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College Instructor Looking for New Course of Action


Regina Lark is a roads scholar. She racks up 350 miles on Southland highways each week, traveling to and from teaching jobs at Pasadena City College, Glendale Community College and USC.

Lark's cross-town schlep is wearisome, as is her hectic teaching schedule--five courses every semester. And because she's a part-time lecturer, the 41-year-old Canoga Park resident doesn't get the perks sometimes taken for granted by full-time peers on track for tenure: health and retirement benefits, a private office, relative job security and a sense of community.

"I really want to be at a place where I can educate and inform and have the freedom to be who I am," Lark said. "Teaching is my passion--it's what I do best. . . . But I'm frustrated by the lack of tenure-track positions available."

Lark received her doctorate in history and a certificate in gender studies from USC in August. But she's been applying for full-time positions at West Coast universities since 1998--to no avail. And though the higher-education job market has improved, it's still discouragingly competitive. An advertisement for a full-time professorship can generate 400 responses, experts say.

To compound Lark's employment challenges, she'll soon have to begin paying back $52,000 in student loans. To meet her $530-a-month payments, Lark said she may have to shoulder even more teaching assignments or consider employment opportunities outside academia.

Lark wants to know whether a woman groomed to be a faculty member of a doctorate-granting university can successfully transition into the private sector. Would her academic skills impress corporate employers?

"I've been in academia so long, I don't know what's outside of it," Lark said.

For help, Lark consulted Jane Celwyn, director of career services at Barnard College in New York. She told Celwyn she'd like to somehow incorporate her biggest interests--feminism, politics and gay/lesbian issues--into a vocation. She also wants to restrict her job search to the West Coast, "because this is where my base of support and love is," Lark said. Lastly, Lark wants a sense of community and financial security. Her current teaching endeavors, which garner her about $35,000 annually, don't provide these.

Celwyn first assured Lark that her situation is not at all unusual. "I know that 1 1/2 years of looking for a tenure-track position must seem like an eternity, but in the scheme of things, it's not that long," Celwyn said.

Then Celwyn, along with other higher-education experts, offered Lark these suggestions:

* Beef up your qualifications. If Lark wants to land a full-time position at a university, she shouldn't abandon the dream, Celwyn said. But she'll need to set herself apart from the applicant pack, among whom are "fresh PhDs with cutting-edge training," said David Leary, dean of arts and sciences at University of Richmond in Virginia.

In recent years, university employers have increased their expectations for potential new hires. They're demanding more teaching experience and publication successes. They're also recruiting faculty from other schools for positions that previously went to new doctoral graduates.

"The bar is being raised," said Robin Wagner, associate director for graduate services at the University of Chicago. "Even PhDs getting out of the top programs in the country don't have the best jobs open to them anymore."

Despite Lark's heavy teaching schedule, she should try to add more scholarly achievements to her curriculum vitae. These can include published articles in refereed journals, presentations at national conferences and book reviews in academic publications. Landing a book contract for her dissertation, "They Challenged Two Nations: Marriages Between Japanese Women and American GIs, 1945-1959," would further bolster Lark's chances of nabbing a tenure-track job, experts say.

Additionally, Lark can demonstrate her teaching skills to prospective employers by inviting them to observe her classes and showing them her student evaluations.

Perhaps Lark's best option may be to seek a full-time position at a community college. Unlike four-year institutions, which demand rigorous scholarship credits from professors-to-be, community colleges look for instructors with great teaching skills and who are likely to make contributions as faculty members, said Randal Lawson, vice president of academic affairs at Santa Monica College.

Because hiring qualifications for educators at community colleges and four-year institutions are so different, Lark may have to decide which college market best suits her, then focus her efforts on building the skills--either research or teaching--that it demands.

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