Climbing The Ladder

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

By | Thursday, September 08, 2016


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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