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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: More on the 'Career Lattice'
December 3, 2008 - 9:19am

I also read the article from The New York Times that my blogging colleague Libby Gruner referred to in her post yesterday, which discusses corporate world changes in attitude in thinking about the career ladder more as a career lattice. I agree with Libby: the academy certainly does not offer the “customized model for how careers are built and talent is developed” in the way the accounting firm Deloitte is described as doing in the NYT article.

And yet, academia has changed in the last 30 years, documented by a recent report put out by the American Association of University Professors. In 2004, 68% of American higher education faculty had contingent (non-tenure track) appointments, up remarkably from 1975, when 43% of faculty hires were non-tenure track. Similarly, the percentage of part time faculty has gone up – from 30% in 1979 to 48% in 2004.

So maybe here’s where there is room in academia for pausing and for lateral growth. There are more non-traditional ways to stay in academia part-time and full-time - tenure doesn’t have to be the be-all and end-all. My husband successfully nabbed his non-tenure track lecturer position, in which he feels secure (he has made himself indispensible to the department through excellent teaching), he is able to carve out large chunks of time to be with family (including much of the summer), and he is “growing” into a new administrative line that he has added to his teaching.

Of course, many contingent positions unfortunately are created more for the purpose of saving money for universities than for accommodating an increasingly diverse set of Ph.Ds. Non-tenure track positions can be reasonably secure and well-paid, but there are plenty of adjunct positions with no security and that are way undercompensated. At the same time, these positions can provide a way to step laterally. Here’s a place where more thoughtful, proactive efforts could improve acceptable, non-traditional careers offerings in academia.

There are also hints of change from a proactive perspective – for example, I was encouraged to read the proposal by Bob Drago to develop options for part-time tenure track positions. These positions evidently are in action in a sprinkling of institutes for higher education around the nation, including the University of Washington, the University of California, Berkeley, University of Iowa, University of Oregon, and Wellesley College. There is a need for active discussion and exploration of these positions, to resolve some issues, widen their acceptance – from the side of the department AND the individual – and make them part of the norm. Part-time tenure track is something I never considered possible as a graduate student (but I think I would have been very interested in pursuing this option!)

Academia has a long way to go on its path to career “lattices”, but people are talking and trying out new things. Academics need to embrace the possibilities and make them legitimate, as (maybe) the corporate world has. Well, this is no easy task, and it is slow, but I’m interested to see what opportunities the next generation will have in academia.


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