Jun 28 2011 Published by under career issues

A reader wonders whether to take a one-year non-tenure-track teaching position that seems like it might become a tenure-track opportunity after a year or wait and apply for the TT position, should it come into existence. In this case, the institution in question is a teaching-focused university, with some (but not major) research expectations for faculty.

The underlying question is whether being the temporary person gives you the inside track (if they like you) or whether you would spend the entire year making newbie teaching mistakes and thereby damaging your chances of being considered for the TT position. Would colleagues be likely to say "Hey, look how hard s/he has been working! Wouldn't it be great to have him/her as a colleague?" or would they be more likely to say "Hey, we know this person and they seem to have some imperfections. Let's try to hire one of these shiny new perfect people whose applications clearly demonstrate -- particularly in the letters of references -- that they have absolutely no flaws whatsoever!"

My personal experiences with this are mostly from my early days; i.e., as an applicant and visiting professor. I don't have any experience with it as a professor making decisions about hiring; for various reasons involving how my department works, we seldom have people in this position. It is also rare that postdocs become TT professors here, so I can't discuss a possibly analogy from personal experience either.

In ancient times, when I was on the job market, I interviewed at two places that already had 'visiting professors' who were candidates for the tenure-track job. The first time it happened, I figured I would just get some experience interviewing, but couldn't imagine why they would want to hire me instead of keeping someone who had been there for several years and had a lot more teaching experience than I did. I was quite relaxed during the interview because I was so sure it wasn't a 'real' interview, and was therefore shocked when I was offered the job. I didn't end up accepting that offer, but I remember feeling apologetic when I later saw the person who was passed over for the TT job. Fortunately, this person ended up with a good TT job at another institution. I think in that case, it was a situation of a department's favoring of the unknown over the known, and not necessarily for any good reason.

Then it happened again, not long after that experience. I went to an interview for a tenure-track position, again convinced that it was the 'visiting professor's' job, and this time I was right. This time, I was told directly by more than one person that this was X's job, and the interviews were pointless. One professor, scheduled to talk to me for half an hour, told me that I was wasting his time. It didn't occur to him that he and all his colleagues were wasting my time, but whatever. It was an unpleasant experience to be told directly (and often) that there was no chance I would be hired. Thanks for the free trip to Unpleasant City! So they hired X, who did not ultimately get tenure. I could gloat about that, but I happen to like X very much.

Another time, I was the visiting professor, but there was no chance of this job becoming tenure-track, so I didn't get to run the experiment with me as the known being compared with shiny new unknowns. In that case, I took the job because I wanted the teaching experience (this turned out to be very useful, even in my first TT job at a research university) and because I thought I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college (I was wrong).

So, those are my experiences. I'm not sure if they add up to anything coherent in terms of answering this question because I think they show how variable these situations can be. It's hard to predict whether your colleagues are going to appreciate your hard work or whether they are going to have a 'grass is greener' view of applicants for the tenure-track position.

Nevertheless, even if you don't end up getting the TT job, I think the experience can be very useful. If your life is such that you are mobile enough to take a short-term job (or two), you can make all sorts of newbie mistakes (ideally not so bad that your students suffer for it..) and then if you do get a TT job, you will be awesomely prepared and ready to roll, at least in terms of teaching. You can also check out a certain type of institution (as I did at a SLAC) and see if that is a good fit for you, and you can see if your colleagues are people you'd want to work with long-term or whether you want to run screaming away from that place as soon as you are able.

So, if a short-term job is at all possible for you and even somewhat appealing (relative to other options), I say go for it. Check the place out, check the people out, get some teaching experience, and get some visibility.

IMPORTANT NOTES: In my field of the physical sciences, these short-term positions do tend to lead to real jobs. They do not tend to be low-wage, low-respect, dead-end positions. Most people do not bounce around in these visiting positions for long periods of time. These positions are a respected, accepted way to get some experience that is a bit different from what you get in a postdoc. The person who wrote to me is in my field.



17 responses so far

  • grrlscientist says:

    that is absolutely not my experience at all. having worked extremely hard for years as a low-paid, no-respect and benefit-less adjunct professor who was hired "with a soon-to-open TT position in mind", i learned the hard way that being a "subway flyer" is a real "career" option with all the downsides of teaching and none of the benefits.

    when i compared notes with my fellow adjunct professors -- and after they stopped laughing at me -- they informed me that getting a TT position after working as an adjunct was nigh-on impossible, that they had been given the same promises i had and been doing the same thing i was doing, but they'd been doing it for years longer than i had and therefore had seniority over me, and good luck to me. the only way i could get off the subway flyer treadmill was to save my pennies so i could relocate to another part of the country or have sexual relations with the search committee, particularly since i was competing for the rare TT position with literally hundreds of other people from around the world.

    in the meanwhile, i was also doing a number of other odd jobs during evenings and weekends to make sure i could buy some food and pay for my train tix (commuting from one adjunct job to another). those odd jobs ranged from cleaning people's apartments whilst they worked, helping them pack their belongings for storage or relocation, and caring for their pets whilst they vacationed.

    oh, and at the at the end of the day? i got paid more to walk dogs than i did to teach 'tomorrow's leaders". pathetic.

  • ProfNose says:

    This isn't so unusual in my field. I did a one-year teaching position, then got a TT position. It's nice to get the teaching experience. I felt more confident going into the TT position re. teaching.

  • John Vidale says:

    It's hard to imagine when one would have these two options and no others, but ok, let's assume one can either do another year in grad school or at a post-doc and then apply for a tenure-track job or take a 1-yr teaching job, then apply for the tenure-track job at the same place.

    I'd argue that one should take the temporary position, but not assume the permanent job is likely. The temporary position is likely easy to get, and the tenure-track job a long shot, so cases in which this strategy fails do not prove that it was the wrong thing to do.

    Taking the job gives the department a good idea of the applicant's strengths, and presumably the applicant is trying to be unusually productive, imaginative, and interactive for the year, and so has a leg up on the rest of the applicants for the tenure-track job.

    But it would be counterproductive to force the issue. One cannot make the department cough up the permanent job. If, reading the tea leaves, they favor other candidates, try to position yourself to good references and leads for other jobs rather than arguing against other candidates from a position of clear self-interest.

  • moom says:

    There is a big difference between adjunct and VAP. I was a VAP and was interviewed for an internal TT position which I didn't get and some people told me I was wasting there time just like FSP's experience. But I was respected as a faculty member as a VAP. The guy who got the TT didn't get tenure either. I have just been a visiting associate prof and just got a job as a full prof (kind of tenured) in the same department. But that is a pretty unusual situation.

  • SLAC prof says:

    I am a physical science professor at a teaching only institution and have been through and run many, many (too many) job searches. I think that the inside candidate almost always has the advantage (better the devil you know than the devil you don't). This is when comparing like candidates.

    So in contradiction to what I said above, my advice to your writer would be to go for a tenure track position if at all possible unless you are very strongly motivated to stay in a particular area and that is the only job opening in your area. You make a stronger candidate coming from another tenure track job and who knows if they will ever really get a tenure line for the visiting position.

    Keep in mind that there is a huge difference between being an adjunct (low pay, no respect) and being a full time visitor. Our VAP's have access to travel funds for conferences, internal faculty grants and new faculty mentoring. Lately, I have seen a new phenomenon of faculty (often laid off from industry) skipping around from VAP to VAP so it is much better to move from a tenure track position. Once you do a few VAP positions in a row, you start to be tainted with the worry that you are good enough for a VAP but not good enough for TT (as there must be something wrong with you).

  • mathgirl says:

    In my field, if you got into a teaching position, you'd better have really good recommendation letters and a strong publication record if you want a research intensive TT afterward. It doesn't happen often. This is different than getting a VAP, which most of the time works as a glorified postdoc, something that pretty much everybody who wants a TT has to go through.

    I don't have experience with temporary teaching positions turning into TT teaching positions, but I do know about VAP interested in getting a TT at the same institution. I've seen both cases: people who got the TT and for whom moving to the VAP before worked completely to their advantage, and people who didn't even dare to apply because they felt they had failed in their VAP job.

    My advice in this case would be to only take the position if you're confident you can do the job. It may be worth to check if there are other cases in the same department.

  • Anon says:

    Yesterday someone commented asking for an example of when FSP embellishes her stories. I think today is a good example. No department would have multiple people tell FSP that the interviews were pointless and that the job is already for someone else.

    I could imagine people in the department saying: X is also an applicant and they work here on some exciting projects with other faculty.

    That being said, This blog wouldn't be as exciting if we stuck only to the truth.

    • Science Professor says:

      In fact, there were 3 faculty who said this to me directly, and others said vague things like "I don't know what I'm supposed to talk about with you", so you can decide for yourself whether the word "often" was an exaggeration or embellishment. We believe that we stuck to the truth on this one.

      That said, it's nice that people believe that professors are so well behaved, socially skilled, and professional in all cases that it's difficult to believe a group of them being rude in this way.

      • MathTT says:

        " it's nice that people believe that professors are so well behaved, socially skilled, and professional in all cases that it's difficult to believe a group of them being rude in this way."

        Exactly what I was thinking. I had many, many crazy interview experiences... I can totally imagine many of the folks I interviewed with saying things along these lines if it had been the case.

    • Anonymous says:

      Pretty strange definition of "exciting." No offense, FSP, but VAP positions are just not doing it for me. In the future, if you *must* embellish, please try to include more car chases and random explosions.

  • coderprof says:

    For certain institutions (teaching-focused), having the year of teaching with a full load is tremendously valuable. When hiring people straight out of college, you have no idea if they can handle a 4/4 teaching load, for example. But if they've done it for a year with positive reviews? Hire them.

    Whether you get a TT job at the temp instituion or not, it will help you find a teaching job elsewhere. Of course, if you wantthat R1 job, it might not help as much.

  • SLAC Bio Prof says:

    I did a two-year stint as a VAP before landing my TT job, and it was that experience (and the letters of reference from the dept. chair and co-instructors) that got me my job. BUT, it's a teaching job, not a research job. If you want to end up in an intensive research job, the VAP teaching is probably not the right thing.

    At my current institution, we don't consider anyone as a tenure track hire without solid teaching experience, which is usually a one-semester or one-year VAP position. In terms of whether being an inside candidate helps, I've seen that go both ways. You may work as a short-term hire and fill the short-term need, but not have the area of expertise the department needs for a TT hire. On the other hand, if you're a great colleague, they may bend over backwards to keep you.

    My advice: if you're interested in teaching take the VAP position. You may not get a TT job at that institution, but assuming you do well, it will set you up to get a TT job elsewhere. And don't be shy about talking with your colleagues about getting letters for job applications--they know you have to be on the market, and if it's a good place, they'll support you.

  • Alex says:

    I was talking to postdocs a few weeks ago about careers in teaching-oriented institutions. I did a postdoc and some adjunct work before my TT job, but not a VAP, so I could only comment second-hand when somebody said that she's been told temporary gigs are the kiss of death. I punted and said the following:
    1) As others here have said, there's a difference in perception between VAP and adjunct. It isn't fair that this difference exists, but it's there.
    2) I've also heard that visiting positions can lead to a perpetual purgatory of temporary gigs, but despite that I've seen many people get hired after a VAP gig, including people with offices on my hallway.
    3) As with any other position, the best bet is to look at the institution's track record of placing their VAP hires. Some elite liberal arts colleges do an excellent job of placing their VAPs. Ask what the institution's track record is in placing VAPs into TT jobs. If you get a VAP offer from a place that has a strong placement record, you'd be a fool not to take it. If you get a VAP offer from a place with a questionable placement record, well, maybe it makes sense to stay in the postdoc a bit longer.

  • Asphericity says:

    Anon @10:12: why do you assume the department "had" people tell her it was a waste of time? It could just be individuals venting their own frustrations. People said all kinds of crazy things to me when I was interviewing at their institutions, especially when they were disgruntled with the way the search was proceeding. I don't find the story improbable in the least.

  • At my SLAC, a VAP who's well-liked by both students and faculty has an excellent chance of moving into a TT position - IF an appropriate one opens up. And if you're interested in a permanent position at a teaching-focused institution like ours, a year or two of experience as a VAP with good evaluations will let us know that you're serious about teaching, not just using us as a back-up for an R01 position. BUT you still need to have an excellent publication record, so look for a department that will support you as a researcher (in terms of teaching load and access to facilities to continue doing experiments and/or writing) during your VAP year(s).

    Also, as others have pointed out, there's a big difference between the way adjuncts vs. VAPs are viewed by the search committees at teaching-focused institutions. Adjuncts are seen as cheap teaching labor whereas VAPs are faculty-in-training who will be able to hit the ground running when they arrive.

  • snowmonkey says:

    I did a 1 year visiting position to get teaching experience, and this turned out to be really useful for getting a tenure-track job at a research university. From what my colleagues told me later, after I was hired at a top-3 public MRU, is that it came down to two candidates, me and some other guy. We had both done postdocs, but I had teaching experience as well, and he did not. The teaching experience pushed me over the top because faculty thought it would help me hit the ground running with respect to at least one component of the job, and it did. I don't know if this experience is generally applicable, but it worked for me.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    We had two people on year to year contracts. A TT position came up in the area of one of them. Something had happened in another department about a person getting tenure when they should not have. The VP&P told me we could not hire anyone already on board. I said to myself, "Yeah, sure. You want to make a public case that working here makes a person unqualified to work here? We are going to run a nationwide search and hire the best qualified person." We made a nationwide search; our person was selected and moved over to TT. So much for that. A TT position came up in the other person's area. I advised the person how to become better qualified, ie. publish research already done. My advice was not taken; the person remained on year to year contract, and shifted to another area of the university.