How I Landed My Dream Job As A College Professor (With No PhD)

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Just 51 hours from the moment I write these words, I will be staring down 35 pupils as I teach my first college class. After abandoning my plans for a PhD five years ago, I assumed I would never be in this position. When I left academia after barely carving out a master’s thesis, I wasn’t filled with pride for my accomplishment; I was burnt out from it all and glad it was behind me. I went the distance, and now it was time to figure out what one does with a philosophy degree. After some fun and rewarding jobs, I found a great position at a local college and have built up a respectable set of responsibilities in my portfolio.  

However, earlier this summer, a job was posted to the school’s careers page seeking professors of philosophy to teach this September. I noticed that the minimum educational requirement was a master’s level degree, but not much else was written about which areas of philosophy they were looking to find teachers in. I decided to take a leap of faith, find out who the Chair of the program was, and send him an email to find out more about the job.  

To my surprise, he replied a half-hour later with a few course outlines and suggested that if anything seemed interesting, I should send him my CV. The courses looked interesting — particularly the introduction to philosophy course — so I spent the next hour revising my CV with my current experience, and then sent it over. I knew that since I lack formal experience in teaching at a post-secondary level, I would need to rely on my interconnected experience to show that I have sufficient skills and experience to do the job.  

I expected him to email me back politely thanking me for contacting him and telling that I should submit my CV to HR to go into the pool of applicants. Instead, just 15 minutes later, he replied and agreed to meet me, and set up a meeting for the next day.

Our meeting covered the gamut of humanities: art, poetry, aesthetics, existentialism, critical theory, pedagogy, psychology, teaching attitudes, my experience in the gambling lab and as a bouncer, etc. At the end of it, he said I’d be perfect for one of the general education courses, and asked if I was interested in teaching it. I was shocked — he offered me the position on the spot. I of course agreed, and after some administrative hurdles (most notably, figuring out how to juggle my full-time college job with teaching part-time), I was set up to begin teaching in September.

The whole situation happened so quickly and was so unexpected, but I learned a few lessons about job-hunting (and job-landing)  from the experience that I’d like to share.

First, it is important to seek out opportunities for growth. Gone are the days when you can sit in the same job for your whole career and expect security. You need to constantly learn new things, and adapt yourself to the market. Larry Smith’s new book is rife with examples of people who flounder in their career because their skills stagnated, leaving them left behind in the marketplace. You never know how a new opportunity might give you a leg-up to learn and grow either in your current job, or for something new and better.

Second, leverage existing relationships where possible. You need to keep your eyes open to opportunity and capitalize on it when you can. This isn’t just for the “old boys clubs” anymore. The modern reality is that people overwhelmingly find jobs through their networks, rather than exclusively through direct applications. Brush up on your Carnegie and Ferrazzi and learn how to work within the system. The more you help others solve their problems, the more they are willing to help you out. I used my existing employment at the college to signal to the department Chair that I was a safe bet. That preexisting relationship was the key to unlocking the door to this new opportunity. In fact, four years ago, before I started working for the college, I had sent my CV to the previous Chair as a candidate for future teaching positions — I never heard back from him. My connection to this Chair’s institution (and consequently, his personal and professional networks) very likely gave me a leg-up when put against other applicants.

Finally, push through your doubts and take the shot. The Canadian patron saint of hockey, Wayne Gretzky, once said that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Believe me when I say that I completely doubted that I had any shot getting a teaching job. Sure, I have the minimum required education, but I knew that a PhD is what they really wanted. I could have just brushed off the flight of fancy, and ignored the job posting for being above my qualifications. But I took the shot anyway, and it somehow panned out. It wasn’t inevitable, but I gambled — and won. And now, I’m up to my eyeballs in course prep and excitedly awaiting September 9th, when I get to say hi to my students for the first time.  

Ryan is still recovering from his philosophy degree in Waterloo, Ontario.  He posts his thoughts on teaching and medicine here, and you can find pictures of his dog on Instagram.

Image via Pexels

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  • Jessica

    I guess I’m “that guy” right now but…this isn’t a college professor position, this is a part time lecturer/instructor position which graduate students (who don’t have PhDs yet) fill all the time.

    People with PhDs and 2-3 post docs would kill each other for actual professor positions which are unbelievably difficult to get. Its not right to call this a professor position because it just isn’t.

    • Anon

      To be fair, I think that’s mostly due to the headline. Aside from calling the initial posting a search for “professors,” I don’t think he calls himself a professor in the piece. He mostly seems excited that he can finally teach with his degree and pick up an opportunity he finds stimulating. He’s a guy with a day job who is adjuncting because he misses his field and is psyched because he thought he’d never have that opportunity. I didn’t really get the impression that he gave it much more significance than that.

      ETA: Dear God, that guy in the stock photo is punchable, though.

      • Caro

        Not super relevant, but I realized I know where that lake in the photo is. It’s in Kazakhstan. Funny because you’re not allowed to touch the water, so people will drive up there purely to get their photos taken. Anyway.

        • Anon

          That’s so funny that you recognized it. I mainly brought it up because the photo of the guy staring pensively into the sublime initially biased me (unfairly) against the author. I mean, that photo just looks like the sort of guy who would go to a bar and tell girls he was a philosophy professor and, you know, had really deep thoughts for a living, when it was really a part-time job. But then I realized I was being unconsciously influenced by the image to be ungenerous. (Well, and biased by all of the philosophy grad students I’ve known.)

    • Sabrina

      I’m totally with you. The whole time I was reading this I was just thinking how that’s not really a professor position he got. And the fact that the title says “without a PhD” insinuates that people would normally need a PhD to get the position he did when in fact the job posting required only a masters degree. I don’t know if this was supposed to be inspirational but it missed the mark slightly. But still, good on that guy for getting a job he could be excited about.

  • Violaine

    Wow – I studied literature (a MA as well), dreamed of a PhD and gave up, then started teaching something un-related and now I work in student support. I still dream of a PhD so I could teach literature at uni. Your post was super inspiring – maybe I just need to apply to a few things and I might be surprised as well. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Summer

    This is not at all the same thing, but I recently landed a side gig as an English teacher with a language school under similar circumstances. I had no teaching certificates, no language certifications, and in my case, only a 4-year degree. Essentially, my only direct qualification was the fact that I’m a native English speaker. I inquired about teaching purely out of curiously, because I have wondered if it might be worth my while to seek a TEFL or TESOL certification (as a sort of backup plan for income as I’m an American living abroad) and I was curious what this school’s requirements were for teachers. I asked about it fully expecting a response along the lines of “we require our teachers to have XYZ credentials,” to point me in the right direction, but instead I was asked if I could come in the next day for a chat. Like you, I ended up being offered the position on the spot. About a month and a half later, I took the school’s own [very brief] training course and I’m now teaching English a few hours a week. It’s not a particularly lucrative gig by any means, but it’s nice to have the option available to me when I feel like picking up classes, and it’s a fun way to meet new people.

    It’s absolutely worth it sometimes to just ASK, even if you don’t think you’re fully qualified!

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