Career Traps or Pathways?

Morris Grubbs and Austin Trantham explore the conundrum of contingent faculty jobs for academics seeking tenure-track positions.

November 7, 2022
Illustration of a branching road. One branch is blocked by a cone, and the figure in red is running toward the other branch.
(erhui1979/digitalvision vectors/getty images)

While the standard advice for A.B.D.s (all-but-the-dissertation) and new Ph.D.s aspiring to faculty positions is “beware the adjuncting trap,” contingent positions in various guises—adjunct instructor, visiting lecturer, teaching postdoc, visiting assistant professor and so on—are the default forms of academic employment. Those non-tenure-track, or NTT, positions “are the working conditions for the vast majority of U.S. faculty today,” as the American Association of University Professors reminds us in the “Issues” section of its website.

The percentage of instructional faculty in the United States who are NTT has steadily risen for decades. This is not a problem new Ph.D.s can solve, nor is it a problem most would care to feed. But with strategy and patience, NTT positions—even a series of them—can be a pathway to a tenure-track position.

Just ask Austin, a co-author of this article and of “A Limited Time Offer: Exploring Adjunct, Visiting, and Fixed-Term Positions” in Strategies for Navigating Graduate School and Beyond. Eight years ago, as an A.B.D., he accepted a visiting lecturer position, which he held for two years. He subsequently held a second role as a one-year visiting instructor at another institution. Completing his Ph.D. in the interim, Austin served as a visiting assistant professor for one year at a third school before being hired on in a tenure-track line.

To be clear, Austin did not set out to spend four years in contingent positions before landing a tenure-track position. Rather, in the absence of tenure-track offers, the contingent positions presented themselves as good options—sometimes among several viable options. He did, however, approach his career trajectory with specific goals.

First and foremost, Austin knew he wanted teaching experience to hone his pedagogical practices and classroom presence. He wanted experience mentoring students in research while working with faculty colleagues on collaborative projects. And he wanted to network with other scholars outside his home institution, knowing they might be willing to write letters of recommendation as he pursued tenure-track employment.

We’re not suggesting that the proliferation of NTT positions is a positive direction for higher education; we want the balance to shift back toward a growth of tenure-track positions. But part-time and limited-term positions do play an important role in higher education, and many, such as those that focus on part-time teaching, serve to enrich classrooms and students’ experiences in invaluable ways. What we are suggesting is that, if you are a Ph.D. aspiring to be a tenure-track faculty member and an NTT position presents itself as a job-search bridge, then you should choose and enter into such positions well informed and with specific strategies and goals in mind.

Sustaining Professional Goals

Accepting a contingent faculty appointment, while not always ideal, will give you the opportunity to practice and hone the craft of classroom teaching while staying current with pedagogical practices and educational technologies. Such opportunities can be especially useful if a primary-instructor teaching assistant role was not an option while you were in graduate school.

At the same time, however, you should consider the various demands and level of flexibility the position affords. Course assignments for contingent faculty can come at the last minute, often leading to a compressed timeline to complete the labor-intensive preparatory work required for classroom instruction. Typical tasks that you might often have to hurriedly complete include creating or modifying a syllabus, drafting assignments, and potentially learning new material—all while gaining familiarity with a different learning management system.

And if you wish to innovate in your face-to-face, online or hybrid class, you may be stifled by the required use of a standard textbook or specific learning outcomes. You must also consider how to balance the work of effective teaching: timely review and grading of student work; creating assessments to gauge student learning; and fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive classroom where students feel they belong. This final consideration has taken on increased importance within higher education; faculty search committees are increasingly asking job candidates to submit statements describing how candidates may prioritize and enact their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the classroom.

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While classroom teaching represents the central work of a contingent position, opportunities may arise for you to do student-facing service work, such as advising. In his visiting roles, for example, Austin served on a student’s honors thesis committee, co-advised a prelaw association and organized extracurricular activities. But you will have to balance such work with other significant professional goals that you may have, including completing your degree and establishing and maintaining a research agenda. You should discuss the pros and cons of a contingent faculty appointment with your mentor(s) and weigh that advice carefully.

Sustaining professional goals includes learning how to say no at times. As a first-time independent instructor, perhaps eager to be a team player and to positively contribute to the institutional environment, you may find yourself overcommitted. As most NTT positions do not pay nearly as well as full-time faculty lines, you should view them solely for what they are—temporary employment—when deciding where to invest your time, talents and energy.

Resilience is key. Austin served in three different contingent positions in three states before his first tenure-track appointment. Yet the knowledge he gained from on-the-ground teaching experience, interacting with faculty colleagues and mentoring students about their own career aspirations were invaluable when beginning as a full-time tenure-track faculty member.

Actively Learn About the Professoriate

Many Ph.D. students carry with them through graduate school, and then into the search for a faculty job, certain assumptions about faculty positions and the professoriate that may be misleading or false. Those assumptions can cause wrong turns or misalignments with your values and career goals.

Examples of misleading assumptions include a conflation of the different types of higher education institutions where faculty find positions, as well as an underappreciation of the subtle differences between subtypes of institutions. For example, small private colleges seek a different set of traits and priorities from faculty candidates than research universities, and the subtypes of small colleges—which vary according to the level of admissions selectivity, the expectations for faculty research, the palpability of religious affiliation and so on—have their own distinct sets of characteristics and expectations. When considering an NTT position as a pathway to a tenure-track position, having an informed knowledge of institutional types and subtypes can help you navigate effectively.

Gaining this knowledge may not be as simple as merely reading the Carnegie Classification descriptions or visiting college and university websites, although such resources can help. For graduate students, the realization that approximately 10 percent of tenure-track faculty positions nationwide are at research institutions should beg the questions, “Where are the other 90 percent, and what should I know about them to optimize my job search?” If your department or graduate school offers Preparing Future Faculty or similar initiatives, take advantage of their offerings. Those initiatives have been at some universities for 30 years and range in intensity from an information session or workshop to individual courses or a series of courses leading to a graduate certificate, sometimes incorporated into a college teaching certificate. Students learn about the range of faculty work across the institutional types and usually hear from faculty members at various institutions.

Institutionwide PFF initiatives can be particularly beneficial, as they take a multidisciplinary and collaborative approach. Campus visits and informational interviews with faculty members are valuable course activities and assignments. Some extended curricula culminate in a college teaching practicum, which may be completed at an external institution as an adjunct instructor mentored by a faculty member at the host institution.

In our experience, a teaching practicum is not only a way to gain valuable guided experience as a primary instructor at another type of institution but also is a tremendously useful networking opportunity. We know several examples of students getting tenure-track offers in searches at their practicum host institutions or similar institutions. A college teaching practicum, like other types of limited-term positions, may serve as an audition for a long-term position. Like many contingent roles, it may also provide insights into institutional “fit” (how you fit the institution, and how the institution or type fits you) that can help clarify your career goals and shine light on your path.

Whether you are in graduate school or are already a terminal degree holder questing for a full-time tenure-track faculty position, we recommend getting as many insights into the professoriate and acquiring as much experience across the range of faculty work as possible. While faculty mentors may provide good guiding insights into faculty career paths, their views may be limited and are sometimes biased to the research university perspective. We recommend seeking out multiple perspectives from faculty members at different types of institutions.

Combining knowledge of faculty work with actual experiences in contingent roles can help clarify your tenure-track faculty goals. The key, however, is to treat contingent roles as navigational pathways, not harbors.

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Morris Grubbs is assistant dean of graduate student professional enhancement and administrative director of the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program at the University of Kentucky. He is a member of the Graduate Career Consortium—an organization providing an international voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders. Austin Trantham holds a Ph.D. in political science and a PFF/graduate certificate in college teaching and learning from the University of Kentucky. He is assistant professor of political science at Saint Leo University.

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