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If one aspired to a traditional, research-based academic career in a major university, would teaching for a few years at a community college (say, after the Master's) be damaging to one's CV? I'm worried that it would create a record of affiliation with a low-ranked university that would make people see you as "from" that university, and thus be biased against hiring you. Is there any truth to this?

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As a matter of opinion, teaching experience looks good. Do you have documented, hands-on research experience? – CMosychuk Jan 17 at 20:06
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To distill what a couple of the answers say: people will see you as from where you get your PhD. – Kimball Jan 17 at 23:52
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Counterexample: CUNY community colleges still require research for tenure-track positions (although generally they also expect PhD holders for those positions). – Daniel R. Collins Jan 18 at 3:11
    
opposite effect, teaching will actually make u more qualified amongest those who didn't teach. That's how I would see it if I was the interviewer – SSpoke Jan 18 at 10:25
up vote 26 down vote accepted

I'm worried that it would create a record of affiliation with a low-ranked university that would make people see you as "from" that university, and thus be biased against hiring you. Is there any truth to this?

I think it depends when you do it. If it is in between your master's and PhD, as you somewhat tentatively suggest: well, I know many people in my academic field (mathematics) who paused in between degrees to teach at the high school level, most commonly for two years. I have seen absolutely no stigma attached to this. On the contrary, when people have to make lightly educated guesses as to whether a certain candidate will be a good (read: not problematically bad) teacher, then holding a teaching job for more than one year pushes that guess in a positive direction. Teaching at a community college is generally viewed as a "higher level job" than teaching at a high school, so I think this should carry over. As a specific example, within fairly recent memory we took a PhD student who had been teaching at a community college. She got her PhD and now has a tenure-track job at a university. So: no stigma here.

(The above answer assumes that you have made it into a PhD program and have kept up your "higher academic skills" as much as other candidates. Whether that is the case is up to you.)

The part of your CV after you get a PhD will be viewed with much more scrutiny, both in terms of chronology and specific jobs held. If you want to get a tenure-track job at a research university, any post-PhD academic employment other than a postdoc or tenure track job at a research university will count against you. (Sorry. I don't make the rules -- I'm just reporting the situation as I see it.) Even taking an industrial job might not count against you as much as teaching at a community college: in my neck of the academic woods an "industrial job" is an enigma of blankness eliciting neither delight nor scorn -- our eyes just slide right off of it.

Let me say though, that while teaching at a community college between degrees is a possible trajectory to an academic career, it does not necessarily make sense to me for someone to plan on that in advance. That is to say: why are you contemplating taking a break of several years from your graduate studies? If the answer is because you feel a bit burned out or that you want the chance to figure out whether an academic career is for you, I think you need to know that the post-PhD academic job market is one step shy of airtight at the moment. It is not for the faint of heart or the uncertain of commitment. I suggest you think carefully about your long term goals and whether a PhD is really a necessary part of them.

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+1 for "I think you need to know that the post-PhD academic job market is one step shy of airtight at the moment. It is not for the faint of heart or the uncertain of commitment. I suggest you think carefully about your long term goals and whether a PhD is really a necessary part of them." – Dan C Jan 18 at 3:03
    
Thanks for the excellent answer. – SAH Jan 18 at 23:15

(Speaking from the perspective of mathematics in the U.S., ...) I'd second @PeteL.Clark's comments... Specifically, it makes an enormous difference in the current academic job market whether "teaching a few years at a community college" occurs before or after a Ph.D. If before, then I'd estimate that people would imagine you're more focused and know what you want, so it might enhance a PhD application to all but the most elite places. If after your PhD, it would almost surely create difficulty "returning" to the "research track". It's not that the affiliation itself would harm you (and community colleges are not "universities", so are "not even" lower-tier universities), but that you would have most likely doing something other than what is expected for post-docs and tenure-track people, unless you manage to get lots of good papers written while doing that community college teaching. That's the bottom line. A secondary but still still very significant problem would be finding letter writers for your next job, back in the research-university world. In contrast, in a post-doc, hopefully there are senior faculty who interact with you and can write very helpful letters. Glowing letters from community college people will not have the same impact.

And, yes, the "affiliation" issue will impede you in some cases, if/when people filter post-doc or tenure-track applicants by most-recent-job. They might (reasonably or not) figure you've been out of the loop for a few years, and might not even look to see whether you've been publishing papers.

That is, in other words, in the U.S., a sort of "clock" starts upon getting your PhD, and one is in competition with other people who got their PhD at the same time. (In some cases, maternity/paternity leave is possible, but it is naive to believe that everyone respects this...) Taking oneself out of the game for a few years may in fact be a reasonable thing in several regards, but I don't think it is currently viewed as such.

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Thanks for pointing out some interesting additional issues. – SAH Jan 18 at 23:15

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