Cover Story

When psychologist David Palmer, PhD, finished his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1988, he knew that he didn't want to leave the western Massachusetts town that had been his home for 12 years.

"I was a little older than the typical person when I got my PhD," he says. "I had a house and a family, and I'd laid down roots in this community."

As small towns go, Amherst has a wealth of academic opportunities: It's the home of five colleges and universities. However, none of them at the time needed a tenure-track faculty member in Palmer's area, learning and behavior.

Instead, Palmer took a nontenure-track job as a lecturer at Smith College, where he's remained happily for nearly 20 years. Like the tenured members of the department, he does research--in his case on such topics as language acquisition in children and delayed reinforcement in rats--and teaches classes in his areas of interest. He says that he's been happy to trade job security for intellectual and other freedoms.

"I don't have to do any administrative work--and I abhor administrative work. I don't have to sit on the library committee or the curriculum committee," he says. "And I don't feel any constraint to do things other than what I'm interested in. I have a pretty fair publication record, but I've never written a paper I didn't want to write to meet the expectations of a tenure committee."

Over the past two decades, more and more academics have begun to join Palmer in nontenure-track, or contingent, positions. About 65 percent of faculty jobs in American universities are now nontenure-track ones, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). And between 1998 and 2001, the association found, the number of full-time nontenure-track jobs grew by 35 percent.

"This issue is here to stay," says Roger Baldwin, PhD, an education researcher at Michigan State University who's written a book on the nontenure-track trend.

For the right person--such as Palmer--and the right institution, these positions can be a good fit. But not all contingent positions measure up so well, warns Baldwin. Schools vary widely in their support and treatment of nontenure-track faculty, he says. Before new graduates take a nontenure-track position, he advises, they should make sure they know their career goals, and how the position will contribute to those goals.

"Sort out what you want, and what the position will enable you to do," he suggests.

Another deciding factor may be salary. While the 2005-2006 median starting salary for a new faculty member was $53,000 at U.S. doctoral psychology departments and $48,000 in master's departments, the median adjunct fee per course was $3,300 at doctoral departments and $2,500 at master's-level departments, according to APA's 2005-2006 Faculty Salaries in Graduate Departments of Psychology report.

Moreover, a 2006 report by the American Association of University Professors, "The Devaluing of Higher Education: The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession 2005-06," calculated that, in 2003, part-time faculty earned between $11.19 and $20.24 per hour of work for a class-wages on par with the median hourly rates for medical secretaries ($12.53), auto mechanics ($15.18) and registered nurses ($24.53).

The draw of contingent work

Despite the possible financial drawbacks, some younger academics' attitudes toward contingent work are changing, says Harvard University education researcher Cathy Trower, PhD.

In 1999 and 2000, she surveyed more than 2,000 doctoral candidates and recent graduates at top-tier institutions about their attitudes toward nontenure-track jobs. She found that 20 percent of students in the social sciences and humanities (and 29 percent in the natural and physical sciences) said they would accept a nontenure-track over a tenure-track position, if everything else about the two jobs were equal.

"In some fields there's still a stigma attached to a nontenure-track position that usually comes from mentors or faculty advisers who say 'Don't even consider it,'" Trower says. "But younger people are saying there's a lot more to life and quality of life than tenure."

People take nontenure-track jobs for a variety of reasons, according to Trower and Baldwin, including:

  • Geographic location. Some people, like Palmer, want to stay in a particular city or geographic area for personal or family reasons. A nontenure-track position may be the only available option.

  • Prestige. For some, a contingent position at a very good school may trump a tenure-track one at a less well-known institution.

"Some people would rather work at a prestigious place like Harvard on the nontenure-trackthan anywhere else," says Trower, who herself holds a nontenure-track research position there.

  • Quality of life. Some respondents indicated that they'd prefer a contingent position because it would allow them to more easily balance their personal and professional lives.

"They say, 'I'm not killing myself for six years up-or-out,'" Trower says.

  • A temporary step. Some people see nontenure-track positions as a stepping stone in their careers, perhaps while they're finishing their dissertation or immediately afterward.

For example, Derek Mace, PhD, a lecturer in psychology at Penn State University, Erie, taught there for six years while he finished his dissertation research.

"It's been a good experience, the school has encouraged my research and teaching," he says. Still, he adds, with PhD in hand, "I'm looking forward to starting the tenure-track job search."

  • Focus. Not everyone is interested in a career that encompasses both research and teaching, says Baldwin. Some find that they really want to concentrate on one or the other. Nontenure-track positions often have more specific duties, he notes: "It could allow you to focus on the areas where you have more specialized responsibilities."

Sussing out the situation

So, if one of the above situations applies to you, what should you do when considering a nontenure-track job offer? A starting point is AAUP's recently adopted policy on part-time faculty appointments, available at Experts also offer some suggestions:

  • Ask lots of questions. You might want to find out whether you'll be given money for research or travel to conferences; whether you'll teach upper-level courses or only introductory ones; whether you'll have an office; and even whether you'll have a say in forums like curriculum committees and other administrative bodies.

"After all, if you're teaching introductory psychology, a major curriculum change is going to affect you," says Clare Porac, PhD, the senior scientist in APA's Science Directorate and the author of a Science Directorate article on nontenure-track jobs (see "You don't want some committee of tenure-track people deciding for you without having any input."

  • Get it in writing. Make sure the institution has a written policy that clarifies the rights and responsibilities of contingent faculty, suggests Baldwin.

"Basically you want to find out whether the school has given serious thought to these positions and made a commitment to supporting them," he says. "If there's nothing in writing, you might get really lucky and have a department chair who looks out for your interests, but you might be left on your own."

If the school has no written policy but you're still interested in the job, ensure these issues are addressed in your contract, suggests Baldwin.

  • Consider how you're treated at the interview. Often, says Porac, you can tell right off the bat whether a department or school values its nontenure-track faculty.

"If you come in for an interview and people don't take the time to meet with you and treat it seriously, forget the department," she says. "You can tell right away whether you'll be integrated as a meaningful person in the department or whether you'll be treated like a second-class citizen."

Lea Winerman is a former staff writer.

Schools vary widely in their support and treatment of nontenure-track faculty