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Five Things You Didn’t Know About Non-Tenure-Track Positions

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Non-Tenure-Track Positions

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesNov 7, 2016

Non-tenure-track jobs have something of an “ugly stepsister” reputation when compared to their full-time faculty counterparts. While it’s true that tenure-track assistant professor positions typically represent the brass ring for job-seeking doctoral students, accepting a non-tenure-track position doesn’t have to be a complete career letdown, either. Read on for five things to keep in mind when considering your post-PhD options.

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1. Non-tenure-track positions comprise the majority of university teaching jobs.
While tenure-track positions have always been scant, they’re even harder to come by now than in the past. In fact, according to recent data from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), non-tenure-track positions now account for more than 70 percent of all teaching appointments at American colleges and universities. This includes part-time lecturers, adjuncts, and graduate assistantships.

Not only that, but three-quarters of all higher education hires made today are for non-tenure-track jobs. In other words, while a non-tenure-track job may not be your goal, it may well be your reality.

Another bonus? Because they’re more common, non-tenure-track jobs are also more widely accepted as respectable.

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2. The words “non-tenure-track” do not necessarily translate to “lack of security.”
For many people, mere mention of the words “non-tenure-track” bring to mind thoughts of uncertainty. Certainly, tenure-track jobs come with a desirable level of security, but this doesn’t mean that non-tenure-track positions are slashed at whim.

The truth is that all non-tenure-track positions aren’t created equally. While all may formally be termed as “contingent” positions (and some do function in that capacity), many non-tenure-track positions come with contracts -- and along with those contracts the potential of a stable job as long as you pass routine performance reviews. These contracted jobs also usually come with benefits, and are oftentimes renewable.

An upswing in the unionization of non-tenure-track faculty suggests that many adjunct and part-time positions may become even more stable in the future.

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3. The right non-tenure-track position may offer plenty of job satisfaction.
The common stereotype of adjuncts is one of overworked, underpaid and unappreciated. But recent data published in the journal, Education Policy Analysis Archives, indicates that this picture may be an inaccurate one.

According to the researchers’ findings, many individuals in non-tenured positions have equivalent job satisfaction levels as their tenured counterparts. Concluded authors, Molly Ott and Jesus Cisneros, “Our results suggest being removed from the tenure-track is not associated with faculty viewing their jobs in a substantially different (or inferior) way than those in tenure-line positions. Generally, we found full-time [non-tenure-track] faculty share common views of their jobs and working conditions with tenure-line faculty.”

Even better? Non-tenure-track faculty members exceeded tenure-track faculty members in terms of their levels of commitment. Not only that, but a full 86 percent of those surveyed said they’d take the same path if they had the chance to do it all over again.

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4. Non-tenure-track faculty members can focus on teaching.
If you’re passionate about your field and would love the opportunity to share that passion with the next generation of scholars, a non-tenure-track position may be a better fit for you. Why? Because while full-time positions typically come with a scholarship requirement, adjunct positions may not. This frees you up to focus more on your contributions in the classroom.

And while it’s true that you may have fewer opportunities to teach in your exact specialty as an adjunct or part-time instructor, covering a broader range of material not only allows you to embrace a more student-centered pedagogy, but also boosts your employability.

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5. More independence is part of the deal.
Many people mistakenly assume that tenure frees academics from the “red tape” of working at a university. This isn’t the case, according to a recent article in Nature. While tenure may come with some freedom, it also comes with an inherent lack of autonomy in terms of deferring to senior faculty members and departmental chairs. Non-tenure-track faculty members, however, typically operate outside of this system.

Said one non-tenure-track respondent of tenure-track professors, “They are so down in the trenches, researching the nitty, nitty, nitty, nitty gritty. I don't have so many strings, and I'm not tied up in meetings and all those other obligations, so I have the time to think more creatively and to step back and take some risks.” Meanwhile, one tenure-track professor revealed that, “Having tenure has never made me sleep better at night.”

Your takeaway? While landing a sought-after tenure-track position indeed has its benefits, life as a non-tenure-track faculty member may have some upsides of its own. Still 100 percent committed to a tenure-track job? Look to Europe. According to Nature, tenure may be on the rise in the EU due to its promise as a recruiting tool.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.