• April 21, 2014

On the Job Market as a Visiting Instructor

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

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.

Comments

1. lisakaz - December 14, 2010 at 12:22 am

I'm sorry but to me this is BUNK. I've had a PhD since 2005 and I still haven't gotten a tenure track job. I've had several visiting jobs and one as a lecturer. This is such a thing as being too good as an instructor I guess or being gotten rid of who internal reasons (I love how a previous employer used my strabismus as an excuse for a negative evaluation of my teaching).

Why doesn't someone advise how to get back into consideration when you're apparently "past your prime" and no longer so "newly minted" anymore.

2. rear_view_mirror - December 14, 2010 at 01:31 am

Sorry, lisakaz.

3. cmsmw - December 14, 2010 at 06:58 am

lisakaz: Someone has to say it, so I'll be that person. Step 1 is not to come across as bitter and vengeful, as you do here.

4. rear_view_mirror - December 14, 2010 at 08:21 am

Looks like the thought police are up early today.
cmsmw: No, nobody has to say it, but since you did, I'll point this out: at 12:22 am on December 14, lisakaz was posting online anonymously, not applying for a job.
Vengeful? Where?

5. cmsmw - December 14, 2010 at 09:37 am

rear_view_mirror: Nobody said otherwise, but no reader here has any reason to assume that the bitterness and vengefulness isn't manifesting itself elsewhere as well. If it actually isn't, then good. As for where it comes up, the conspiracy theories about being *too* good and being backstabbed as well as the scare quotes would be the most obvious places.

Although I didn't mention it, I've been through a similar situation myself. Resentfulness and conspiracy theories about why I didn't get the jobs I wanted did nothing to land me the one I eventually did.

6. copesan - December 14, 2010 at 09:48 am

Its not that this is not a good article. It is filled with good advice.

The problem is that there are not enough jobs. Repeat, there are not enough jobs. The academic market is shrinking. And those jobs will not be coming back anytime in the near future.

Given that there are not enough jobs, it means that there are floods of applications for the remaining jobs. And that removes the controls over the normal politics and prejudices of search committees making it harder for candidates in certain categories and making an already byzantine process even worse.

So the article makes it appear that the individual can somehow get control and success by doing it right, but its a systemic problem of a shrinking and changing job market that is bigger than the individual.

So lisakaz may sound bitter, but has been battered by this situation (how many different job changes in 5 years? ouch) and also entitled to vent in a setting like this which is not an application dossier.

7. alvitap - December 14, 2010 at 09:53 am

In defense of Lisakaz, the abuse of adjuncts by self-serving faculty who cower to university demand's for cutting costs is dehumanizing to and fascist. Lisakaz has every right and reason to express her position as exploited worker. The rest of you apologists can suck eggs. You think you earned your position because you deserve it? The Lisakaz' of the world make your high-potty attitudes possible. Bitter? I'd say she was experienced. Teaching well isn't valued. Count me in as a 20-20 observer of the crap called academia. It is BUNK.

8. rear_view_mirror - December 14, 2010 at 10:36 am

#5: I can think of a reason. You have no evidence.
Often the same people who defend disqualifying people for TT gigs for working as temps for too long complain about ageism against older tenures.
The same people who fault stagnated adjuncts for blaming arbitrary conditions are often seen commiserating on the forum about enemies, unfair bosses and the like.
It's all about your station in life.

9. maugham - December 14, 2010 at 10:40 am

While it is true that there are not enough jobs out there, it is also true that candidates can do a great deal to ain some control over the process and improve their odds of success. I've sat on more search committees than I care to remember and am always stunned that so many candidates effectively sabotaged themselves by failing to do minimal research on the place to which they were applying. Similarly, far too many people fail to craft their cover letters to the job/institution; if you are applying to an R1 than you clearly need to highlight your research agenda, but if the job is at a small institution with a 4:4 load and heavy emphasis on teaching than you need to pitch yourself accordingly. This article has sound advice on how to begin doing so.

10. snwiedmann - December 14, 2010 at 10:42 am

There is another bit of advice that can be offered to those in Visiting positions: Get letters of recommendation from your supervisor and senior colleagues at the Visiting institution. As a search committee chair, I have seen way too many applications that include letters of reference that are all three years old or older because they are all from the graduate-school-years. These applicants have been adjuncting and visiting for years but have no current references. That is not a good sign.

11. alvitap - December 14, 2010 at 11:05 am

That's right, snwiedmann (10). It's evidence of how adjunctships (shim jobs) are despised by TT(ers). Does the Master/Slave relationsip mean anything to you people?

12. deirdreray - December 14, 2010 at 11:25 am

I've read these comments with real interest--the level of passion is pretty amazing. As an associate dean at an institution currently advertising 40+ tenure-track positions, I'll add to the advice the need to identify yourself as someone willing to do two things in additional to your teaching and scholarship: assessment and online education. Innovations in teaching with/through technology are musts these days rather than value added; so is an understanding of and willingness to do learning-outcomes assessment. Just .02 here.

13. softshellcrab - December 14, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I need to say, lisakaz does sound a little bit bitter. Maybe it's understandable, but it's still not a winner to be that way.

In business and engineering and nursing there is a shortage of faculty, and our department is constantly turned down by prospective job applicants, despite paying a solid market competitive wage (a whale of a lot more than our school pays liberal arts teachers). To hire Ph.D.'s or ABD's in Finance, Engineering, Accounting, Nursing, Management, unless you are a top school you are "begging"for decent people. Most of the solid candidates we invite to interview refuse to even come, as they already have multiple job offers.

So my advice to all of you: You chose your choice, don't complain. It is kind of fun to get a Ph.D. in history, literature, art, etc. but there are no jobs. Why on the good Lord's green earth did you do it? It is not fun to get a Ph.D. in Finance, Engineering, Accounting, Nursing, or Management, but there are lots of jobs. And they pay a lot, lot more. You made your choice and did what you "love". Just don't you dare ask for a penny of government money. You made your choice. The non-fun disciplines, which pay a lot more, are seeing a shortage of faculty. Live with the choice you made and you really are not justified to complain.

14. softshellcrab - December 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm

@ deirdreray #12

I am sure you are right that those things are factors. It is a shame though. The great bulk of assessement is just for show, and to "paper up" the files to show the school is getting feedback, improving, etc. all for accreditation. I do a lot of it myself and I know! And online education is nothing but fake education. There is no real teaching, and most involves passing students through with low standards. Things like "discussion participation" are graded. It's mostly hooey. The funny thing is, I have taught a lot of online classes as side-jobs, and have even designed a couple, also as side jobs for other schools. And I have designed and done a lot of assessement, and also set up off-campus teaching. I would probably look good as a candidate at your school, yet I firmly believe that those things are all a side-track from real, substantial quality education (other than off-campus programs, those can be just fine and as good as the on-campus ones if done right).

But as I said, I appreciate your comments and I am sure you are right, that those would be valuable traits at most schools, because so many schools have succumbed to this stuff. I think that colleges today are all selling out for the short term, and laying the seeds for long term disaster. If online teaching is taken to the extreme,why not just have a few national schools, and have everything taught online by teaching assistants, at 1/10 our current national cost of higher education? Maybe California should just have one state university. Fire all the other faculty at all other state schools, and have all the courses be online taught by teachers-helpers... That's what online advocates are moving us toward.

15. sophiaw - December 14, 2010 at 02:14 pm

Softshellcrab clearly does not have a PhD in history or English lit or art. Let me assure you that there was nothing "fun" about getting a PhD in history. I can't even imagine having the hubris to make such an assumption. Of course, a PhD or even a BA in history will teach one not to make statements for which one has no evidence.

As a PhD student in history at a top 10 program I lost my hair, gained and lost 50 pounds twice, got an ulcer, developed severe depression, and was hospitalized for stress twice. So much fun! I also watched two friends spiral into alcholism. One's dead now. Good times!

I have no idea what you mean when you say history and lit PhDs should not ask the government for a penny. What would the government have to offer me other than a job? Yes, what would the government have to offer me other than a job that pays a lot more than a nursing or a finance professor receives in compensation?

Someday there will be more PhDs in nursing than there are academic jobs. I guess that's when nursing PhD programs will be reclassified by softshellcrab as "fun." Other than "fun" meaning too few jobs for too many applicants, I can't follow softshellcrab's logic for classification.

To Angela Thompsell, thank you for writing this useful advice piece. I'm sorry it has to be marred by comments.

16. janesdaughter - December 14, 2010 at 03:31 pm

Seems like every writer has pointed out a different variable that impacts the academic job market, or at least different variations on many variables. The ability to land a job these days depends on supply and demand in your discipline and the myriad specialities within your field, the extent to which higher education as a whole has replaced tenure track positions with temps, the recession's impact on university endowments and granting agencies that have hurt the ability to create new faculty lines, your personal circumstances that dictate whether you are able to move or continue holding out for something that comes closer to your first choice, the sometimes subjective opinions of the search committee, and your own ability to perform well in a job interview. People are entitled to feel passionate about any or all of these but at bottom, there is little point in trying to suggest that someone else's reality is wrong.

17. cmsmw - December 14, 2010 at 06:43 pm

rear_view_mirror: Comment #1 isn't proof, and I never said it was, but it is suggestive.

By the way, I'm not on the tenure track even now, I just happen to be in a position that suits me well even though it doesn't carry the prestige of the tenure track. And as an adjunct I was a strong supporter of our (ultimately successful) unionizing efforts on that campus.

18. rear_view_mirror - December 15, 2010 at 12:33 am

Unless something changes, many, and perhaps most, people who have trained and planned for a good academic career will be disappointed (bitter?) in the coming years.

19. pterodactyl123 - December 15, 2010 at 07:50 am

I find it annoying that rear_view_mirror always hijacks these discussion boards and keeps posting repetitively in order to get the last word. We get it, okay? Being an adjunct sucks. Why don't you do something about your situation other than whining on discussion boards? Everty time I read one of these things, you're on here a zillion times.

20. mchag12 - December 15, 2010 at 10:53 am

Softshellcrab-- better yet, why don't we just get rid of the liberal arts and encourage everyone to go into business? We can offer classes on exploitation and money making and grin at those who imagine thinking and scholarly work to be actually useful for civilisation. , Of course, an educated citizenry is sort of a joke to-- they just wind up on the unemployment roles looking for more ways to be on the dole. The ultimate goal should be money and more money after all. Better yet-- bunk critical thinking and lets start some more wars. That should keep the economy and the citizenry in check. THose who don't agree can be rounded up and put into work camps, or trained to be cooks for the rich. I so love these right wing statements about how the liberal arts aren't useful anymore and anyone wanting a job in one is just a victim of their own making. It's so healthy.

21. cmsmw - December 15, 2010 at 11:08 am

Didn't realize I was feeding a troll. Apologies for that.

22. more_cowbell - December 15, 2010 at 11:51 am

I'd never advise anyone that they must finish at all costs because the majority of grad will have no chance at a TT job, no matter how well they plan and strategize. You can do everything just right and still end up an adjunct your whole life - it's pointless to talk about marketing yourself when there is no market to begin with.

23. phoenix2b - December 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Wow. I'm finishing up my PhD and am right now making decisions about what direction to go. A visiting clinical faculty position was just offered to me, but I have also been interviewing at tenure track positions. I thank the author for this article. I only wish that the article led to a more substantive discussion, with more helpful feedback in the comments section. If this is the type of "intellectually stimulating" conversation I look forward to from academics, then I'd prefer to crawl back in a hole somewhere and go back to community work.

24. butteredtoastcat - December 16, 2010 at 01:12 pm

Tenured faculty are now only 33% of total faculty and that number is declining. Tenure will continue to come under attack as state budgets suffer more and more cuts. The cut-throat competition in certain fields will spread to others as funding is slashed, and the idiosyncratic prejudices of hiring committees will dictate who is lucky enough to get one of the last remaining tenure-track openings in a department. Eventually, university departments, even in major state research institutions, will have to rely entirely on private/corporate funding, and the corporate donors will have a major say in the hiring process.

We're in for a bumpy ride, kids. Learn how to be a good team-player and lose the attitude, even if you've had tenure for years. The gravy train is coming to an end and the corporate office wants you to be their government-subsidized R & D department without anymore inconvenient scholarly window-dressing. The gloves are off now.

Oh, and lisakaz:

You speak your truth and don't let "mean girls" like cmsmw scold you like an inept nanny having a bad hair day. Insiders always think they deserve to be where they are, whether it is in a tenure track position or the Miss America pageant. The fact that there are always smarter and prettier people out there who didn't please the ugly half-wits doing the hiring. The Peter principle in academics is alive and well.

And cmsmw:

if you're a grown male and not a 13-year old girl sexting pictures of her soon-to-be ex friend blowing a dull-witted junior high half-back, then you need to think seriously about how you come across on the internet. Or maybe you like "Hello Kitty."

25. shariyat5 - December 16, 2010 at 01:50 pm

Interesting posts! I just finished my doctorate in educational instruction a year ago and frankly working three jobs while writing and researching a dissertation for the last two wasnt exactly my idea of fun. Im just glad to be done and looking forward to a better life.No I wont be going back for a degree in business,nursing or engineering.I prefer writing and teaching ( but not how adjuncts are treated ).

26. georgie - December 16, 2010 at 09:36 pm

Interesting comment about On-Line instruction from 12. deirdreray. While I stress that I am a Certified On-Line instructor to any Search Committee, and that I have successfully developed and taught studio classes in both On-Line and Traditional classroom settings,
there remains a level of skepticism and non-interest. As far as being an Adjunct in California looking for a job, forget about it. My last interview was 85mi distant drive from my home and the committee was rude and unprofessional.

27. oldphilprof - December 29, 2010 at 11:09 am

I teach at a middling-sized public regional university. We are definitely NOT Big Name or Elite. I'm chairing a search for a TT position in a field within the humanities. We got 100+ complete applications before the application deadline. People need to face the fact that, in certain disciplines, a LOT of Ph.D.'s are NOT going to find TT positions no matter how good/talented/committed/gifted they are. Earning a Ph.D. is something to be proud of, but it should NOT be considered any sort of guarantee of anything. Too many posters are sounding like they think they are OWED a job just because they stuck it out. That is not the way the world works. There is no evil conspiracy against you. It is the nature of the present reality.

Are adjuncts exploited? Yes! Do too many institutions depend too much on adjuncts and one-year or other non-TT personell? Yes! But bemoaning that fact will not change it. When an accreditating body, however, tells a specific institution that it is using too many adjuncts and is in danger of losing accreditation, then things do, in fact, change.

Finally, as a tenured faculty member looking to retire within the next year or two, I will do so only with the assurance that the tenure line I currently fill will not be lost or transferred to another discipline. This won't increase the number of TT positions, but it will prevent a decrease.

Finally, if those still seeking TT employment think I and those like me are the problem (old tenured faculty still teaching), all the senior faculty I know are looking forward to retirement -- not trying to avoid it. Do you know the statistics within your discipline? In other words, how many new Ph.D.'s are produced each year? How many new/open TT positions in your discipline are there? This year? Last year? Expected next year? I certainly didn't choose my discipline for any other reason than I fell in love with the subject. Did I know there would be 1.7 applicants for every TT position when I graduated? No. Would it have changed my plans? Probably not. But I hope I would not have moaned and whined about the injustice of the academy just because I entered a field with too many pegs looking for too few holes.

28. austinandie - January 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

I got my PhD last summer and have lagged in getting a position. My fault, just busy working as my job that got me through the last part of the PhD. My main problem is lack of publications, but I really liked the last posting from oldphilprof, and the advice. I don't want to know what does not work, but tell me what does. What about those 100 applications do you look at again? What stands out?

Thanks....I appreciate the advice and am ramping it up to submit a bunch. Best of luck to all.

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