“Bad” TT vs. “Good” NTT: A Conversation (Part I)

This is the first in a series of posts submitted by readers on the fraught question: should you choose a “good” NTT position over a “bad” TT position? I use “good” and “bad” advisedly just as a shorthand, because of course these judgments will vary across individuals and context. But many readers have faced versions of this choice and contributed guest posts. I’m sharing their stories.

Today’s author is an early career teaching-track faculty member at a Public R1. His background is in STEM/STEM education. His current scholarship focuses on NTT faculty issues and student’s intellectual development. In the life part of his work/life balance he runs ultramarathons so he can bake more.

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I chose to be a non-tenure track (NTT) faculty member. Telling this to other academics sometimes results in confusion, surprise, or even anger that I don’t feel compelled to pursue a tenure track (TT) position. However, as a new member of the academic profession, I instead feel compelled to pursue a position that is right for me. The choice between TT and NTT faculty jobs is not as clear-cut as it once was. Every position requires you to make a mindful evaluation of the position based on the principles relevant to being a faculty member. 

I chose a NTT job over a TT job for several reasons. I have a Ph.D. in a STEM discipline from a leading institution in my field and spent 2017-2018 on the job market. In the end, I had two offers. The first was a TT position at a regional public institution in a rural area with a 4-3 teaching load, disputed expectations around research, mediocre pay, and a terrible institutional culture. The second was a full-time NTT position at a top-ranked public R1 in a city with 3-2 teaching load, no expectations of (but resources for) research, great pay, a promotion path, and a strong departmental culture. I picked the NTT position and haven’t looked back. In my choice, my network was invaluable because my advisor wouldn’t have anything to do with ‘my mistake.’ When I talk to friends in similar positions, some are eyeing TT opportunities while others are happy to be in teaching-focused positions where research is possible but not the imperative. 

I still hear NTT positions described as “second class.” That narrative is wrong – we have the agency to make the choices that are right based on a myriad of variables both personal and professional. Yes, many NTT positions have elements of marginalization compared compared to TT faculty. However, there has been significant progress towards equity for the NTT workforce. That work occurs in institutions, professional societies, and organizations dedicated to faculty representation. Compared to worrying about the death of a title, I see efforts to improve working conditions for NTT faculty as a more viable way to protect the principles that underpin faculty self-governance and academic freedom. Regrettably, much of the rhetoric today sounds the same as it did in 2001 – trying to explain that many of us NTT academics aren’t settling but are, in fact, thriving in our roles. But why is that explanation still necessary?

Titles matter less to me than working conditions. Why would I pick lower pay, more work, higher ambiguity, and a less desirable area simply for the potential of a title in six years? Instead, I have better work-life balance, an ability to connect with my students, and I use my spare time to advocate for equal working conditions for NTT faculty at my institution. I do more research, with better support, compared to what I could have accomplished in the offered TT position. Other friends in NTT roles have mentioned the opportunities of an R1 as preferable to the chimera of a TT position at the modern quasi-teaching-focused institution. The choice is easy in the abstract, but much harder in the real word. If you chose similarly to me – or even if you did ‘settle’ – don’t let people judge you. The reality is that NTT positions are a spectrum. They can refer to someone barely surviving from multiple part-time gigs or they can refer to someone in a position that is reasonably scoped, fairly compensated, and has protections similar to tenure. Without diminishing the real concerns about pay and status, the positions can be come with the respect they deserve. 

The spectrum of good and bad NTT positions is why the analysis of the position and context is critical. Just as with TT positions, any institution can be ahead of or behind the curve in working conditions. Some key questions should be obvious – teaching load, pay, contract lengths (both overall length and 9/12 month pay cycles), and a promotion path. Others are less obvious and often ridiculous. Real lessons learned from my network include: Do you get an office? A computer? Are there benefits? Are the benefits equivalent to faculty or are they staff benefits? Are you allowed to do research? Research in your discipline, or only disciplinary educational research? Can you buy yourself out of courses? Are you invited to faculty meetings? Faculty senate? Do you have a vote? Do you have professional development funds? Access to resources like a center for teaching and learning? Tenure-like protections? How does promotion work? What are you evaluated on? An annual leave? Family leave? Presumption of renewal? A specified timeline for contract decisions? When do you get your teaching assignments in comparison to TT faculty? At first,you will often get the answer ‘I don’t know’, but these are all important questions whose answers highlight an institution’s policies and norms. With administrative positions still primarily populated by TT faculty, lack of clarity on NTT issues often is not ill-intentioned, just assumed or forgotten. For example, I’ve seen evaluations for teaching-focused positions that start with research, because no one ever thought to change it. 

Most importantly, what are your interests? Do you want to focus on teaching? If so, go for it!

It’s your career and your life. Pick the job that’s right for you and ignore any naysayers. There are many reasons – both professional and personal – that might cause one to choose NTT over TT and call it a success. All the variables about TT jobs apply to NTT positions as well. Analyze each job, institution, and location with a mind towards what you want and need. While the narratives in grad schools and from long term faculty still haven’t changed, TT positions no longer hold automatic supremacy in my mind. In the end, an academic job is an (academic) job, and they all deserve the same dispassionate analysis about what will meet your basic needs. It worked for me.

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.

Comments

“Bad” TT vs. “Good” NTT: A Conversation (Part I) — 1 Comment

  1. Yes!!!! This blog fits my EXACT situation! This past year I had two job offers- #1 TT at a small PUI or #2 NTT lecture at large R1. I’m passionate about teaching and the NTT is for me.

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