From Issues in Graduate Education: CGS Forum on Making the Transition to a Professional Career in the December 2008 issue of Perspectives on History

Temping toward the Tenure Track

Lynn Sargeant, December 2008

I am a member of a department in transition. Of the 24 tenured and tenure-track faculty in my department, 19 were hired within the past eight years. The observations I will offer here on the transition from graduate student to tenure-track professor, consequently, derive both from my own hard-earned experience and from conversations with colleagues and friends.

The transition from graduate student to tenure-track professor may not be as simple for you as it was for your adviser. When I finished my graduate degree, my prior (and rather apocalyptic) conversations with my cohort suggested that I either would secure a full-time, tenure-track position immediately or be forced to pursue a “challenging career opportunity” in telemarketing. Instead, I discovered that one does not always have to confront such a stark dichotomy. As I finished my dissertation, I unexpectedly received a one-year appointment as a visiting assistant professor at Colorado College; my appointment was extended for a second year when, much to my disappointment, I failed to land a tenure-track position. The following year, however, I struck gold, receiving both an excellent tenure-track offer at Cal State Fullerton and a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation. What I know now, and what I wish I had known as an anxious graduate student, is that such winding career paths are increasingly the norm, rather than the exception, for many historians. For those lucky enough to be in fields that are in high demand, such as Asian, African, or Latin American history, your transition to the tenure track may very well follow a simple path. For those of us in more crowded fields, such as European history, the pursuit of a full-time, permanent faculty position is likely to follow a circuitous route.

For many of us, the first step will be a full-time or possibly part-time temporary appointment as a visiting assistant professor or lecturer. Such temporary appointments, although they have their drawbacks and can require some sacrifices, offer significant opportunities for freshly minted PhDs. In particular, they offer the chance to develop a professional persona with very little risk. If you are in a temporary position, take advantage of the fact that your tenure is not at stake to try out different teaching styles and methodologies. You will then be able to use what you learn through this experimentation to demonstrate your pedagogical sophistication and awareness to search committees. In addition, take advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as you can about being a good colleague and effective department member while you have few or no service responsibilities. Finally, polish your credentials for the job market. Find at least a little time to focus on your research—perhaps by spinning a chapter of your dissertation off as a journal article—so that by the end of your temporary appointment you are a well-polished and modestly experienced young professor, rather than the enthusiastic but naïve graduate student you were a year or so before. That said, don’t jump blindly into any temporary position. Full-time visiting faculty appointments are far more likely than adjunct appointments to offer competitive salaries, adequate benefits, and opportunities for professional development.

Postdoctoral fellowships are increasingly common for historians, either before starting a tenure track job or while on the tenure track. They offer a great way to jump-start your research and publication agendas. Be careful, however, that you don’t use a series of postdoctoral fellowships to delay your entry into a permanent position. This can be very dangerous, particularly if it leaves you with little teaching experience. This could give hiring committees the impression that you are not interested in teaching. Finally, remember that it may take some negotiation if your department or dean has not encountered a postdoctoral fellowship leave request in recent memory. In that case, stay calm; something can usually be worked out.

Once you land a permanent job, remember that you make your own rain. The cold, hard reality is that you probably won’t be delighted with everything about your job. You may not like the location. Murphy’s Law of the academic job search seems to decree that the candidate looking for a small Midwestern college will end up at a large university in a major metropolitan area and that the dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker will end up in a small town. Once the initial euphoria of receiving a steady paycheck fades, you may find yourself frustrated that it doesn’t quite meet your expectations. Unless you are very fortunate, you are likely to find yourself struggling with a heavy teaching load. A great many good jobs, including mine, come with teaching loads of three or four courses per semester, every semester. Yet, even a 4/4 teaching load need not spell the end of your research productivity. It will require, however, that you manage your time and research resources effectively. The act of juggling your research and teaching responsibilities may be made more difficult and frustrating if your institution has only limited resources (whether in the form of funds or release time) for research support.

Make the most of the positive aspects of your job and your institution and minimize the impact of the negative aspects. Be sure to go after your share of the limited resources available for research support. Apply for summer research money and release time. If yours is a teaching-oriented institution, take advantage of instructional support and curriculum development opportunities as a way of integrating yourself into your new position and of achieving professional satisfaction. Remember, it is not a requirement that tenure-track faculty be miserable! Avoid the self-martyring tendencies of our profession. This is your career, but it’s also your life. You not only cannot, you should not be working constantly. Perhaps most importantly, get enough sleep and try to minimize work on the weekends. If necessary, as a fortune cookie I rather prophetically received stated, “Plan to have some fun.” Not only will the rest do you good, you will be more effective and efficient when you are working. In short, try to establish good work and life habits that will set you up for a long and successful career.

In your first year or two of full-time teaching, you may feel that it is all you can do to stay one step ahead of your students. The challenges of creating new courses and teaching them for the first time should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to look up occasionally from your grade book and make both short-term and long-term professional plans. If you are at a teaching intensive institution, don’t expect to get much research or writing done during the academic year, at least in your first couple of years on the job. On the other hand, you will probably feel better if you can set yourself some modest but achievable research and writing goal. Revise a chapter or portion of a chapter into an article and submit it to a journal. Apply for internal or external grants to support summer research or writing. Set aside one morning or afternoon a week to read journals. Submit a proposal for a conference. Finally, spend some time identifying your professional goals; try to distinguish your goals from those of your mentors, peers, the profession, etc. Ask yourself some hard questions: Where do you want to be on the “teacher-scholar” scale? Would you prefer to devote most of your time to research or to teaching? Do you find meaning in your teaching? What audiences do you want to reach in your writing? What other professional or personal goals do you dream of achieving? Answering these questions will help you decide, among other things, how to allocate your limited time and whether or not the institution you are currently at is a good fit for you.

We often talk about the need to balance our teaching, research, and service responsibilities. Be sure to take a careful look at your institution and its tenure requirements. Most critically, focus on getting tenure at your current institution. At a teaching institution, this means you need to invest time, energy, and love, as well as expertise, in your teaching. Direct your publication efforts at the requirements of your institution, not what your buddy at a different institution is doing. Liberal arts colleges and teaching oriented universities usually have lower expectations for publication than do research institutions, largely because they often have much higher expectations for teaching and service. If you are fortunate, your department and institution will have clear guidelines that explicitly state the requirements for receiving tenure. If you are not that fortunate, you will need to be proactive, seeking advice from your department chair, formal or informal departmental mentors, and your dean to be sure that you are meeting their expectations in teaching, research, and service. If you are not happy where you are, by all means prepare yourself to move on, but don’t neglect the expectations of your current institution. You may not be able to find another position easily. In addition, success at your current institution will help you land a more desirable one and position you to succeed there.

Finally, remember that generic advice may not suit your situation. As a graduate student, I was advised to “avoid or minimize service before tenure” so that I could focus my attention on research and, secondarily, on teaching. Yet, in my department this is neither good nor realistic advice. The California State University system is relatively young; my campus in particular is undergoing a massive transition as its first generation of faculty retires. As a result, my department has very few full professors, a handful of recently tenured associate professors, and numerous assistant professors hired in the past five years. If we want to function as a department, the senior faculty cannot bear the entire burden of leadership. They do too much as it is. As a result, many of our junior faculty, myself included, have had to shoulder significant service responsibilities. You will need to evaluate the situation in your department candidly. Although good service won’t get you tenure, failure to do your share can get you a bad reputation. Pulling your own weight, on the other hand, will show your department and institution that you are invested in their success and they will invest in you in the form of mentorship, research support, and release time.

—Lynn Sargeant teaches at California State University at Fullerton. She received her PhD in Russian history from Indiana University in 2001.