Variations on the Theme of Academic Careers: The Non-tenure Track Position

by Clare Porac, PhD

You are ready to start your search for an academic faculty position. If you are like most graduate students in psychology departments in major research universities, you have been encouraged to search for a full-time tenure-track assistant professor position. However, as recent reports from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) point out, the number of available tenure-track positions has dwindled in recent years. According to the AAUP, currently 65 percent of university/college instructors are non-tenure track faculty. The AAUP reports that the largest increase in university faculty positions in recent years has been in the category of full-time, non-tenure track positions.

What is a non-tenure track position?

These types of full-time faculty positions are called by a variety of names at different universities so you might see them advertised as non-tenure track, fixed term, limited term or contract positions and they carry the academic rank of lecturer, instructor or, occasionally, visiting assistant professor. Often these positions are advertised with specific responsibilities included, for example, coordination of a multisection course such as introductory psychology.

Why choose a non-tenure track?

Since a tenure-track position, eventually culminating in the granting of tenure, is the current holy grail of academic careers, under what circumstances might you search for and accept a full-time, non-tenure track faculty position? Typically, there are four situations that could lead you in this direction:

  • The two body problem: You and your partner are both seeking full-time academic positions either in the same department (psychology) or in different academic departments (for example, psychology and anthropology). If there is only one tenure-track vacancy to be filled and a second full-time position is created to accommodate an accompanying partner, it is often easier from an administrative point of view, for department chairs and/or deans to create a second non-tenure track faculty line. 

  • Running out of money: You have just about finished your dissertation but your years of graduate study have taken a financial toll. Your income from various sources is running low or running out and you may be amassing a large debt because of student loans. You decide to relieve your mounting financial burden by taking a limited term full-time faculty position while you finish writing your dissertation. Being ABD (all but dissertation) is not a disadvantage in a search for limited term faculty positions. 

  • Sticking around: You may want to extend your stay in a particular geographic area beyond your graduate school years. Your desire to stay put may be for personal or professional reasons. For example, you want to remain at your current location because your partner is still working on a degree or you want to complete a research or writing project with a collaborator at your university.

  • The best option: You may be offered both a tenure-track and a non-tenure track position and you find that the non-tenure track position is more desirable from a number of points of view, such as departmental quality or geographic area.

Contract faculty as teaching specialists

If a non-tenure track faculty position looks like an option for you, what should you know about these types of faculty positions, and what should you know about yourself and your potential for being happy in a contract, non-tenure track, slot?

First, you must love undergraduate teaching because you will be doing a lot of it. Contract faculty teach more undergraduate course sections each semester than tenure-track faculty. Contract faculty typically teach four to five undergraduate course sections each semester as compared to the two to three taught by tenure-track faculty. This difference is based on the idea that contract faculty are hired as teaching specialists who are not expected to do much research. For this reason, it would be very helpful to have had undergraduate teaching experience when you decide to include such a position in your academic search.

Interviewing for a limited term position

There are several important and specific questions that you should ask when you interview for a limited term position:

  • Can I reduce the course preparation time by teaching several sections of the same course? Teaching four sections of introductory psychology, where there is only one course preparation, would not be as burdensome time wise as teaching four different psychology courses. 

  • How will students evaluate my teaching and my courses? Given that undergraduate teaching will constitute your academic life, you should know about the departmental procedures for evaluating instructors and courses.

  • What is the length of my contract and how will I be evaluated for contract renewal? The most common contract terms are one to three years for a first appointment. If reappointment decisions include an assessment of your teaching activities and some expectation of a limited amount of research and publication output, then ask about the availability of funds for conference attendance and research assistance and laboratory space. 

  • Who will make the decision regarding my contract renewal? At some universities contract renewal decisions regarding limited term faculty are made solely by the department chair while at others it is the decision of a committee. You should know whether you must please only one colleague or a committee of colleagues. 

  • Will the contract position be converted to a tenure-track position in the future? Often non-tenure track positions are created as stop gap measures in tight budgetary times but can be converted to tenure-track positions when the budget situation improves. However, even if you are told that conversion to a tenure-track position is possible, you should not accept such a position with this thought in mind. Some universities require that departments conduct national searches to fill tenure-track positions so existing non-tenure track faculty are not automatically deemed to be eligible to fill the position. Familiarity breeds contempt is a sad fact of academic life. A fresh face may be more attractive to your colleagues conducting the search, leaving you at a disadvantage among the pool of potential candidates for the tenure-track position. Although there are occasions when contract faculty move to a tenure-track position in the same department, you should not count on this happening to you.

Attitudinal climate regarding contract faculty

A final but important consideration is the attitudinal climate in the department related to contract faculty. This attitude will be conveyed to you during the interview process, so it is crucial that you pay attention to specific events:

  • Has your interview been carefully arranged with a set schedule of activities including the opportunity for you to interact with both tenure-track and contract faculty in the department? 

  • Since teaching psychology undergraduates will be your major responsibility, have you been asked to guest lecture in an undergraduate course and is your lecture attended by members of the department involved in the search? 

  • Will you have individual office space?

  • Will you have full access to computer facilities and other technologies needed for teaching undergraduate courses?

  • Will you be able to participate in and have voting privileges at departmental meetings, especially on matters related to the undergraduate curriculum and budget allocations?

If after your interview, the answer to most of these questions is no, it indicates that departmental members do not consider the hiring of contract faculty to be an important matter. It also indicates that the contribution of contract faculty to the ongoing activities of the department is not considered to be equal to that of the tenured and tenure-track faculty. Second-class citizenship status awaits you if you become a non-tenure track faculty member in a department that has conducted a haphazard and off-hand search to fill the position. If filling the position is not taken seriously, the person filling the position will not be taken seriously either.

Plan for the future: Meeting short and long term goals

What could your life be like as a contract full-time faculty member in a psychology department? In the best circumstances, you could do quite well. Although you may be too busy teaching to apply for grants on your own, you could collaborate with colleagues and continue research and publication without the pressure of conforming to the timing of a tenure clock.

Many new PhDs and soon-to-be PhDs take contract faculty positions to fulfill short term goals and only plan to stay in these positions for the duration of one contract. If this is your situation then continuing to do research and to publish is essential especially if your eventual aim is to apply for tenure-track positions.

If you plan to stay in a contract position for a number of years because you love undergraduate teaching, you are good at it and you are not interested in the intense publication pressures that go along with tenure-track positions, you can integrate your teaching and research interests by engaging in the scholarship and writing that surrounds the teaching of psychology. Non-tenure track positions offer the opportunity for you to become both the teaching specialist and the teaching scholar, which is a nice integration if undergraduate teaching is your love.