VAPS and Why They Suck – A Guest Post

This guest post is co-written by two veterans of the VAP-front who know whereof they speak.  All too painfully.

A followup from one of them:  “One of these co-authors is taking another VAP because she hates herself.”

This piece was originally published on Academic Happy Hour.

Recently, a well-meaning senior colleague told me that I should be excited to apply to one-year positions. “They can lead to a tenure track, and moreover, it gives you the chance to get an overview of the different institutions out there, before you settle somewhere.

Bless his out-of-touch and away-from-reality heart. Here are the reasons the Visiting Appointment sucks:

1. It doesn’t lead to tenure track positions: As Nate Silber of “Das Zugunglueck” writes about his field of German Studies, the chances that you get a Tenure Track job after several Visiting Assistant Professorships is small. Heck, the chance that you get a tenure track job is small, since they are vanishing.

2. Moving expenses: Fewer and fewer universities offer help with moving expenses, and if they do, they barely cover a minimum of the actual costs. Those fresh out of grad school will put it all on a credit card, thinking they can then pay it off once the first paycheck comes in. Then, you need to add the cost of traveling back and forth to see your significant other/spouse/family, who live away from you. So, if you live frugally, don’t have any family or medical expenses, you may even be able to save something of their pay for- drumroll please- the next move.

3. Productivity (or lack thereof): Most of the time, all these positions require is a warm body who can teach while so and so is on sabbatical or enjoying other privileges of the tenure track life. This means that you will get a 3/3 or more teaching load, and it won’t be courses you necessarily enjoy teaching. You’ll be teaching intro classes until the cows come home.  Then add office hours, meetings to which you are obliged to go, talks (to show how invested you are in the place) etc. If you do your job, we’re talking about a good 50-60 hour week. Unless you prefer to live like a medieval monk (and hey, nothing’s wrong with that), your research will slow down. You thought one year should be enough to crank out an article and that book manuscript, if you write a dedicated hour every day? It can be done, but mostly isn’t. Which then in turn looks bad when you apply for tenure track somewhere else.

4. Campus Community I: The Pariah: Most of your new colleagues will be… nice. And that’s pretty much it. While there are exceptions (see the next point), most people will be friendly, but they will keep you at a distance. They know you won’t stay, and during the job season they will show sympathy, but at the end of the day, you are not in the same boat. Yes, you do the same work, you are in the same field, but still, they have no idea what it is like to apply for jobs every damn year. And most of them don’t want to know. So, you engage as much as you can, you attend all the talks, you promise to keep in touch, and finally, you leave.

5. Campus Community II: Leaving the Party when it’s in full swing: I made wonderful friends in my last two VAP’s, personal and academic. We worked well together and the numbers of majors enrolled skyrocketed (ok, they rose). They all wanted me to stay, but couldn’t really do anything about it. This led to awkward silences in departmental meetings, personal conversations, and in the end, a lot of heartache.

6. You live in places in which you don’t want to be buried: Admittedly, I am torn on the issue. Having an open mind is not a bad thing, and experiencing different lifestyles and different opinions hasn’t hurt anybody. But then, try to be black/jewish/gay/liberal/atheist in central Oklahoma, and you’ll ask yourself whether you really have to experience EVERYTHING or whether it’s ok to have read about a few things and only possess second hand knowledge. In these places, the university campus is usually your safe island, and that says it all.

7. Your social life sucks: Granted, living the “life of the mind”, you shouldn’t care about things as shallow and trite as friendships or even relationships. But if you do, be prepared for a lot of heartache. You will slowly start  to get to know people, and then you’ll leave. If you start dating someone, and that’s a big if (see #4), because you will see this expression on their face when you tell them you’re here for a year, and no, you have no idea where you’ll be next year. And then you’ll never hear from them again.

8. Bureaucracy: Breaking leases, extending leases, paying double rent, getting your driver’s license changed, switching insurances, switching whatever benefits your previous employer gave you to the current employer, getting your mail forwarded, telling your bank you’re moving- it all may seem trivial until you have spent two days running around and on the phone taking care of stuff. Most junior academics I know could easily write an ethnography of the DMV’s of the United States  from having spent so much time there.

9. The mental drain of constantly being in limbo: Three months after you arrive on your new campus, you start applying to jobs again. You update your materials, you frantically check the job wiki, you don’t sleep, and you don’t eat.  And at some point, you stop having dreams- whether you’re ever going to have a family or settle somewhere you like seems to be out of your hands.

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VAPS and Why They Suck – A Guest Post — 17 Comments

  1. I have a pretty fancy, well-paid one-year position. I have a family. My round-trip moving expenses come out to EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS.

    • Moving is so awful, not to mention doing so with kids. I am fixed term at a great university and love my job, but I’m interviewing in two weeks for two different tenured positions in the department where I earned my Masters. So today we had to decide not to renew our lease in a leap of faith. If I don’t get one of those jobs, we’ll have to move somewhere else nearby (someone else has already applied to live in our current apartment next year) which is, to put out lightly, not ideal.

  2. All these points are true. However, there are reasons that VAPs can be beneficial. I had a 4/4 lecturer position teaching 5-day-a-week language classes right out of grad school. My soul got worn out, and my body too, from trying to juggle job applications, research, worry about my job security and do a decent job teaching. I quit and took a VAP. While it came with no moving expenses or other real benefits (I drove cross-country to move) it did allow me to get some teaching experience that I could not have had in my lecturer job, including upper-division topics courses and a grad class, which helped me on the market that year. I had the same teaching load as a tenure-track faculty member, which was incredibly lucky, and thus got a little research done. I also had a spouse who stayed put, so I didn’t have to uproot anyone. And I was treated with a lot more respect and collegiality in the department where I a VAP than the one where I was a lecturer, but in both cases, I was a sort-of-non-person, so that impression is relative. I’m not saying VAPs are awesome or that they’re a good idea for most people, but in some cases I think they could be better than lecturer or adjunct positions, albeit riskier.

  3. So, so true! And it all applies to those in permanent non-tenure-track positions or those elusive tenure-track positions that are so teaching-heavy that you’re denied the time to do the things that would make you a competitive option for a better tenure-track job … the uncertainty, the expense, and the isolation are draining.

      • I think the idea is that it started out as a sexual slur and was originally (mainly?) directed toward men. I am not exactly in a position to confirm or deny this, since I thought of looking it up in the OED but cannot actually devote that level of time to it at the mo’ (not a gay slur), but my problems with interpreting it that way now are that a) gays are awesome and do not suck; b) sexual activity of that sort is not the exclusive realm of men; and c) this term has been so commonly used as a non-anti-gay generic pejorative for so long that I have had time to grow up, get a PhD, get legally married to someone of my own sex, and do a bunch of other things in the time that I’ve been using it in this way.

  4. This is a great post, but I just thought I would comment about my experience because it was different. When I was trying to decide whether to accept a VAP last year I heard all of this and I still think I made the right decision for me. I got a TT job from a VAP, and I have several friends who have done the same. (I do also have several friends who are stuck on the VAP to VAP train.) I would be interested to see more of the evidence for #1 – do 50% of VAPs get a TT? Or less? Anecdotally, in my field, it actually seems to be the trend that the bigger TT jobs are hiring people with a few years of experience.

    For my VAP I was lucky to be at a generous institution that also gave me some moving costs and treated me like TT faculty in terms of resources for travel and research. They even had a few sessions for visiting faculty about interviews, offer negotiation, etc. I also had a very supportive department that recognized my situation, wrote me a supportive letter, and mentored me as I applied for jobs. I feel that this was a great transition for me coming straight out of grad school. I learned a lot this first year on the job, and I feel that I was able to translate that into experience as I went on the market.

    Another important point in all of this is why institutions so rarely hire their VAPs. That one often has the hope that “something will work out” – which I heard so often from friends and family outside of the game. My feeling is that the market is so bad, schools always think they can do better, and that they run a visiting search much differently from TT search.

  5. From second-hand experiences of friends who have been in VAP positions, I couldn’t disagree more with this post. Everyone I’ve known who has had a VAP has both gone on to secure a wonderful tenure-track position (sometimes even in the same department) and formed a productive, tight-knit community in the department/university while in the VAP position. We should also recognize that some VAPs are far superior working and living conditions to tenure-track options. I recently accepted a VAP in a great city with an excellent salary (more than most of my friends on the tenure-track make), reimbursement for moving expenses, and conference funding. As part of a dual academic career couple, I am realistic about the fact that my partner and I will be moving around from one job to another for a few years before we both secure tenure-track positions in the same place (hopefully), so it makes sense to be in a VAP rather than on the tenure-track with all of the service obligations entailed therein. Yes, there are challenges to being in a VAP. But there is also the added benefit of a reduced service load and not having a stake in potential departmental politics.

  6. Ugh, #10. The limbo, that’s the worst. Second, no social life. No. Everytime someone asks about doing something like this (including postdocs) I sincerely tell them to think twice and look three times as hard for a job. It’s really draining. The only good factor to consider is if it is in a top academic institution. If it’s in a so-so place, you should better spend your time looking for a job and interviewing.

    • Even if making a living wage isn’t an issue (you’re independently wealthy, or your spouse/partner is willing to take on expenses for a while), you need to be associated with a college or university when applying for jobs. You can’t very well send out CVs while completely unemployed, right? Or has anyone done this? I’d love to hear how to accomplish getting a job without having a job.

  7. I’m not sure the advice in this post applies so well to non-humanities fields, and I worry that this sort of post might turn people off of otherwise good opportunities.

    In mathematics, at least (my field), the VAP is quite common, the terms are quite reasonable, and they (fairly) often lead to tenure-track positions.

    For example, I did one (3-year) VAP, and then got my current tenure-track job. My (2) VAP colleagues who worked alongside me also all just got tenure-track positions this year.

    The positions have us teaching full-time for one semester, then no teaching the rest of the year, and pay about 50-60K/yr. 2-3 years is standard, as is the paying of moving expenses.

    So overall, these *are* pretty good positions, albeit much lower paying than industry jobs.

  8. This may be true, but I do know of some humanities people who did poorly on the TT job market, took a VAP that allowed them to broaden their course experience, and did much better on the market the next year. Might help with generalist positions at SLAC, then?

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