On the Job Market as a Visiting Instructor

Brian Taylor

December 13, 2010

A.B.D. in a tight job market, I was thrilled to land a temporary position as a visiting assistant professor at a small liberal-arts college.

That was in February of 2009. But then fall rolled around. There I was settling into a new job (and city), teaching three new courses, and staring at the job ads once again. Right on cue, all the fear and anxiety came rushing back, but with a new edge: How was I supposed to compete with the hordes of newly minted Ph.D.'s and postdocs, whose letterhead was swankier than mine and who could talk about the research and publishing they were doing while I was busy teaching full time and unpacking boxes?

I found an answer that led me to my first tenure-track job as an assistant professor of history. But, I confess, the answer had a lot more to do with luck, and a job ad that seemed written for me, than anything I did or did not do.

On the other hand, I learned during that hiring season that you can market yourself as a visiting instructor quite differently from graduate students or even postdocs. After all, you're teaching a full course load. In many ways, the very things that make a job search difficult as a visiting faculty member also make you more of a known quantity.

Since beginning my tenure-track job in the fall, I've learned that a few reproducible factors helped get me hired. My new colleagues occasionally mention something they liked about my application, or something I said during the interview that impressed them. From their comments, I've drawn five pieces of advice for visiting instructors on the job market.

If you are A.B.D., finish. Do whatever it takes to finish. That's something every job candidate knows, but it cannot be stressed enough. Once I had the visiting job offer, I spent every waking moment writing my dissertation—or fighting my personal demons, which, for me, is an indispensable part of the writing process. My apartment looked like the library in Ghostbusters after the poltergeist sent the card catalog flying. I lived off frozen meals, pasta, and handouts from the single father next door. (In my defense, his daughter had long been a frequent visitor to my apartment.)

In the end, I handed in my final revisions on the same day that I picked up the U-Haul to drive to my visiting job. The final product may not have been pretty but it was done.

Be realistic. Not overreaching in this stressful period was the first thing that, in hindsight, I did right, even though it didn't feel right at the time. Looking back through my notes, I found one of my early to-do lists: "1. Teaching Prep. 2. Research—do something."

The "something" I came up with was to identify one area of my dissertation that I knew needed improvement and search for relevant articles. When I found them, I printed them out. It was something I could do even when I had only a half-hour to spare. By the end of my first semester I had a stack of articles to read over break, and, more important, I had the feeling that I had made some progress, no matter how small.

The dissertation did not become the hulking woolly mammoth in the corner, but was instead a somewhat more manageable woolly mammoth on my desk. When asked during a job interview how my writing was going, I could talk fairly specifically about what I wanted to revise, why, and how.

Conventional wisdom holds that your first year of full-time teaching may well be the hardest of your career, and search committees know that. Applying for jobs is like having a second full-time job. You can't drive yourself crazy with unrealistic expectations, especially since research and teaching aren't the only topics that search-committee members will want to talk about during job interviews. That brings me to the next three points where you, as the visiting professor, can really shine.

Own your institution. Going into interviews, I was careful to do research not only on the colleges I was applying to, but also on the one I was working at. I wanted to be able to frame my experiences when talking with a potential employer. But taking the time to learn about my temporary home also made me more in tune with my students and the mission of the college. That connection came across in my interviews because I continually used the words "us" and "we to refer to things that faculty members were doing at the college. What I didn't realize was that by using those terms, as opposed to saying "they," I was sending signals to the hiring committee about my collegiality.

I was fortunate to be working at a college that had a very clear vision of its identity and mission, and a history of incorporating visiting faculty members into the fold. I was encouraged to attend departmental and faculty-senate meetings, where I had a voice and a vote, and was expected to participate fully in the yearlong orientation program for new faculty members. I also voluntarily went to campus talks, sporting events, and meetings on issues like student retention because I cared about the college and its students.

At the time, I wondered if I wasn't prioritizing poorly. Shouldn't I be holed up in my office working on a book proposal?

Had I been limiting my job search to openings at major research universities, the answer would probably have been yes. But I wasn't. And, as it turned out, all those decisions I made to be involved in campus life at my temporary employer had a cumulative effect. My interest in, and knowledge of, the college came across during my job interview. One of my new co-workers has explicitly stated that that impressed her.

Put another way, I had inadvertently positioned myself as a fully functioning, if neophyte, faculty member, which brings me to the issue of service.

Say yes—once. While working as a visiting faculty member, I was asked to serve on a committee. I didn't want to. As I saw it, the one benefit of having no job security was no committee work. But like any new faculty member, I wasn't sure how much leeway I had to say no without burning bridges. So I said yes to a committee assignment and was thankful only that the request had come via e-mail where I could more easily disguise my sullen tone.

It turned out, however, to be a fantastic learning experience that was occasionally fun and even satisfying. Politics, to one degree or another, are a requisite part of committee work, and there is a lot to be said for having your first experience navigating those waters when you aren't on the tenure track.

The experience also helped me appreciate the realities of faculty life and gave me a chance to discover that I actually enjoy event planning. So when I was asked in the interview what types of service I would be interested in, I had a real answer. The service I've been asked to do this year in my new job has fallen under the categories I identified back in January, so, in retrospect, I'm doubly thankful that I had the experience to give an accurate answer.

Say no—frequently. Mainly I mean say no to yourself. Few people make it through the dissertation process without being highly self-motivated, and many of us feel compelled to aim for perfection. But if you are working a job while on the job market, the best thing you can do sometimes is to cut back.

The worst scenario would be to spend a semester working as hard as you can to be the best teacher, researcher, and job applicant you can be, only to show up at the job interview blinking confusedly when you are confronted by the light of day. You need to be able to have a conversation, and you can't put your life on hold for a whole year, or several years, if it comes to that.

You can't do everything, but taking some time away from your teaching and research in order to do service work or participate in campus events is well worth it. Give yourself a break on occasion, and have some fun.

At the end of the day, you still need to be a real person, and to be blunt, that will mean cutting some corners. So figure out what you can live with cutting, and snip away, guilt free. You'll not only be happier, you'll almost certainly be a better colleague and teacher, and that will make you a better job candidate.

Angela D. Thompsell is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York's College at Brockport.