Treading a different track

When materials scientist Christopher Weyant got a faculty position at Stony Brook University in 2008, he thought he had made it. It had been a long road, including stints in industry and as a research associate, but he had arrived at hallowed ground: the tenure track.

These days, though, Weyant doesn’t spend his time in the lab or in his office writing grants. Instead, he can be found in front of a classroom at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, fulfilling his duties as a teaching associate professor. At Stony Brook, which he left in 2011, abandoning the tenure track, he spent about 20% of his time on teaching, which wasn’t enough to satisfy his passion for education, and he became disenchanted with the realities of grant writing and research. So, when his husband got a job in Philadelphia, “I jumped at the chance to get off the tenure track,” he says. Four years into his new role, “I think I’ve found my spot. … I’ve experienced all sorts of different types of careers, and this is the one that’s the most satisfying. I hope to stay for a while.”

I’m really thankful that a position like this exists.

The new majority

Much of the media attention has gone to part-time NTT faculty members—the adjuncts—who in 2013 made up 51.2% of instructional faculty at nonprofit institutions in the United States. Their plight was highlighted in an April report from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education that revealed that 25% of adjuncts are enrolled in public assistance programs. They also made the news for their participation in a national day of protest by low-wage workers in April. But part-time faculty members are only one piece of a more complex puzzle. Another large segment of the nontenure-track population works full time as educators, with decent compensation and reasonable job security.

“It’s really rewarding,” she says. “I chose this position to teach, and I’ve enjoyed it as much as I thought I would.” For the most part, she feels respected and believes her work is valued. She and her fellow teaching faculty “are on the whole treated very well,” even though “we are not exactly on equal standing with the tenure-track faculty.”

Weyant has also had a very positive experience in his department. “I have been absolutely encouraged from the beginning, by my department chair and associate dean, to get involved” in departmental affairs by serving on committees and making his voice heard, he says. “I feel on equal footing with all of my colleagues in my department. There’s respect for all of us.” In fact, the associate department head is a teaching professor, not on the tenure track.  

Like Claussen, Weyant is on a yearly contract, but he nonetheless feels secure about his future at the institution. “That I don’t on paper have the security you might associate with a tenure-track position is I guess unfortunate,” he says, but “I don’t feel like I’m a temporary employee. I’m definitely in a permanent position.”

A darker side

Nontenure-track positions also have some challenges. One area that sometimes causes Claussen dissatisfaction is pay. “I think salary reflects how much you’re valued by your institution, and at times I get a little frustrated” that it’s not higher, she says. “But there are other things I value more than I do salary. … Having the job satisfaction and the lifestyle that I do, making an impact every day I go in—I value those things highly, and that makes it alright. I do not do this job at all for the money.”

Despite her decision to take a position without research requirements, she does still have a little “research itch,” she says. She scratches it by applying for grants and running small research projects with undergraduates. It’s not part of her job description, so she has to do much of the grant writing in her “spare time:” nights and weekends. “It is hard to balance the research and the teaching because the research is not expected of me and not particularly valued,” she says. “It doesn’t factor at all into my promotion, and there’s very little support in any sort of formal way. My boss is very supportive, but that’s about where the support ends.” It’s worth it though, she says. “It’s really fun because the undergrads get the research experience, and I get to talk science 1 or 2 hours every week.”

Claussen is still relatively early in her career, but 14-year veteran Michelle Douskey, a chemistry lecturer at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, has had plenty of time to experience the ups and downs of working off the tenure track. She refers to the early years of her time at UC Berkeley as “the dark years.” She felt neglected and exploited. She felt like she couldn’t get the support she needed from the administration to run the entry-level classes she was in charge of and that her workload was unreasonably high. The department missed her 4-year review, which would have resulted in a raise, and when her 6-year review came around, she came into conflict with her department chair. More senior administrators had to get involved to push the review forward.

Douskey’s situation has changed quite a bit since those dark years. Today, she feels like she and her fellow NTT faculty members are viewed by the university as “second-class citizens.” At the department level, though, “my current role has developed into something that is pretty amazing,” she says. She has worked on initiatives to revamp the curriculum and participated in a major remodeling project for the teaching labs. “The experience here has grown to be really rich and more like a regular faculty job, in its way. … I’m getting to do more of the things I love, which are teaching and working with students.”

In light of the known problems that many NTT faculty members face, The Delphi Project has developed a library of resources to help institutions improve their policies relating to this group of employees. For example, they have collected examples of institutions’ best practices, such as implementing multiyear contracts and allowing NTT faculty members to participate in governance. “Lots of colleges are now in the process of trying to better support faculty off the tenure track,” says Adrianna Kezar, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and co-director of The Delphi Project. She hopes institutions will see the project’s case studies as inspiration for their own policy changes. “Things are shifting and changing on campuses. I would have said 10 or 15 years ago that campuses are not doing anything [for NTT faculty]. Now, I would say that I bet eight out of 10 campuses are engaged in some discussion, even if they’re not doing a lot.”

Getting there

For those interested in following the nontenure-track path toward an education-focused career, teaching experience is key. Claussen got her position at Mines right after completing her Ph.D., but while she was a graduate student, she also took classes in the education school and established a solid foundation in teaching. Douskey got her position at UC Berkeley after spending a year filling in for a professor on sabbatical, proving and improving her teaching skills. She also completed a short postdoc, which she thinks improved her job prospects even for teaching positions. “I had only a slim little 1-year postdoc, but it made a huge difference when I was applying for jobs,” she says. “To a certain extent, my postdoc doesn’t have any bearing on what I do now, but the assumption was that I was a little more fully formed.”

Douskey encourages graduate students with an interest in education to get as much classroom experience as they can as early in their training as they can. Teaching community college classes in the evenings can be a good option, as long your advisers are okay with it, she says. “It makes a huge difference in hirability. … It really demonstrates a strong interest in teaching and sets you apart from other candidates.” Teaching postdocs are also a good option for people further along in their training, she says.

When considering specific jobs, “it’s important to figure out what the job is supposed to be and have a conversation about what the [career development] ladder looks like and what the avenues of professional development are,” she continues. Some jobs might be just teaching, while others might be more involved in curriculum development, and the different roles may be more or less integrated into the department, so applicants need to know both what their career goals are and how the different opportunities may or may not meet their requirements.

For those who are driven to educate, a nontenure-track teaching faculty role can be hugely rewarding. “I’m really thankful that a position like this exists,” Claussen says. “Is it absolutely perfect and everything I wanted? Maybe not quite, but I don’t think anything is. … In the end the students value us a lot, and I think that definitely makes up for everything else.”

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