My professors avoided the rather uncomfortable topic of the job search, the looming structural changes in academia’s contingent labor market, and what postgraduation life is like for those who don’t slide into tenure-track jobs.
And yet, in a survey of over 30,000 faculty members (20,000 of whom identified as contingent workers), the Coalition on the Academic Workforce found 80 percent reported teaching in part-time, non-tenure-track positions for three years, and 50 percent teaching off the tenure track for more than six years. When I left graduate school I went on a six-year job search that I call the Longest Job Visit.
Although higher education is undergoing some very real structural changes, I thought I would share a more lived experience perspective on becoming a visiting assistant professor, serving in that capacity and then finally moving on from that role.
Getting a VAP gig
I earned my Ph.D. from the City University of New York -- a solid Ph.D. program in sociology -- in 2006. I chose a research topic I thought was interesting and that fills a niche, albeit low on the list of perceived social problems. While working on my Ph.D. I slung coffee at a Brooklyn café and took a few of the hundreds of opportunities to teach as an adjunct instructor at two of CUNY’s four-year college campuses.
Upon graduation, I published two articles in second- and third-tier journals and was in the process of getting a book contract from the University of Chicago Press, a top venue for my area of research. I happily accepted a two-year visiting assistant professor position at Smith College to buy time to turn my dissertation into a book, maybe get another article out and make a stronger push for a tenure-track job (while keeping up with the 2-3 teaching load). I told myself this was a way to get my foot in the door, build my teaching credentials, and prove I could handle teaching and publishing.
Then the market shifted in 2008. As their investments and 401(k)s tanked, faculty stopped retiring, and hiring slowed. I applied everywhere: North, South, East, West, two-year, four-year, Class I, II and III departments. I didn’t get a tenure-track job and was lucky enough to have my Smith contract extended for an additional year.
I participated in the employment service at national conferences and had some success. I was flown out to a great four-year public university, but the funding was pulled before the department could offer me a job. In early May 2009 all I had was an offer to teach sociology in Beijing for a semester.
A few weeks later I was fortunate enough to garner another two-year VAP position at UMass Amherst. Teaching more and getting paid less than at Smith, I plugged away, constantly sending applications. I did whatever anyone asked of me in the department -- more than my job description -- and was grateful for it. I worked closely with honors students, grad students and the department’s advising office because I liked it. “Heck,” I told myself, “why not do the job you want to do?”
The book based on my dissertation was under contract and I published a few other articles in better journals. I still didn’t get a job. I was brought in for two job visits and for one of them I’m still waiting, five years later, to find out if I got it. (That’s a joke about waiting, but true: after my job talk at one of the CUNY colleges -- a part of the system that I myself was a product of and the department where I taught as an adjunct -- they never bothered to tell me I didn’t get the job. An indication of how little contingent labor means to a program!)
I published my book with the University of Chicago Press in August 2011. I still didn’t get much interest. Meanwhile, Smith and UMass conducted searches, too. Awkwardly, I applied without success. I kept my head low and my office door closed to not make anyone feel too uncomfortable through the process.
A second book contract with Chicago based upon new research seemed to compensate for my weaknesses, because I finally got a tenure-track job at UMass in my third year as a VAP. I am uncertain if I was the best candidate, but I had a book, a handful of articles, good evaluations, letters from great folks and another book contract in hand… a CV that might been enough for tenure at some Class II or III places, let alone a tenure-track job. I was thrilled and consider myself lucky. (I say “lucky” with all the critical caveats about white, male, cisgendered privilege, of course.)
Where’s the good news here?
My version of lucky means this: six years of VAP-level teaching and low pay, over 300 tailored applications, six phone interviews, four job visits, four offers for VAP positions, six longish short lists (that I know of) and two tenure track jobs. I also had a partner in limbo along with me, watched friends get jobs and even get through to tenure, while I worked for what was essentially a long job visit.
This is a critical point: being a VAP means that any student evaluation, any casual lunch, any bad day, is grist for the mill. I sweat interactions from the classroom to the mail room. When anyone goes on the job market, there is a chance someone knows someone else in his/her current department. I didn’t think it unreasonable to believe that one questionable interaction with a student or colleague could be shared in an inquiring phone call and provide just enough hesitation to bump me from consideration.
I do feel I have a lot of goodwill in my field because of all this. I frequently meet people who say they read and respected my work and my CV, and I guess that’s something, even if they were just being cordial. I have friends and colleagues I met on job visits who were advocates for my application even though it proved unsuccessful. I befriended folks competing for the same job. These are good, if unintended, outcomes of my suboptimal career path.
Perhaps things are changing as some departments adjust to this new labor market. A friend was hired at an elite liberal arts college as a VAP, but he was then short-listed in the department’s next tenure-track search and won the gig. Another friend taught 15 classes over three quarters and eventually landed a tenure-track position at one of those departments, too.
The VAP-to-TT route makes some sense from a department’s perspective. Perhaps there was a demand for particular courses that a VAP satisfies. When search committees ask questions like, “Will this person like it here?” “Will they fit in?” and “Would they want to stay here for the long haul?” it makes sense that a VAP makes it to a short list.
In addition to scholarship, search committees need to feel confident that a candidate will be a great colleague, a good mentor and isn’t likely to leave. Searches can be taxing and many programs aren’t eager to go through the process again.
For what it’s worth, I had a mantra through my VAP stints: live my life and do my job the way I want my life and work to be. That meant doing what I wanted to do in a way that was consistent with how I wanted to be as a scholar. That also meant being realistic with the limitations of my positions and the possible end of my time as a sociologist. That meant watching some friends get jobs and others come to the painful decision to leave academia after years of adjuncting.
That meant contemplating different careers and thinking about going to law school. That meant struggling at a marginal position with shortcomings that were invisible to my students and unsaid with my colleagues. That meant working with grad students because I wanted to, even if it slowed my productivity, because if I was going to never get a job, I at least wanted to work at the end of my career as a sociologist doing exactly what I loved doing.
Three things I wish I knew
Aside from the serious structural issues behind academia’s contingent labor market, in keeping with this interpersonal-level discussion, I will end with a few things I wish I knew before embarking on the VAP track.
First, I wish I'd educated myself on the academic contingent labor market’s working conditions. VAP contracts can be one- or two-year contracts, require somewhere between a 2-3 to 5-5 teaching load, entail little to no service, and pay in the range of $40,000 to $50,000.
Some schools limit VAP employment to two or three years. Adjuncts are hired per course, often with little notice, few benefits, slim support and resources, and even less job security. According to the Coalition on the Academic Workforce, the median pay for adjuncts is $2,700 per course ($2,300 at a two-year college and $3,400 at a four-year). Many adjuncts cobble together gigs from different colleges.
I would highly recommend learning about the realities of contingent labor by talking with VAPs and adjuncts, or by listening to the stories in a documentary called Con Job: Stories of Adjunct & Contingent Labor.
The second thing I wish I knew was that VAP work is a lot like freelancing: requiring high competence and substantial humility, while expecting few resources and only slight commitment. I found some structure in how to approach this kind of work from a commencement speech by fiction writer Neil Gaiman:
It’s easy to get work. But people who keep work in a freelance world -- and more and more it is freelance -- it’s because their work is good and because they’re easy to get along with and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver on time. People will forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good and they like you, and you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
It may not be easy to get a VAP gig, but my experiences drew parallels to Gaiman’s account. I also endeavored to play it safe by aiming for all three qualities.
And finally, I wish I understood how the VAP life would hamstring me even after I secured a tenure-track line. My successful route to the tenure track just placed me at yet another starting line. Last year my provost informed me my VAP publications -- including the work I did at the same university -- could not count for my tenure case.
It was a questionable policy and a hobbling blow: while many new faculty use their dissertation work to take significant strides toward tenure, I effectively burned through my dissertation research just to get a job. While others started their tenure-track jobs with lots of data and research from their graduate studies, I had to craft an entirely new research project.
These perspectives might not change the broader landscape, but hopefully will help as the reader contemplates the VAP track. I can end no better than echoing David Foster Wallace’s now famous 2005 commencement speech: “I wish you way more than luck.”
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