Just Visiting

Just because a position is better than most adjunct jobs doesn't mean it will get you closer to the tenure track, writes Eliza Woolf.

March 28, 2011

What does it mean to be a "visiting" assistant professor? Who invented this rather cruel form of professional limbo? Why are more and more junior scholars beginning — and ending — their academic careers as visiting faculty members?

In pursuit of tenure-track academic employment, A.B.D.s and newly minted Ph.D.s are often compelled to accept visiting, or contractual, assistant professorships around the country due to the fiercely competitive and limited nature of today’s academic job market. These appointments are available for a variety of reasons, including a department’s need to cover a tenured or tenure-track professor’s courses due to a temporary leave of absence or an administrative decision to make a temporary hire until funding becomes available for a tenure-track position in subsequent years.

Depending on the particular department and university, these positions usually entail heavier than average teaching expectations (a 3/3 rather than a standard 3/2 yearly course load, for example, with proportionally greater loads at institutions where that is the norm); no service requirements; and minimal, or no, research expectations — hence minimal or no institutional support for research, although this varies greatly. For new Ph.D.s with minimal previous teaching experience, even the reduced duties of a visiting faculty member may come as a shock.

"In some respects, serving as a visiting assistant professor is an incredible opportunity — a sort of professional boot camp where you are thrown into the teaching trenches and must immediately make the transition from graduate student to professor," notes one visiting faculty member who wishes to remain anonymous. "But it is also a frustrating experience if you’re still hoping to get a tenure-track job. You are grateful to have a job, any job, especially in this market. By the very nature of the job, however, there is no reward for hard work or continuing your professional development. So you surrender to the reality that you have to abandon real intensive research and participation in conferences (unless you are independently wealthy) to handle your teaching responsibilities."

Contracts for visiting professors are signed on a yearly or biennial basis and may be significantly altered or revoked at the end of the academic year. At some universities the maximum period a person may hold a position as a visiting professor, without being moved either out the door or onto the tenure track, is limited to two or three years. If the visiting faculty member’s position exists due to the need for course coverage rather than a faculty absence, searches are run, whenever finances permit, to replace the visiting faculty slot with a tenure-track line.

Of course, as anyone who has ever worked as a visiting professor will confirm, it is highly unlikely, although not impossible, to hop from the visiting track to the tenure track at the same university. Even if one is shortlisted for the position the ultimate prize can very easily be swept away by another candidate who has not yet lost his or her shine through the grind of everyday acquaintance. Consequently, visiting professors spend a huge portion of their non-teaching time applying for tenure-track jobs elsewhere and attempting to publish and network while managing heavy teaching loads. They know that their positions are temporary and liable to come to an abrupt end at any time, in which case they’ll be forced to pack their bags, once again, and head to another location in search of work.

Hence visiting professors are, in essence, just as contingent as other contingent faculty such as lecturers and adjuncts, yet in the hierarchy of non-tenure track academic jobs landing a visiting faculty position is as good as it gets. Why? The answer is twofold: one, because most visiting professors are appointed after a national search and afforded set responsibilities for the year, rather than the perilous course-by-course situation of adjuncts, and they receive some level of respect from tenured and tenure-track faculty and potential employers; and two, because visiting faculty are paid relatively decent salaries and, unlike adjuncts, granted employment benefits and (usually) solo offices.

A visiting professor might receive a salary of $45K plus benefits for a 3/3 course load, for instance, while an adjunct teaching the same courses for $3,000 a pop would earn only $18,000 total for the year and no benefits. This scenario, sadly, is the lot of thousands of overqualified adjuncts, many of whom are forced to teach at multiple universities and community colleges in order to make ends meet. So although visiting professors’ positions are nearly as unstable and vulnerable to budget cuts as the rest of the contingent faculty pool, at least visiting faculty are able to live above the poverty line — for the duration of their contracts, anyway. There is also a definite sense in the academy that visiting assistant professors, unlike adjuncts, have an excellent shot at securing tenure-track employment elsewhere once their current positions have come to an end. But just how realistic is this assumption in a post-GFC world?

Several years ago a number of friends of mine from graduate school accepted positions as visiting assistant professors in humanities departments at large public state universities and private liberal arts colleges. Just as they imagined their visiting positions as temporary, though not unwelcome, stops on a career track that would inevitably lead to tenured employment, so, too, did their advisers. "What great news! This is how a junior scholar who is not from an Ivy program gets his or her foot in the door now," advised one friend’s well-intentioned dissertation director. "In a year or two, after proving that you can manage a heavy teaching load and still publish, you’ll be able to walk right into a good tenure-track job," assured another. With the blessing of their advisers, my graduate school friends packed their bags and relocated to the various sites of their new temporary jobs, usually without the benefit of reimbursed moving expenses, and optimistically hoped for the best.

Now, years later, how have things turned out for my friends? Did their visiting positions act as springboards for tenure-track employment? I have kept track of their careers and must admit that for the majority of these visiting professors things have not panned out as they and their advisers initially expected. Instead, my friends have found themselves in one of the following situations: unemployed after their visiting contracts expired, or compelled to begin yet another, and then another, visiting appointment in a different location; demoted to adjunct or lecturer status, accompanied by a major salary cut; forced to take on a higher course load for less pay; or, in one case, compelled for financial reasons to work multiple jobs. They’ve realized that while visiting positions exist, and are renewed, to satisfy departmental teaching needs, potential academic employers are frequently more interested in hiring a promising A.B.D or research-productive postdoctoral fellow rather than a visiting professor whose greatest strength consists of hands-on teaching experience. In many ways their visiting positions have left my friends in a state of professional purgatory, unable to move forward with their academic careers yet prevented from leaving academe entirely by the existence of a salaried position and the (increasingly faint) hope of eventual tenure-track employment.

There are notable exceptions. One person I know worked as a visiting professor for four years at the same university, all the while continuing to publish, publish, publish, before finally landing an excellent tenure-track job at a stable research university with a 2/2 teaching load. It can be done. It is possible for a visiting position to enable a Ph.D. to segue from graduate school to the tenure track. But my ultimately successful friend was on the verge of giving up; he regarded the tenure-track job offer — the only one he received after four years on the market — as no less than a miracle, despite the excellence of his work and the length of his C.V.

All in all, I would say that visiting positions are here to stay and, if one is intent on finding academic work at any cost and willing to make repeated sacrifices, better than nothing. They’re certainly far better than adjunct work or lectureships, in terms both of remuneration and future career prospects. Nonetheless, it’s important for junior scholars to keep the realities of the academic job market in mind and not to assume that a visiting position — even if it’s at Harvard — will necessarily lead to greener pastures. Decline a viable tenure-track offer at a less desirable university in favor of a seemingly plum visiting position at your own peril.


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