Reflections From a Visiting Professor

Important -- if not always recognized -- roles.

July 16, 2014

Being a visiting professor is a curious status. While the term “visiting” implies that one has come from somewhere to which they will eventually go back, in fact these positions have increasingly become the entry point for new scholars coming out of graduate school and headed towards an uncertain future in academia. In a 2012 report, the National Science Foundation noted that engineering and the social sciences saw the greatest growth in postdoc positions over the decade 2002-2012. Numbers from the American Political Science Association (log-in required) show how this trend has progressed in one area of the social sciences, noting a gradual decline in tenure-track appointments over the past four years, while non-tenure-track appointments hovered at just over 20% of all placements.

Yet these data also tell another story.

While the NSF classifies any temporary position as a postdoc, and the APSA counts all non-tenure track positions in the same category, the status of visiting professor is separate and distinct from that of an adjunct or lecturer. As other blogs on the topic have noted, visiting positions vary widely in terms of financial support for relocation and for research. Based on an informal analysis of her peers in visiting positions, Eliza Woolf came to the conclusion that not only is moving to a tenure-track position at the same university highly unlikely, but many visiting professors she knew did not move on to tenure track work at all. Job candidates with families, those who want families, or those with other special needs can incur significant financial and personal costs that may at least partially offset the benefits of taking a one- or two-year appointment. Further complicating the issue, the recent growth of visiting positions in many fields means that new scholars moving into these positions are unlikely to have advisers or colleagues who have served in visiting positions themselves. These scholars may find themselves without mentors to navigate them through uncertain waters.

In entering a visiting position, scholars are likely to face a number of gray areas. In teaching, for example, my experience at a small liberal arts college was that undergraduate students (unsurprisingly) made no distinction between me and other, tenure-track and tenured faculty in the department. This meant that, while I had no formal advising commitments, I was still asked to provide informal advisement, to supervise independent study projects, and to teach more rigorous honors variants of my courses. While I was not required to carry out any of these responsibilities, it was difficult to say no to students who came looking for guidance. As a scholar on the job market, I was also conscientious of the potential benefits of being able to say, for example, that I’d served on a student thesis committee. Similar views also informed my attitude toward research. While I had no research expectations and was ineligible for most sources of institutional research funding, not continuing my research was simply not an option. I set aside time for research by joining a working group with other junior faculty, but the financial costs of paying out-of-pocket for research materials, membership in professional associations, and most of my conference travel were not trivial.

Regarding service, visiting faculty should also be prepared to make strategic decisions. While visiting professors often face no service obligations, attendance at department or faculty meetings can be worthwhile for those seeking professional experience or who just want to feel like a part of the academic community. Visiting faculty may also find themselves in the position of determining how to handle service requests from well-intentioned colleagues who are unaware of (or who disregard) their temporary status. While these are decisions that will vary by individual and institution, I found that structure was key for me. In addition to dedicated time for working on research, I also had designated time set aside for applying for my next job. I sent out my first applications for the coming academic year the day before classes started at my then-current institution. During the fall especially, the new job search was time consuming and job-search time had to be preserved at all costs.

From the perspective of one who has worked as an adjunct, a graduate assistant, and a visiting professor, the visiting status has its rewards. Aside from the obvious, like salary and benefits, visiting faculty also have access to professional development opportunities that are not available to other types of contingent faculty. But the unique challenges of the position should also not be overlooked. Just as the individual entering these positions has to be prepared to be their own advocate, departments and institutions can help by examining their own policies regarding scheduling, research and travel funding, relocation assistance, and the like. Professional associations can also play a role. With visiting positions becoming a common training ground in many disciplines, less-experienced scholars could benefit from greater data collection about visiting positions, including the diversity of those in visiting positions and the success of one- and two-year faculty in subsequent tenure-track searches. Professional associations can also position themselves as advocates, offering recommendations to job seekers and institutions on how they can best make a visiting term a rewarding time that benefits the institution, the individual, and the students.

Alexis Leanna Henshaw is Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bucknell University. She was previously Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and International Affairs at Sweet Briar College, and received a Ph.D. in Political Science with a certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Arizona. She can be reached at alexis.henshaw@bucknell.edu, on Twitter at @Prof_Henshaw, or through her website.


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