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Campus Considerations

Career options and research opportunities at two-year colleges are often underappreciated.

By | March 1, 2014

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With relatively static federal funding and industry investment, plus a strong and sizable pool of candidates competing for few faculty positions at fiscally strapped campuses, newly minted PhDs face challenging times ahead. While most graduates will seek the prescribed postdoctoral positions away from their home campuses, academic positions at two-year colleges are increasingly being considered another viable—and comparatively secure—career option.  

In many ways, junior- and community-college employment opportunities revive science as it used to be done, before it became big business for university campuses. Researchers at two-year schools can investigate diverse topics with less emphasis on academic competition and market pressures, as student engagement and learning are the primary directives. Moreover, new inquiry-based, student-centered research opportunities are helping community colleges achieve these goals.

Despite the opportunity to develop novel research platforms at these institutions, choosing to become a two-year college faculty member is not an easy decision, and the future ramifications of this decision require a large shift of mind-set and, perhaps, an adjustment of long-term goals. For example, electing to pursue such a career could limit future salary, affect suitability for available positions, and influence the caliber of research that can be done.

Nearly a quarter of science and engineering faculty members currently populating two-year campuses hold PhDs.

At best, some in academia consider this career choice a loss of equity of their PhD training. At worst, they might call it “career suicide.” Some believe that junior-college positions are for those who are not capable of competing in the traditional research setting. Nevertheless, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, nearly a quarter of science and engineering faculty members currently populating two-year campuses hold PhDs.

Two-year schools have traditionally granted technical degrees in response to workforce demands and served as clearinghouses offering pre-requisite courses for colleges, universities, and advanced degrees. They may also be an appropriate arena in which to begin encouraging would-be future scientists.

Doing scholarly research can be a challenge at junior colleges, but with effort and imagination, high-level science is still possible. For example, at my institution, Kapiolani Community College, we manufacture monoclonal antibody–producing hybridoma cell lines. Our Monoclonal Antibody Service Facility and Training Center charges university-level research clients a modest fee for supplying them with immortal mouse cells that synthesize target antibodies.

These cells are produced in part by a trained student workforce. To prepare for this work, students enroll in research-intensive molecular biology, tissue culture, and protein chemistry-immunology courses early on. To encourage students to continue extramural research (or join our antibody facility), we have remodeled traditional directed-study courses to allow students to recoup credit costs after completion and to provide participating instructors with compensatory wages or release from teaching one class of their courseloads.

Researchers at two-year schools can investigate diverse topics with less emphasis on academic compe­tition and market pressures.

One outcome of such curricular transformations at my institution is the development of phage display methods to complement our existing antibody service center. Directed-study students are currently investigating the use of genetically modified phages (containing antibody variable-region genes of naive mice) to increase our antibody-producing capacity. A benefit of this program will be the introduction of this phage technology back into our molecular biology courses as lecture and laboratory learning modules. Not surprisingly, research platforms like these have enabled our community college students to successfully compete with students from four-year schools at local and national scientific conferences.

Our antibody-producing facility and supportive remodeled courses are but a few examples of innovative teaching and research approaches being adopted at countless two-year campuses that contradict the dogma about the traditional role of such colleges and the reputations of their scientific staffs. In all likelihood, as more PhDs are recruited to these campuses, and as these scientists continue to challenge this dogma and stigma, there will be a marked increase in the role and scientific productivity of two-year schools for both basic research and the training of students who matriculate at these schools.

Matthew Tuthill is an assistant professor of molecular biology and microbiology at the University of Hawaii’s Kapiolani Community College. He completed his PhD research on regulation of the N-myc oncogene at the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.

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