Some PhDs graduate and start their first tenure track position. Other do exceptionally well and line up a tenure-track position before they’ve actually defended. Some give up on academia and get a job in industry (or as a postac or altac – I’m lumping these all in as non-academic careers). Others end up in a purgatory of temporary academic positions. The most traditional of these is the postdoc. A postdoc is a research focused, temporary position that is used to improve your research standing before entering an assistant professor position. While there are some potential pitfalls, it’s usually well worth considering.
I’m more conflicted about the other temporary positions that might be considered.
A visiting professor is hired by a department for a set length of time. It is made clear during the application that this is not a tenure track position and it will not lead to being considered for tenure. The length of the position is fixed at the start, with or without the possibility of renewal. It is POSSIBLE, that the department is required to state that there is no possibility for renewal, then to find you a comparable position if they really like you. Alternatively, just because there is a possibility for renewal, this doesn’t mean the department will do so.
A visiting professor is like an assistant professor in every way except those that matter. They teach courses, supervise graduate student, sit on committees and advise students. Usually departments will hire visiting professors when they have more work then can be handled by the existing faculty, but can’t get permission for a new line (tenure track position) from their dean.
When decisions are being made about how the department will function, a visiting professor will be politely listened to, but they don’t have any serious clout. They won’t be there long term, so why should anyone do what the visitor wants? Similarly, they will be placed on the committees and end up doing the work no one else wants to – that’s why they were hired. Applying for grants and developing a research group will be equally difficult, as everyone involved understands your position is temporary.
One man I knew did a visiting professor contract at an R1 university. In his mind, it was as good as an assistant professor position and he expected to be upgraded to an assistant professor when the department got its next line. His confidence was such that he bought a house. He interviewed when the department created such a position, wasn’t offered it and was quite bitter about the whole experience. He moved on after his visiting professor position ended and got a tenure-track position at a lower ranked university.
Sessional / Adjunct / Contract Academic Staff
Sessional positions (along with what they are called elsewhere throughout the world) is someone who is hired to teach a specific section of a specific course. After they teach that section they are no longer a part of the department (unless they get hired again in the future).
I taught a sessional position in Canada in 2010 while working on my PhD, and at the time the pay was $7400 for the term. A friend from that university tells me it’s now $7700 per section per term. I understand that this is STEM pay rates, and the pay would be lower in the humanities. Getting teaching experience during my PhD and confirming that I wanted to be a professor was a great experience, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to any PhD candidates.
Universities and departments *LOVE* using adjuncts. When enrollment goes up, they hire more people and if it drops they just cut the sections and are done with the former teachers.
In the abstract, I don’t have any problem with this model of employment. It’s unfortunate that many of the people who do this sort of work would much prefer the stability and security of full time employment.
One of my friends has been teaching sessional positions because he wanted more flexibility than a full time job would offer. He had plans to be busy with other projects, and wanted to be able to cut back on teaching. He also planned to leave the country for extended periods, and wanted to be able to not work those terms. Sessional instruction fit his work constraints better than any full time job would have.
Overestimating How Much The Department Wants To Keep You
Many of the people working these temporary positions get lulled into complacency. They get used to doing the work, start thinking everyone loves them in the department and that they couldn’t be replaced. Everyone at a university can be replaced, and the entire reason temporary positions exist is to make the people working them easy to replace.
If you’re working in one of these positions with the idea that you’re “earning” your way into a permanent job in that department, be VERY careful. Even if people have hinted that this might be possible, it’s more likely this is a carrot designed to get you to work hard than anything that will materialize.
Hiring you in a temporary position is an explicit message from the university that they are unwilling to make a long term commitment to you. You ABSOLUTELY should be using this time to find a permanent positions (elsewhere) if that is important to you.
No Other Options
Many academics work sessional positions when they feel they have no other options. Often these people are very unhappy about the situation, and there have been many outcries about the mistreatment of adjuncts.
To me, it’s basic economics how adjuncts are paid. When there is a massive supply of labor, the small demand from universities ensures that it’s going to be low pay. For academics who don’t like the pay and can’t get a better paying position, they should go work elsewhere. If they did this, it would decrease the supply of labor and increase the pay for the remaining adjuncts.
If any of the proposals to regulate treatment of adjuncts succeed, they may find that instead of better treatment of adjuncts departments will increase their faculty lines. These lines would be filled by more successful academics and the previous adjuncts may find that they no longer have any position instead of having a better position.
Have you ever worked a temporary job for a university as outlined here? How did you like it? Why did you leave / stay?