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Considering non-tenure track jobs in academia

Published onDec 12, 2023
Considering non-tenure track jobs in academia


In mid-2021, I was entering the final year of my Ph.D., which meant it was time to formally “be” on the job market. For many late-stage Ph.D. candidates, entering the job market is a moment of reckoning – deciding on the type of position to pursue based on the experience(s) they have had while working towards their Ph.D. and the type of career they want to pursue post-doctoral work (and of course, based on the sorts of positions they might be competitive for). However, I entered the job market knowing that I was not interested in industry (which is common in my discipline) and that I was not interested in a tenure-track position, particularly at a tenure-track position at a major R1 university. So, what options was I left with? In this essay, I will discuss my decision-making process in my job search. Why did I decide that industry and tenure track positions were not for me, and how did I navigate a search constrained by those insights into what I wanted for my life and career? In discussing my experiences, I will point out an option often overlooked or looked down upon in our tenure-centric academy—the teaching professor. In today’s modern University, the teaching professor is as necessary to the University’s mission as the tenure track research professor. I will discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of the position of teaching faculty and close with a call to consider the position of teaching professor as one to aspire to and work towards. Our tenure-centric approach to academic careers is likely driving people out of the academy who would be incredibly teaching faculty… and contribute to their University’s research and service missions as well. We would do well not to miss out on those individuals.

I grew up in academia.

I have memories of my father’s graduate student office, his cohort mates, and the university where he did his doctoral work.

I also have memories of the university where he and my mother did their undergraduate work.

I was there for their first jobs (as a professor and teacher, respectively).

When it came time for me to consider college, my major, and “what I want to do with my life,” I wasn’t sure of much, but I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, get a Ph.D., and attain the type of life my parents had. I grew up with my parents, whose jobs allowed them to be inquisitive about the world, while getting to be around during the school breaks. What could be a better type of life than that?

Fast forward to 2021. I’m nearing the end of my doctoral work and it’s time to apply for the jobs that would grant me this lifestyle. Like many graduate students, I had a few broad career paths to choose from when I entered the job market: I could go to industry1; I could pursue a tenure-track job at a large R1; or I could look for a position better balanced between research and teaching.

I liked my research but was more excited about teaching and mentoring. I had been in the classroom either as a TA or instructor every semester of my graduate work, and had opportunities to work with undergraduates on research projects. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose the third route. But why?

By this point, I was sure that I was uninterested in an industry career—I didn’t want to work a “traditional” schedule, and I felt strongly about being in control of what I did from a research perspective. Going into industry would have meant compromising on both of those points in a way that felt wrong to my values.

I also wasn’t interested in pursuing a tenure-track position at a major R1 university, although my publication record would undoubtedly have supported that choice. I value my work-life balance, and I knew that being on the tenure track would be detrimental. I also felt uncomfortable having another person rely on me for their livelihood and career2.

I ultimately landed (perhaps obviously, based on my author byline) as a teaching faculty member at the ATLAS Institute at the University of Colorado Boulder. My job title is Teaching Assistant Professor, and I am a non-tenure-track faculty member. I chose ATLAS for a couple of reasons:

  1. CU Boulder gives teaching faculty three-year contracts, in contrast to the more standard rolling one-year contracts found at other institutions3.

  2. I am extremely familiar with CU Boulder, having spent five years on campus as a doctoral student, including several years in student government service.

  3. ATLAS’s existing curriculum aligned with my interests, and I could imagine new courses that would fit into that curriculum that I would be excited to teach.

  4. ATLAS made it clear that they would support me in continuing to do research and creative work, even though it wasn’t an explicit expectation of the job (I spent seven years learning how to do research, so I might as well use those skills in addition to my skills as an educator). I’m able to apply for the same grants as my tenure track colleagues, and ATLAS provides flexible internal funding on top of that to support my research and creative work.

  5. The people in ATLAS, both student and faculty, are really, really interesting. Having interesting, passionate people around makes it an exciting place to work.

Of course, my decision came with “cons.” What did I give up in choosing the career path of a teaching faculty member and choosing my specific job at CU Boulder? I (1) make less money, and (2) don’t have access to tenure.

Like many institutions, CU Boulder’s non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty make less than their tenured or tenure-track (TTT) colleagues. However, this is as much a pro to me as it is a con—TTT faculty make more money, but that comes bundled with an expectation that they have research obligations that spill into the breaks in the academic calendar. I do not have to contend with that spillage; my breaks can be breaks. I can also make up that financial difference with summer teaching (and again, I like teaching, so it’s a win-win!).

Similarly, NTT faculty at CU Boulder do not have access to a pathway to tenure. Another con turned into a pro—I don’t believe I need tenure protection for the research or teaching work I want to pursue. 

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) defines academic tenure as “a means to certain ends; specifically: (1) freedom teaching and research and of extramural activities, and (2) a sufficient degree of economic security to make the profession attractive to men and women of ability.”4 Written in the early 1940s, the AAUP’s focus on freedom in teaching, research, and extramural activities was prescient, given the rise of McCarthyism in the early 1950s. Of course, it is difficult not to look at today’s hyper-political environment and see the rise of another wave of McCarthyism-like rhetoric. Tenure could be significant in disciplines and places where the academy is perceived as being left-leaning.

But my research (on how people do identity online after a life transition like the end of a romantic relationship) and teaching (web design, computation, and algorithm and data studies) aren’t particularly controversial. So, I purposely chose to eschew the tenure track. I have a teaching-first position that supports my research and creative work, particularly when I can get students involved.

Now, I will sing the praises of my particular career choice for many thousands of words more than what I’m allowed here—I love all aspects of my position, and I feel lucky to have found that fit for me. But I’m cognizant that this is not a career path for everyone, and I would be remiss not to acknowledge that fact. Being NTT means you need to be good at teaching and educating; the job of teaching faculty is, first and foremost, to be good at teaching, and everything else is secondary at best. That might not appeal to everyone, which is okay. I’d understand if you want to stop here if that is definitely not for you.

However, it is undeniable that NTT faculty are just as crucial to the success of most modern universities as the TTT faculty. At many institutions, teaching keeps the lights on5, and a bulk of the teaching is done by NTT faculty (and graduate students)6.

Recognizing this reality, universities are beginning to acknowledge the value NTT faculty bring to the campus and provide new forms of tenure to account for this shift. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is among the leaders of the charge to provide pathways to tenure for teaching faculty7. This shift will be significant—nearly 70% of faculty members in the US are on “contingent” appointments with no pathway to tenure8.

As more paths to tenure become available in higher education, particularly those that acknowledge and prioritize teaching, we must prepare the next generation to take advantage of those opportunities. Part of this will be to change how we think about TTT and NTT faculty and their roles on campus, and part of this will be to adjust how we support pedagogical training during and after graduate school.

With those goals in mind, here are some suggestions to consider:

  • For current graduate students (of all kinds) – if you like teaching, advocate for yourself to be teaching, and direct time towards working on your teaching practice (in addition to the other parts of your degree, like research). Learn how to balance teaching with those other obligations. After all, if you end up as a faculty member in any capacity, you will be teaching. 

  • For advisors of those students – find ways of supporting teaching and pedagogical development, both within their program of study and as an extracurricular activity, and encourage students to engage with teaching not as a “this is just part of it that you have to suffer through” but as something rewarding and worth expending effort towards.

  • For departments of those students – identify students who might be good educators and support their development as educators; it might be inappropriate to hire a former graduate student as a TTT faculty member, but these are folks who are well acquainted with your curriculum, students, and universities and consequently would make outstanding NTT faculty members.

  • For higher education more broadly – we must continue to support pathways for talented people to obtain career security primarily through their teaching. The reality is stark in higher education: with tuition rising, the quality of education must be excellent, and you won’t retain the best and brightest faculty (or students) without providing clear pathways toward job security for all of your faculty. NTT faculty contribute to the modern University’s mission as much as TTT faculty. Finding ways to acknowledge that more formally, like diversifying pathways to tenure, is imperative.

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