th year teaching at Arizona Western College, a two-year community college in the far southwestern corner of Arizona, and I've been on quite a few faculty selection committees. If you need tips for crushing that all-important interview, read on.

Ground Rules

1. Be cognizant of time. At Arizona Western, virtual faculty job interviews last about 25 minutes. You can expect at least five questions, with a chance to ask questions at the end—an opportunity you should not miss. Knowing the amount of time allotted helps you prepare efficient, effective answers. Take a maximum of four minutes for each.

2. Be sure to answer questions directly. Obvious? Well, I've interviewed candidates who repeat themselves and never answer the question. It’s a big turn-off and hard for an applicant to recover from. Always pause, reflect on the question, collect your thoughts, then articulate your answer.

3. Understand the mission of two-year colleges in general and of the specific college and department interviewing you. Applicants have talked about setting up a research lab, publishing, and maybe teaching an occasional first- or second-year undergrad course. The reality of two-year colleges is that faculty are paid to teach the first two years of chemistry.

4. Check the class schedule. What courses are offered? How many sections? Suppose you're an organic chemist, but the schedule doesn’t list Organic Chemistry 1. This may mean it’s offered every other year, if at all, and you'd be teaching GChem 1/2, Intro Chem courses, or both.  You need to be sure you understand the landscape.

5. Dress professionally. Academia has a reputation for dressing down, but that does not extend to interviews. Even if yours is virtual, you still need to look polished.

Critical Prep Work

You already know interview questions center around teaching, specifically your approach(es) to it. Start preparing by thinking about faculty you learned the most from. Take them out to coffee and ask in depth about the practice and art of teaching. Or do the same with faculty in other disciplines who’ve received annual teaching honors.

Next, select the teaching method that best suits you and learn everything possible about it. For example, I use a lot of Think-Pair-Share (TPS) methodology in my GChem and OChem classes. It allows interaction between (1) me and small student groups, (2) students and students, and (3) groups and groups. It gives me an overall idea of what students understand (or not) about molecular structure, 1D 1H NMR spectra interpretation, or interpreting phase diagrams.

Structure your answers to teaching-approach questions around whichever method you want to use in the classroom.

The internet is a valuable, reliable resource for finding current, respected teaching methods and pedagogies. Check the following websites for current information and styles, then send a polite Zoom invitation to an article or blog’s author to get more insight.

Common Interview Questions

Tell us why you are interested in this position.
Be honest, yet discreet, about having completed grad school and looking for a job. It’s more meaningful to tell the committee why you decided on teaching versus industry and why you want to work at their institution. Saying as much as possible about the college, its location and student body, and the chemistry department will impress the committee from the start. The college website’s “About” page provides a wealth of information. Remember not to misinterpret this question as, tell us about yourself, which is completely different.

What are your strengths? Why should we hire you?
They will pay you to teach, so focus on your strengths there. Don't launch into irrelevant and obscure information about your dissertation research.

How can someone with a newly minted master’s degree or Ph.D. with limited classroom teaching experience answer this deceptively simple question? You need to know (or have some idea about) how you plan to teach a GChem, OChem, or Intro Chem course, including the lab component. The prep work mentioned above will help you develop a strong answer.

See if you can add dimension to your answer. Perhaps you, a relative, or a friend started at a two-year college, it had a positive and transformational impact, and you want to pay it forward. Maybe you’ve discovered the department has no chemistry student club and you’d be happy to start one. Or the lab instrumentation is obsolete or needs repair, and upon being hired, you'd write a grant to procure new equipment. Or your background in bioluminescence lets you incorporate bioluminescent molecules when teaching molecular structure.

What is your favorite topic? Describe how you would teach it creatively (or differently)?
You must know what you will be predominantly teaching. The position may state that it’s for GChem, OChem, or Intro Chem only (or 75% teaching load, etc.). You’ ll need to know what topics the course covers. The college’s website will include this information on course syllabi.

If you do your critical prep work, you should be able to deliver a good answer about your planned methods and approaches. For example, before launching into molecular symmetry, I pass around glass box containing a collection of butterflies and moths. Using Think-Pair-Share, students form groups and write down their thoughts about how this collection relates to molecular structure. The groups report. The concept of symmetry among butterflies and moths comes up, providing a springboard to molecular structure. In under 10 minutes, OChem students learn a bit about moths and butterflies by seeing how chemistry connects to the natural world.

What teaching methods will you employ to help less academically prepared students?
Tough question. It gets to the nitty-gritty of teaching at a two-year college: How do you effectively teach a complicated (and let's face it, disliked) subject to a relatively large population of under- and unprepared students? You’ve got a great shot at the position if you can answer this well. Having a toolbox of teaching approaches and methods is key. Knowing how to use them effectively is paramount. Familiarize yourself with POGIL (Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning), and a smorgasbord of classroom active learning techniques.

Besides using exams, quizzes, or homework, how do you know students have learned the material?
Ouch! This question gets to another core component of teaching at a two-year college: assessment of student learning outcomes (SLOs). Confused? You're not alone.

I’d build a response using the molecular symmetry example mentioned previously. What would I do if I wanted to know whether students understand symmetry as applied to molecules? I’d have each student attempt to use molecular model sets to attempt building a symmetrical molecule with MF = C3H9NO. Then students would exchange structures, giving a thumbs up or down with respect to their being symmetrical. I would then agree or disagree with each conclusion. Know something about SLOs. It's a big deal.

To prepare for your answer, check out these two websites: Oxnard College Student Learning Outcomes and Georgia Tech Student Learning Outcomes.

Do you have any questions for us?
Don't pass up on this super-valuable opportunity. It’s your chance to interview them and learn whether the position and your future colleagues are a good match for you.

There are lots of good questions to ask. Here are a few possibilities:

  • Say three faculty teach the same course. Is a common exam given in all three? (This question deals with departmental policy and faculty academic freedom.)
  • Say three faculty teach the same course. Are the labs the same and done in the same order for all three? Are the labs inquiry based? Verification labs? Do they necessarily align with lecture topics?
  • Is it departmental policy that homework represents x% of the final grade? If yes, what platform is used—textbook publisher, open access, OER (Open Educational Resources)?
  • What type of instrumentation is available in the lab? Capillary GC? GC-MS? Visible spectrophotometers? FTIR? pH/salinity/EC/DO probes? Ion-selective electrodes? What is the academic year departmental budget?
  • Has (or will) the chemistry department submitted NSF/USDA/DoE grants to augment the lab or classroom teaching environment? (If not, this may be a strength you can provide: “I'd love to write and submit an NSF grant within the first three years of my employment.”)
  • What are the major challenges the chemistry department is dealing with now, and what are projected challenges? (Follow up with a positive question about opportunities: “Do students test into GChem 1?”
  • How active is the Chemistry Club? (Is there a chance for you to create one?)
  • Are chemistry faculty expected to be a part of the local ACS section? What is the academic year budget for professional development? Does the chemistry department budget pay ACS membership dues?

In closing, I hope you find this article pragmatic and helpful. Best of luck.